The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Columns

July 4, 2014

Outhouses remain in vogue throughout the United States

Men inquire, “Where can I wash my hands?” and women ask, “Is there a place to powder my nose?” Schoolchildren stammer, “May I be excused.”

But what everyone is really asking, of course, is the location of the nearest, well, rest room.

The point being that we have developed scores of euphemisms for the toilet, as well as for bodily functions performed there. And the trend does not merely reflect modern civility.

The history of the bathroom itself begins in Scotland 3,000 years ago. A series of crude drains led from stone huts to streams, enabling people to relieve themselves indoors instead of outside, where most of Western civilization found refuge until the invention of the flush toilet centuries later.

Still, believe it or not, the renowned outhouse is still very much in vogue throughout the United States in the 21st century. And here’s a bit of outhouse trivia.

Nationwide, more than 530,658 households still do not have indoor plumbing. Growing affluence and a host of private and government programs, however, are helping West Virginia outgrow its reputation as a state where outhouses dot the rural landscape.

Kentucky ranks first among states in the number of households without complete indoor facilities with 30,921, and Virginia ranks second with 30,003, according to the census estimates.

In percentage of homes without a toilet, sink and either a shower or bathtub, Alaska topped the list, with 3.68 percent of homes without plumbing, followed by New Mexico, Maine, West Virginia and Idaho.

The Mountain State appears to be in good company: in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, 97,132 homes do not have full plumbing.

And though many people in the region still think outhouses as quaint throwbacks to a simpler time, the old frame structures are environmental hazards — they pollute groundwater and they are obstacles for the elderly and infirm.

According to a study released a few years ago, West Virginia remains one of the top outhouse states in the nation. But unlike outhouses themselves, the people who use them often remain tucked away from the public eye.

The Mountain State is regarded by many as one of the nation’s best places to live. Still, it has its share of homes without indoor plumbing. Of the estimated 15,000 households without complete plumbing in West Virginia, nearly two-thirds of the dwellings are headed by someone 65 or older.

Nevertheless, the old outhouse has become a novelty item in most mountain communities. Homeowners relish the idea of displaying a colorful outhouse in their backyard as a kind of conversation piece. A half-moon on the door and a hanging flower pot are all that’s needed to recall a simpler era.

I seem to recall a physician who, in the early 1960s, rented a frame dwelling with an outhouse. He ran an extension cord with a socket and light bulb on it to the outdoor toilet, about 30 yards away from the house, presumably so he could read his medical magazines in privacy.

Local gossip had it, though, that the good doctor went there not so much to read as to get away from his shrewish wife. Folks driving by the homestead after dark often witnessed the light burning in the faded frame structure.

After a few months, the doctor and his wife moved away and were never heard from again. The old dwelling, meanwhile, sat vacant until it was torn down years later.

But the outhouse remained intact, perched on the hillside. It eventually became part of the community folklore. It was whispered that on certain winter evenings a trekker hoofing it along the country road could observe a light shining in the old privy on the side of the hill.

One curious hiker apparently couldn’t resist the temptation to use the old facility one last time before it collapsed into a heap of rubble.

So he flung open the door only to find one of two holes already occupied.

“Howdy,” greeted the outhouse guest. “Come in and take a load off your feet.”

But the lanky night time rambler slammed the door shut without reply. He reportedly fled the area on foot. His whereabouts are still unknown.

- - -

Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a freelance columnist for

The Register-Herald.

E-mail: jabbb@suddenlink.net

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