Monday, 16 May 2022


Every once in a while, you see a picture or hear a joke that reminds you of your childhood, or stories told by your parents or grandparents about their childhood.

I sent out a funny pic recently, concerning the current leader of Russia, to friends around the world and got back a reminiscence from one about a Dunny Man. I had never heard the term before but apparently it is a term common to many parts of the world, or at least to places in the British Empire.

Chris noted that “Australians of my age affectionately remember the age of the ‘dunny can’, which would be positioned under a wooden seat in the ‘dunny’ (or out-house) and be collected weekly by the ‘dunny man’.  It was a true ‘poo tin’. I’m afraid the photo you posted, about a receptacle for dog droppings, does not capture the romance associated with our ‘dunny can’.  For example, my mum would always leave a generous Christmas donation for the ‘dunny man’, much more than she left for the garbage man, because she reckoned the ‘dunny man’ always looked cleaner. Whenever I couldn’t find mum, my day would say she had run off with the ‘dunny man’.”

So, of course, I did a Google search for the term. There are all kinds of stories and even books written about the subject. Blog posts too! Who knew?

For my part, I remember outhouses on my grandparents’ farm, and using the Eaton’s catalogue for toilet paper, but being a city kid, we always had indoor plumbing. The outhouses on the prairie were all built over deep holes that were filled in and a new one dug every few years. My dad used to tell stories of Halloween pranks involving pushing the outhouse back a yard or two to catch unsuspecting people out for a moonlight potty trip. I can't even imagine what that was like for those who might have been caught, although I suspect farmers were all too aware of what could happen. No, my dad would never have done such a thing!

Another friend in England told me this story: “I had a tough elderly aunt who lived in a listed cottage out in the Warwickshire countryside.  I used to spend holidays with her in the ‘60s and she had a dunny can as did most of her neighbours.  The lovely council eventually compromised on the medieval local situation and installed covered cesspits alongside the quaint old buildings but it was up to the owners to install proper toilet facilities!  Auntie Gert was a tireless worker for the Royal British Legion and would walk from house to house every year selling poppies.  One neighbour had had their ces-pit emptied but the workman had neglected to replace the cover and one year Auntie fell in on a dark night.  She clung to the edge by her fingertips for about an hour, calling out for help in the cold and dark until someone went into their kitchen to make a cup of tea and heard her!  She had to be taken to hospital to be cleaned and rested but she had the ‘shakes’ for the rest of her life.” Boy, who wouldn’t?

Funny how pics we see or jokes we hear now stimulate those of us who are mature enough to remember the "olden days" if the '50s can qualify. The closest I can come is having seen milk men with their horse-drawn wagons delivering daily dairy products. Back then the joke was who might have been the result of a liaison of moms and milkmen or whether a lady ran away with one.

Outhouses are still in use in many parts of the world, or at the summer cabin where sewer lines have yet to be extended. You can buy elaborate plans to build them or even DIY kits from companies like Home Hardware. Ready-made units are available to just hall away and set up. Often however, they are marketed as Storage Sheds or as environment-saving products.

For fun do a search for “outhouse kits” and look at the dozens of images that pop up. One site you might come up with is called Morning Chores.

Reminiscing adds many things to your own family history, events and stories you thought you forgot or that did not seem all that important. What we might remember growing up is part of the fabric of our own lives. And if you can recall stories your own parents told you of everyday life, that really adds important pieces to your ancestral mosaic.

Like Outhouses!

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Book Review - Sweetness and Power: The place of sugar in modern history

Following is a review of a book I read when writing my article about Work, Life & Family in the Industrious Revolution, published in the September 2021 issue of Family Tree (UK) magazine. The book is Sweetness and Power: The place of sugar in modern history, by Sidney W. Mintz. I thought readers of this blog might be interested.

This is not a new book. It was first published in 1985, but it has relevance even 36 years later, perhaps especially to family historians who are interested in how the world changed during the last 500 years and how those changes impacted their ancestors and society in general.

Sidney Wilfred Mintz (1922-2015) was an anthropologist whose research primarily centred around the people of the Caribbean, creolization and food. During his long career, he taught at both Yale University and Johns Hopkins University and was a feature lecturer around the world.

