Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.
Bathrooms with flush toilets were innovations of the 20th century. Before 1900 most lighthouse families had to use outhouses or privies. We had an outhouse attached to the side of the stone base of our lighthouse, with the water below serving as the sewer. People thought that there was so much water in New York Harbor that the sun could sterilize it.
Lighthouses onshore had privies, which few keepers mentioned in their logs or correspondence. Harriet Colfax did write in her log about painting her outhouse and lattices.
There’s only so much to be said about privies—photos tell the story better. The installation of modern plumbing would have been more than welcome in every lighthouse. Not all of them had this luxury. There’s a lighthouse in the Apostle Islands that still has an outhouse and always will.
In 1909 at Grays Harbor, Washington, “It was proposed to fit up toilets, baths, and lavatories in the dwellings and to provide a proper sewerage system. The station has a fine water supply, but is provided with old style privies, which are most inconvenient and objectionable.”
Indoor bathrooms were added to Mosquito Inlet (Ponce de Leon) keepers’ dwellings in 1921.
Huntington Lighthouse in New York State: “Originally, there was no bathroom in the lighthouse. Bathroom facilities consisted of an “outhouse” mounted on a set of stilts that were attached to the east-facing walk of the lighthouse, opposite the front door. A fun experience in the winter for sure. As the story goes, this allowed the keeper to do his business and fish at the same time. There was no indoor plumbing until 1928 when a bathroom was installed in the basement of the lighthouse.”
Information is from Women Who Kept the
Lights; National Archives Record Group 26
Entry 48, File #548;