Small workshop ceramic old-time square dancing couple vase. (click to enlarge)
Square dancing has a non-urban image. Like folk, country-western and country square dancers don’t usually care to be associated with hillbillies’ rowdier reputation. Manifestations of old-timey entertainments and practices have different constituencies and standards. Like folk music, the square dance is of European origin. Four country-dressed couples perform an American version of the Quadrille to fiddle music and the spoken direction of a caller. Vestiges of this dance, like balladry, survived into the 19th century in rural areas of the South, but the twentieth century practice was motivated partly by an idealization of our agrarian past.
A chief promoter of square dancing was the distinctly non-hillbilly Henry Ford. The architect of the modern assembly line had a romantic nostalgia for “old-fashioned dances” which were “clean and healthful … modern dances are not.” In a 1926 book, Today and Tomorrow, Ford evidences his capitalistic genius and mastery of industrialization. He mentions as well his promotion of “old time fiddle contests” and how he partitioned a corner of his new laboratory building at Dearborn for a ballroom.
Hobbyist ceramic square dancers. (click to enlarge)
There, two times a week, Henry Ford presided over old time dancing classes: “The rules are followed. There is no holding up of two fingers for a dance and no “cutting in”. The ladies do not enter the room unescorted and must slightly precede the gentlemen. Everything is formal. The instructions are all in the manual we have written.”
“We are all getting a good deal of fun out of dancing.” Ford added, “We are not, as has been imagined, conducting any kind of crusade against modern dancing,” which he had earlier described as “ugly dance” that went with “tuneless music”.
The square dance revival that began in California in the late 1940s produced relatively few pieces of memorabilia.
Ceramic hillbilly wall hanging with corncob pipe made by Comocraft, Branson, Missouri. 1950s. Comocraft was the name of the concrete slip dripped ware invented by Harold Horine in the 1920s. Obviously someone purchased the name after his death. In the 1950s and 60s they manufactured cast ceramics, many with a hillbilly theme and a paper label that said Comocraft.
Unlike the hillbilly-associated outhouses which have no historic validity, pipe smoking by both sexes was often remarked on by early frontier travelers. The clay pipes of early mountaineers have been replaced by corncob pipes in pop culture renditions.
Illustration of old lady smoking a clay pipe from article, “Through Cumberland Gap on Horseback,” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June, 1886, by James Lane Allen. (click to enlarge)
Hill Billy Sack of tobacco circa 1910. (click to enlarge)
Sirocco ware ashtray with pipe holder, 1940s. (click to enlarge)
This 1919 sheet music was written by Will E. Skidmore and Marshal Walker. It is subtitled “A Novelty Surprise Package.” In the center of the “drawn by Gosh” cartooned cover is a photo captioned “Successfully Introduced by Chick Sale in New York Winter Garden.”
From the lyrics of ON THE OZARK TRAIL:
Way down yon-der in the O-zark Moun-tins, where folks aint ver-y good at books or coun-tin; There lived old Zeke, an odd “Ga-loot”, -Bout all he knew was how to shoot; He had a gal and he would al-ways tell ‘er To nev-er monk-ey with a cit-y Fel-ler; This cit-y chap came with-out fail And Zek-ie shot ‘im on the O-zark Trail
On the O-zark Trail – that’s where they shot him On the O-zark Trail; They come and got ‘im , Zek-ie saved his Fam’-ly’s Name; But since that cit-y Fel-ler came Zek-ie‘s gal don’t act the same – On the O-zark Trail. On the Trail. –
Though the hayseeds on the cover aren’t dressed hillbilly and the word isn’t used, the Ozarks is identified as a place populated by ignorant and violence-prone people who fear competition from “city fellers” for their women. Gradually the generic country bumpkin merged with the maverick mountaineer of journalism and fiction. The earlier rube survived in country comedy concurrently with the rawer hillbilly that was not always so funny, and if he were the humor might not be of the gentle bucolic variety.
