“If you wish your outhouse was as nice as those at the state park, you might be a redneck.”—Jeff Foxworthy
What do outhouses, my kids, and a small book written in 1929 have to do with education?
Charles “Chic” Sale, vaudeville and movie actor in the 1920s and 30s, authored a small book, The Specialist. It was about a carpenter whose specialty was building outhouses. My mom’s father bequeathed to my dad, his prized copy of the book, and it’s now in my library.
My library of column writing from over the years yielded one last week that I penned 25 years ago chronicling my efforts to school son Lee and daughter Robin on the finer details of life with an outhouse. Class convened one day when I mused that the well house at our new Pipe Creek, Texas, Hill Country home “looked like an outhouse to me.”
“A what,” asked my then-young son Lee. “What’s an outhouse?” For the educational experience that ensued in answering his question, recollections of Sale’s book from many years ago served as my text.
“Nowadays, ‘three rooms and a path’ will bring a snicker even in rural areas,” I began. “There was a time, however, when it described a way of life with an outdoor toilet also known as a privy.”
“The bathroom was outside,” they gasped in disbelief?
“Yep, and you could spot well-to-do families with their three-holers sporting fancy leaf designs for door ventilators,” I said. “While regular folks had just one or two-holers with a crescent carved in the door.”
While my kids processed the concept of “privies,” I imparted the importance of the path. “The path needed to be straight so that on rainy days when you had to run, you didn’t wind up in the mud, or the woodpile.”
“Are you sure about all this,” they continued to scoff.
“Absolutely. And, it was smart to make sure that the path went by the woodpile. With an average of five or six trips a day, family members could easily keep the wood box in the kitchen filled.”
I would like to report that the look on my kid’s faces told me they were duly impressed so many things had to be considered in outhouse construction. Truth of the matter was, they were more duly impressed there really was such a thing as an outhouse.
“Little things like the door swinging in was critical,” I added. “Mid-day in August, when the dirt-dabbers buzzed up in the corners, it was nice to open the door to catch a breeze. But, if the door swung out, you just couldn’t risk leaving it open and have someone coming up the path before you knew it. Getting up off the seat and reaching outside to grab the door to close it, you might get caught.”
“Speaking of being caught, it was a good idea to anchor it down securely, too,” I said. “Halloween night was risky when devilish youngsters prowled with evil pranks on their minds.”
“Couldn’t take risks with the inside either,” l added. “Especially with the seat. Making the hole round and sanding the edges nice and smooth could cause one to lose his or her garden to crabgrass. But, cut the holes square with an old ragged saw, and about four minutes ﬂat was the average stay.”
“Another important construction detail was adding beams under the seat: made it a lot stronger. Nothing caused a bigger ruckus at the homecoming picnic than that cousin from up north falling through if the seat gave away.”
“Last, but not least was a hook or a nail for the Sear‘s catalog. While that was standard equipment, you might occasionally see a box to hold corn cobs, too. Generally speaking though, the cob box was an indication of old timers in the family since it was always hard to teach an old dog new tricks.”
“Catalogs? Corn cobs?” Robin asked. “I’m really glad we don’t have outhouses anymore.”
“Me too,” I agreed. “But, just remember what I’ve told you. And, when you happen upon an old retired privy out in the weeds, stop and place your hand over your heart kids. You are in the presence of an unsung hero of the American way of life.”