DON NORMAN: LIFE IMPROVES WITH THE WPA OUTHOUSE

(05/06/2022)
THE WPA OUTHOUSE

By Don Norman 2005

Of all the buildings on any Gilmer County WV homestead, the outhouse was probably foremost in people's thoughts, but rarely mentioned aloud.

This was the building you located as soon as possible when you came to visit and if your guest was the preacher, you invited him outside on some pretext so he could spot "the necessary room" without asking.

The earliest central West Virginia outhouse was any handy screen of bushes, a club to beat off the wolves and an attentive eye for poison ivy, nettles and yellow jacket nests. Life was simpler then. Multiflora rose was unknown.

By 1930, outhouse construction had progressed and the typical edifice provided a place to sit, protection from the rain, a fair degree of privacy.

A typical building was sited on the bank of a watercourse with the rear elevated so that rising waters would sweep away deposited wastes.

Frequently, the rear of such buildings faced a public or semi-public roadway, allowing passers to throw flaming paper or grass or firecrackers underneath if they felt the occupant needed a little excitement or inspiration.

Sometime around 1900, medical scientists connected the annual typhoid fever outbreaks with the use of water polluted with human waste.

Prior to this discovery, it was believed water polluted with human waste was purified when the materials were no longer visible to the naked eye.

The microbes visible with a microscope were regarded as interesting and even amusing, but too small to be worthy of notice.

When the connection between polluted water and typhoid was firmly established, the medical profession swung into action to reduce the incidence of this disease.

Typhoid would go through an entire family and leave the survivors too debilitated to earn enough to pay their doctor in a reasonable time.

By the mid nineteen thirties, cities had begun processing their sewage, municipal water supplies had been improved and the time had come to improve rural sanitation.

Because this was in the midst of the great Depression,people were out of work and destitute, and because most politicians lived downstream from rural people, the federally funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) built thousands of outhouses in central West Virginia according to a basic design developed by the American Red Cross.

This design featured an enclosed, vented pit for the waste, was fly and vermin proof and afforded a standard of cleanliness and sanitation that earlier generations would have considered effete.

The building had a concrete floor and a carefully carpentered seat with a close fitting lid to exclude flies. Although many design variations have been noted, the two basic designs were single seater and two seater.

The two seater was preferred by large families, with a smaller hole in the second seat to prevent children from falling through, by those who liked company and those who needed a place to set their lantern at night.

In the late 1930's, one country wit who was disillusioned with both the Democratic and Republican political parties maintained that Democrats preferred two holers and Republican used single seat facilities.

His reasoning was that Democrats couldn't do anything without a consultant and Republicans were usually constipated.

The crescent shaped vent or peephole in the door beloved by a generation of cartoonists was not a feature of these WPA edifices, possibly because photographs might appear in newspapers in Muslim countries, where the crescent has the same religious significance that the cross has in Christian societies.

The concrete floor for these buildings was pre-cast and then moved over the pit and the building constructed. This gave the owner of the edifice a choice as to the number of seats and their arrangement.

One source tells of a resident specifying a space between the seats large enough to accommodate a galvanized wash tub, so that the owners could bathe in the outhouse.

One typical WPA outhouse construction crew consisted of Park Norman, Melville Brady and Ray T. Cottrill. Their headquarters was on Lloyd Yoak's property on Tanner's Fork of Steer Creek, near the old Shock schoolhouse.

Ray was in charge of site preparation, (he dug the pit) while Park and "Mel" pre-cast the floors and prefabricated the buildings in sections.

Once the pit was dug, the floor and sections of the building were hauled to the site on a Model A Ford truck and erected. Although all the members of this crew went on to bigger things, they played an important part in controlling a serious and dangerous disease.

The universal joke of a Sears catalog in the outhouse bore more truth than fiction in the Depression years. Usually, the Spring and Summer catalog was relegated to the outhouse on the very day the Fall and Winter catalog was delivered.

More than a few families split their mail order business between Sears and Montgomery Ward for the sole advantage of having a better supply of toilet paper.

Both these companies issued catalogs that had indexes of thin, soft paper, and that index was first to go. Things got rather unpleasant just before the new catalog came and only the slick, colored pages were left in the old outhouse.

An example of this humor is found in the weekly newspaper report of an outhouse fire within the paper's distribution area. The paper reported that the edifice was totally destroyed and it was believed that the fire started when a candle being used for illumination ignited the catalog.

What a stirring event the dedication of the first WPA outhouse must have been!

The mind boggles at the bands that must have been playing, the dedication speeches, the president of Sears appearing to affix the catalog and the backbiting and politicking that must have occurred for the honor of tearing off the first sheet. - Don Norman is a well-known Gilmer County historian and genealogist