It’s a theory of course that the hillbilly outhouse fixture and its abundant commodifications derived from Chuck Sales privy builder skit, but we’ve discovered no other antecedents in hillbilly history. Our point is that the hillbilly gradually absorbed many of the primitive traits that were attributed to rural folks nationwide. The Ozarks even in 1919 had already been targeted as being especially “hick” even before the hillbilly had been completely created by mass media.
Charles (Chic) Sales’ 1929 book, The Specialist, along with his stage version of his story of a dedicated outhouse architect introduced the “little house out back” as a subject of humor to the broad American public. After Sales’ death in 1936, it became a hillbilly trope and its vaudeville origins were all but forgotten. (click to enlarge)
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.
Hillbilly Plumbing and Hauling is a firm that supplies port-a-potties. (click to enlarge)
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.
Hillbilly homesteads are rarely without an outhouse, inevitably embellished with a half moon carved in the door. Countless postcards and souvenirs perpetuate this concept. Unlike other hillbilly attributes like long guns and moonshine jugs, this privy mountaineer syndrome has no genesis in historical accounts. Back in the log cabin era, dimension lumber to construct the little house out back wasn’t available. We have never seen a log cabin privy. Pioneers likely did their business in the woods in shallow pits occasionally spanning them with a section of tree trunk to sit on.
Jokey souvenirs and novelties of hillbilly outhouses have been marketed to a public that readily accepts the backwoods mountaineer as a symbol of perpetual revolt against industrial society’s improvements to hygiene, health, and comfort. (click on any image to start slide show)
Our next post will explore the likelihood that the hillbilly outhouse syndrome did not originate in the mountains.
Shriner hillbilly degree emblem. Click to enlarge.
Hillbilly Days, a three day festival held each April at Pikeville, Kentucky, is a mountaineer rustic’s Mardi Gras. From thirty states, 100,000 Shriners come to the town of 8,000 in the heart of coal country and the epicenter of the McCoy/Hatfield feud to yet again prove that fraternal organization’s unique capacity for public spectacle. They do as well raise money for a children’s hospital.
The dress code at this event has not been handicapped by previous portrayals of mountaineers. As the postcard shows, the outfits look to be as inspired by 1950s local television kiddy show clowns as Li’l Abner or Snuffy Smith. Jugs and old, hopefully inoperable, long guns are popular, and restore a modicum of hillbilly authenticity. An invented folky dialect is spoken by the imported revelers.
In Hillbillyland professor J. W. Williamson called the Shriners’ gathering “an extraordinary and instituionalized example of hillbilly role playing.” Dr. Williamson found analogies in the behavior of an European archetype. “Like the fool or the village idiot, the American hillbilly clown is an impudent mirror held up in front of us—both a reflection of and a window into something rarely glimpsed, the native deep and sable face of this creature we still are.”
Postcard 1970s. Criticism by the sensitive and denouncements of the politically correct have not dampened these goofy hillbilly reenactors as their mission is to raise money for crippled children.
Except for the Kentucky Derby, it’s that state’s largest cultural event. Of course, there are plenty of letters to the editor suggesting this gathering degrades the dignity of Appalachian residents. That hasn’t stopped the normally hyper-sensitive to controversy Coca-Cola company from annually issuing collectible commemorative soft drink products (opposite page).
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Daisy Duke (Catherine Bach). Sexy mountaineer women have a long tradition. (click to enlarge)
In the nineteenth century, poor mountain women were portrayed as being less repressed than Victorian ladies. Hillbilly gals became even more sexualized in the twentieth century. Al Capp excelled at drawing curvaceous hillbilly babes. Li’l Abner’s lovesick girlfriend, Daisy Mae, set the standard. American girls imitated Daisy Mae’s revealing outfit at Halloween and Sadie Hawkins Day parties. Capp Enterprises did license such costumes but the 1952 Gimbels “Daisy Mae Dogpatch Denims” hardly resembled her hick haute couture. This “biggest fad of the year” line of casualwear (below) looked more suburban Connecticut than backwoods Dogpatch.
