This outhouse business is strong evidence that the hillbilly is a synthesis assembled from rural and urban realities, mutual misconceptions, and collective national fantasies. Hillbilly music, moonshine making, and feuds have some genesis in frontier and relic pioneer societies. On the other hand, outhouses as a hillbilly trope might be attributable to an all but forgotten vaudevillian named Charles (Chick) Sale.
Sale was born in Huron, South Dakota in 1885. The tall, rail-thin comedian had a genius for mimicking rural types, which he perfected on the boards of vaudeville. Later he had a Hollywood movie career where he played elderly, naïve, but affable rubes. Reviewers praised his convincing “agricultural types” which conveyed “irresistible nostalgia.” He became a mainliner at top venues like the Ziegfeld Follies and Schubert’s Winter Garden. Sale developed a crowd-pleasing monologue about a fictional carpenter who built privies. It was so popular other comics swiped it. In order to protect his creation through copyright law, Sale published a slim illustrated version titled The Specialist. It sold a million copies.
To his chagrin, outhouses began to be called “Chick Sales.” It’s written in folksy dialogue and pretends to be an after-dinner speech delivered by carpenter Lem Putt. The Specialist proudly describes his trade as the champion privy builder of Sagamon County (Illinois). It ‘s a clever ploy to discuss a delicate subject for proper middle class Americans of that era. Victorian taboos yet colored 1920s speech. Lem was able to fairly straightforwardly bring up taboo subjects like multi-holed privies, women’s shyness about being seen going to the outhouse, even the relative merits of mail order catalog pages vs. corncobs.
Nowhere does Sale indicate this was for or about hillfolk. Like several bits of vaudeville humor the subject became part of the shtick of string band comics, eventually migrated into hillbilly mythos, and has since been artifactually perpetuated in a thousand ways. It’s true that as sanitary awareness replaced outhouses with indoor toilets, rural areas were the last to be modernized. In time, hillbillies – as the penultimate rubes – became uniquely associated with a number of outdated practices and anachronistic behaviors that urban Americans conveniently forgot their own ancestors once participated in.