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Monday, August 27, 2007

Mysteries of Seattle: Portable Sanitation Edition

posted by on August 27 at 10:55 AM


They baffled and entranced me upon my arrival in Seattle in 1991, and continue to do so to this day: Honey Buckets, the Northwest’s #1 provider of portable sanitation, whose portable sanitation units are called, upsettingly and inexplicably, Honey Buckets.

The mystery of the Honey Bucket is reinvigorated each time I have out-of-town visitors, who invariably can’t believe their eyes. Among the evergreen exclamations: “I thought you were kidding!”; “That’s the actual name?”; “Holy shit!”

The great unanswered questions roiling under every exclamation: Who thought naming a line of portable toilets ‘Honey Buckets’ was a good idea, and why? After ‘Honey Bucket,’ what were the runner-up name choices? And what part of human waste is even vaguely reminiscent of honey?

Imaginary answers to these imaginary questions aren’t pretty. My best guess at the origin of the name is horrible, positing humans as “Pooh Bears” who are eternally attracted to the “Honey Bucket.” My best guess for the rejected runner-up name is “Stink Office.” I have no guesses about the human waste/honey connection.

One can only imagine that someone considered “Honey Bucket” a pleasant euphemism for “plastic crap shack.” But the whole point of euphemism is to diminish unpleasantness (i.e. “passed away” for “dropped dead”) and the Honey Bucket “euphemism” only serves to rub our faces in the sticky-sweet brownness of it all.

No matter what kind of unpleasantness occurs along the way, the whole “explaining Honey Buckets to out-of-town visitors” experience always ends in amazement, when I reveal that Honey Bucket has a competitor in the local waste-disposal business, and this competitor has an even more upsetting name. I’m not kidding.

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Check yo' spelling of reminiscent.

Posted by Mr. Poe | August 27, 2007 11:01 AM

Aww, adorable!

Posted by Katelyn | August 27, 2007 11:04 AM

The origin/explanation of the name comes from "honey dipping", the process of cleaning out a toilet/outhouse or other unpleasant task.

The Hobo slang dictionary says:
honey dipping - working as a shovel stiff in a sewer, or any unpleasant shovel work.

I remember the term from when I was in the Boy Scouts.

Posted by oldguy | August 27, 2007 11:09 AM

those are TOILETS??!??!?!? i've been getting my honey out of them for years!!!!! this expains why i hate honey.

Posted by adrian! | August 27, 2007 11:11 AM

My grandfather, who was born in 1890 and lived without indoor plumbing for most of his life, used the term honey bucket like I would use outhouse or chamber pot. Maybe it's an old-time or regional phrase?

Posted by Winna | August 27, 2007 11:12 AM

you silly goats - honey buckets are so nicknamed from Japan where they are the large wooden bucks full of shit and piss carried to the fiends to be used to fertilize the crops

kinda cute -and so Strange that with the interest about body functions at certain places - oh, well ... maybe farmers are not so dumb as calcified city folk

great nickname - very international

Posted by Essex | August 27, 2007 11:13 AM

Which came first, Honey Bucket or Honey Hole.

I want a BBQ brisket sandwich now.

Posted by monkey | August 27, 2007 11:24 AM

Oh god. "Ooze" is such a terrible, gooey word anyway, and now... I can't even find the words to illustrate my discomfort.

Posted by sniggles | August 27, 2007 11:38 AM

Here's an interesting discussion of other words that conjour up the "ick" factor from Language Log (for linguistics geeks)

BTW, my family referred to the tanker truck that annually pumped out the outhouse in our mountain cabin as the "Honey Hauler."

Posted by uimbyMcF | August 27, 2007 12:03 PM

Inspired by the Melvins' song, perhaps?

Posted by Matt | August 27, 2007 12:16 PM

I was recently informed that under certain conditions Honey Buckets can explode - potentially damaging nearby Honey Buckets, cars, and who knows what else.

Can a Public Intern get to the bottom of this?

Posted by RonK, Seattle | August 27, 2007 12:19 PM

There's a Port-a-Shitter company from Central WA that has this tagline on all of their shitters: "#1 in the #2 Business." If that isn't class, I don't know what is.

It seems like that entire industry has a pretty good sense of humor, and I salute them for it!

Posted by gillsans | August 27, 2007 12:23 PM

"Honey bucket" has been around forever. Airline employees call the big machine that sucks out the chemical shitters on planes that. As Oldguy and Winna point out, it's much older than that, too. Our great-grandparents knew what irony was too, you know.

Posted by Fnarf | August 27, 2007 1:03 PM

Back in the '70's, a port-a-can company named itself "Here's Johnny!," hitching their presumably witty, urbane crappers' star to Ed McMahon's famous nightly intro of Johnny Carson. Mr. Carson was neither amused nor as anxious to hook up. The shitter co. was forced cease and desist.

Posted by blathering michael | August 27, 2007 1:35 PM

When I was a teenage in the 80's, we used to steal and...errrr... repurpose... the stickers off those things. The humorless Port-a-San here in Northern California just don't cut it.

Posted by Dougsf | August 27, 2007 1:37 PM

i went on outward bound through the great smoky mountains in NC when i was 13. for much of the trip, we were hiking through pristine forest where we could leave absolutely no waste behind. we hauled around a five-gallon plastic bucket that we crapped in. it was called "the honey bucket."

Posted by jz | August 27, 2007 1:37 PM

OTOH, this is an area where technology has greatly advanced. Forty years ago, outhouses all smelled horrible. They smelled like, well, of course they smelled like shit. These new fangled things are, if adequately serviced, at worst bearable. So I salute the Honey Bucket ooze things.

Or my gag reflex has matured and I'm too old to smell stuff.

Posted by Algernon | August 27, 2007 1:50 PM

I was recently at a super nice wedding, and the honeybuckets on site were upscale 'VIP models, complete w/ carpeted floor, glass mirror, vanity-style sink/counter.
I felt like I was at the W downtown. Until I remembered how disgusting carpet is EVEN WHEN NOT IN A PUBLIC AND PORTABLE TOILET.

Holy fuck.

Posted by honeycarpet | August 27, 2007 2:31 PM

In Minnesota (as in many other states), commercial trucks have to have their GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) posted on the side. I once saw a sewage truck there with the marking, '20,000 pounds of VERY GROSS weight.'

Posted by Orv | August 27, 2007 4:06 PM

I also did the Outward Bound course in the Great Smokey Mountains and had the 5 gallon variety of Honey Bucket. I wondered why something so foul would have such a sweet name and was told that's where the Pooh goes, as in Winnie the Pooh.

Posted by ben | August 27, 2007 4:42 PM

@15: Now that you're grown up, you can buy the stickers. Or hats or mugs. Check it out on

Posted by CG | August 27, 2007 6:33 PM

In Maine and New Hampshire, the industry leader seems to be The Blow Brothers.

Ooh! Ooh! I know! They should get a celebrity endorsement from Larry Craig!!

Posted by Emma Leigh | August 27, 2007 7:51 PM

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