This book is about the importance of sugar in the transformation of the world’s economy and, of course, diet. Mintz describes the history of the commodity, from all sides of the industry from production to consumption, the resultant societal changes, and controls by political establishments.

Slavery was a major part of the production of sugar and the growth, processing and distribution of the product central to colonial development.

He discusses, among other important events, the intrusion of sugar into diets, particularly in England, and the ensuing disruption of eating habits, family member interactions and altered work patterns. Such changes were coincident with and impactful on families prior to and during the Industrial Revolution. As the publisher asserts, the introduction and prolific use of “sugar has altered work patterns, eating habits and our diet” right into modern times.

Sweet tea, for example, became a major part of the English diet and central to industrialization as it was a way to get high energy sustenance in relatively low volumes of drink, that was easily made, carried and consumed by factory workers. Is expansion transformed the workplace, home life, culture and society.

As Mintz said in his summary, “the track sugar has left in modern history is one involving masses of people and resources, thrown into productive combination by social, economic, and political forces that were actively re-making the entire world.”

The book is wonderfully readable, entertaining and informative.

Published by Penguin Books, ISBN 9780140092332, and available from many booksellers as well as online through for £9.99 (plus applicable shipping costs) or £7.99 for the Kindle version (also available at varying prices from, amazon,ca and

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

End of the Tooth Fairy?

 I had a couple of teeth removed yesterday. That happens to many people as they age, people just like me. Teeth wear down and wear out.

I asked the dentist’s assistant what she thought I could get if I put them under my pillow. She said $50 would be fair. I think the most I ever got was a quarter and the most we ever paid our children was $1. That’s inflation for you. We still have many of those teeth tucked away in our memorabilia box, given to us by the Tooth Fairy after she exchanged the money for them.

Curiously, there have been many studies of the rewards given to children for their baby teeth: one interesting one published by the Medical Journal of Australia. Visa Inc. did a survey of payments in 2010. They updated the report in 2013. For Canada in 2015, Visa noted that kids got a raise of 23%! An organization called Delta Dental, an insurance company, published a 2021 index of amounts paid to children since the turn of the 21st century. You can get a Tooth Fairy Calculator app for your iPhone if you are unsure what the going rates are.

Tooth Fairy’s origin is lost in the myths of time. Some reports have indicated she was first noted in the 12th century among the Norse people of Europe. They apparently paid their children a “land-fe” or tooth fee for teeth they lost. There are many stories and traditions about how lost baby teeth were handled, from burning them, to throwing them over a house or burying them, all to prevent bad luck or hardships for the children.

The first published article about the Tooth Fairy was written in 1908 by Lillian Brown in the Chicago Tribune. A three act playlet for children was performed in 1927, written by Esther Watkins Arnold. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had already “proved” that fairies and gnomes were real, documented in a piece published in 1921 in The Strand Magazine and “verified” by pictures of two little girls surrounded by fairies. There is a National Tooth Fairy Day in the US set on the 28th of February; actually, there are two special days as a second one is celebrated on 22nd of August. 

Most of us think of a small female impish pixie as a Tooth Fairy. Different countries have different traditions and names. In Spanish culture, he (in this case) is known as Ratoncito Pérez and was first written about by Luis Caloma in 1894. In France the character is called La Petite Souris (The Little Mouse). In Scotland there is the white fairy rat. Germany has Zahnfee and Ireland has Anna Bogle, a mischievous young leprechaun girl. In Italy she/he is called Topolino, which is also an Italian term of endearment.

A 1984 study by children’s books author Rosemary Wells said that 74% of people believed the Tooth Fairy is female, 12% say it is neither male nor female and 8% said is could be either.

So why would this post of interest to the genealogists who might read it. Well, it has to do with history and families. What could be more appropriate? Myths and traditions are part of family history, after all, aren’t they? Did the Tooth Fairy influence the behavior of children and/or parents in the past? I think it probably didn’t hurt.

Want to know more? Check out the many books available for free download from

Alas, nothing was forthcoming this morning under my pillow which made me wonder if the Tooth Fairy was no longer with us. Maybe she just prefers younger boys.

Oh well! I guess there is always the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.

May the fourth be with you!