Lil’ Abner coloring book, 1940s. (click to enlarge)
A comely country girl scantily clad isn’t copyrightable. The “Miss Hillbilly” outfit in the Star Bread Co. ad is clearly a Daisy Mae knockoff. The hick on the bread package hardly resembles hunky Li’l Abner though. Daisy Mae Duke continued the tradition of hot hill country temptresses in CBS’s TV series of the early ‘80s, The Dukes of Hazard. Actress Catherine Bach created many of her fetching costumes. “Daisy Dukes” have become the name for revealing cut-off jeans.
1950s magazine ad for Hillbilly Bread. Note the Daisy Mae lookalike.
Daisy Mae Dogpatch Denim ad, 1952.
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Genuine Curteich – Chicago. “C. T. Art – Colortone” Postcard, early 1950s. (click to enlarge)
hill billy n. Uncouth countrymen, particularly from the hills. “You one-gallused hill billies, behave yourselves.”
This definition of a hillbilly is from an entry by University of Arkansas professor J. W. Carr in Vol. II of Dialect Notes, published in 1904. It is the earliest academic recognition of the word, which was likely coined in the preceding decade. “One-gallused,” denoting suspenders with one broken strap worn by a poor rustic, is earlier rural slang than “hill billie”.
Relax, self-identified hillbillies and hard country music fans. We are not assailing your proud but mythological heritage. Things hillbilly – music, humor, cartoons, feuding mountaineer fables – have been motivated by capitalism, facilitated by industrial technology, and distributed by mass media to serve modern sensibilities.
Don’t believe the advertising. Disregard the packaging. Unwrapped, this anti-modern icon is revealed to be a hybrid rural/urban interactive product assembled from many sources. Our uncouth, but musical, countryman is not exclusively of the Appalachians, his legendary association with the mountain South notwithstanding.
Hillbilly humor for instance has been influenced by New England books and plays, minstrel shows, and vaudeville. Country music, originally called ‘hillbilly’, has undeniable southern white roots, but has had players, fans, and management from other demographics. Folks with a rural family background are especially interested in accounts of that rude past. Authentic or contrived, they don’t seem to care. Few, however, wish to return to the harsh privations and poverty of subsistence agriculture as the “Who Longs For The Good Old Days?” postcard asks. Visions of Arcadian rusticity are more likely to be floating in the heads of educated urbanites.
Only comic strip hillbillies are true primitives. Country musicians from the start embraced improvements to transportation and communications. They have since shown an extraordinary capacity to respond to changing public taste and unfolding commercial opportunities. Though this genre ritualistically acknowledges rural traditions, its performers and their audiences are forever evolving and adapting to new circumstances.
This pop culture icon is a product of the machine age’s alternating nostalgia and disdain for our agrarian past. Hillbillies are not really an outsider, other, or folk phenomenon. Hillbillies are interesting, sometimes captivating, even if they are manufactured rustics. There is no one hillbilly type, but many and they continue to evolve.
Just as the country was slipping into a catastrophic financial chasm in the late 1920s, mass media discovered the public had an insatiable interest in the outlandish behavior of impoverished rustics. The hillbilly is the incarnation of anti-materialism. Yet he lives self-satisfied within a family, in a community, somehow surviving though ignorant, foolish, and often a vessel of bad habits. He does possess frontier skills and is stubbornly self-reliant. It was during this tragic time that the colorful mountaineer character thrived providing some consolation to a populace who felt its streamliner train ride to modernity had gone off the rails.
Hillbillies are a six-pack of fun, but with hangover potential. Droll, but given to outbursts of violence, they are a blend of half a dozen stock American characters. Unlike African-Americans or Native Americans, these rustics are yet allowable stereotypes. The rains of reform have not sanitized this personification of multi-dimensional incorrectness. Nor has he been completely forgotten.
This content is edited from our 500 page book project, Hillbillies Rustics to Rednecks. Join our email list to be notified of its availability.