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The Straight Dope

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Why do outhouses have half-moons on their doors? Perhaps it's related to the great high school custom of "mooning"? --Joyce Kehoe, Seattle

Joyce, kid, level with me: you've never actually seen an outhouse with a half-moon cut into the door, have you? Neither have I, despite several decades of camping trips, and I'll bet the same goes for just about everybody else. The idea that outhouses always have moons on them has been perpetuated largely by several generations of cartoonists, probably none of whom ever saw one either. The only reference I can find to the practice is in Eric Sloane's The Little Red Schoolhouse: A Sketchbook of Early American Education. Discussing 18th- and 19th-century schoolhouses, Eric writes: "The woodshed was often a lean-to attached to the schoolhouse, but the most accepted arrangement was to place it between the schoolhouse and the privy, with a fence separating the boys' entrance from the girls'. The ancient designation of privy doors was to saw into them a sun (for boys' toilet) and a moon (for girls' toilet)." Eric has supplied a sketch of both versions, showing the familiar crescent moon for the girls and a radiant sun for the boys. By way of corroboration, I note here in my manual of semiotics that the moon "is usually represented as the feminine power, the Mother Goddess, Queen of Heaven, with the sun as the masculine." Which is just great. All this time you thought you were just taking the occasional dump and now it turns out you were participating in a pagan ritual.

Why cartoonists picked up on the moon rather than the sun as the universal symbol for outhouse is hard to say, although knowing cartoonists I'd guess it has something to do with the fact that the radiant sun is hell to draw. The reason there's a hole in the first place is a lot simpler: it provides ventilation.

Thank you, Cecil, for so nobly coming to the defense of the much-maligned Marie Antoinette [October 25, 1986], just as you did a few years ago with the equally vilified Catherine the Great. And now, as Paul Harvey would say, here's the rest of the story . . .

At the time that whoever-she-was uttered the infamous quotation "let them eat cake," the word "cake" did not refer to the familiar dessert item that the modern-day French call le gateau. The operative term was brioche, a flour-and-water paste that was "caked" onto the interiors of the ovens and baking pans of the professional boulangers of the era. (The modern equivalent is the oil-and-flour mixture applied to non-Teflon cake pans.) At the end of the day, the baker would scrape the leavings from his pans and ovens and set them outside the door for the benefit of beggars and scavengers. Thus, the lady in question was simply giving practical, if somewhat flippant, advice to her poor subjects: If one cannot afford the bourgeois bread, he can avail himself of the poor man's "cake."

However, by the time Marie Antoinette ascended the throne, brioche had acquired its current meaning--a fancy pastry item which, like le gateau, was priced far beyond the means of any but the wealthiest classes. The anti-Marie propagandists were well aware that their compatriots, most of whom were uneducated in either history or semantics, would swallow the story whole, so to speak, and not get the joke. Bon appetit! --N.D.G., North Side

That's very interesting, N., but wrong. The French rendering of the phrase commonly (and incorrectly) attributed to Marie Antoinette is Qu'ils mangent de la brioche. Today brioche is a sort of crusty bun, typically containing milk, flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and whatnot. It's considered something of a delicacy, and as far as I can determine (which is pretty far) has been since the Middle Ages. According to one cooking historian, brioche originally contained brie cheese, whence the name. Nicolas Bonnefons, writing in Delices de la campagne in 1679, gives a recipe for brioche that calls for butter and soft cheese, plus a glaze containing beaten eggs and (if desired) honey. Sounds pretty tasty, and in any case certainly not something bakers would line pots with.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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