Last week, I observed Earvin “Magic” Johnson interviewed on a cable news station. During his days as a basketball player, Johnson was labeled a phenomenon. This interview devoted some time to his basketball career. I will never forget his exploits during the national finals against the 76ers in 1980, when in game six he moved from his traditional position as guard to center, due to an injury to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He played this position with the same skill and finesse as he did as guard. In fact, he played well enough for the Lakers to win the game and the championship.
But, on this day, it was not stories about his basketball career that impressed me most. My knowledge of his business acumen was limited, but the level of his accomplishments as articulated in this interview was quite impressive. I knew he was one of the investors and owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers, but I did not know of his many investments through Magic Johnson Enterprises, investments that include fitness sport centers, restaurants, travel, real estate, media and entertainment, and food service and facilities management. I learned that his company also handles asset acquisitions, endorsements, licensing, personal appearances, urban marketing and business-to-business relationships. What jumped out at me as in this interview was his investment in a television channel called Aspire. The Philadelphia Tribune carried a feature story on Aspire last Sunday. What was it about Aspire that I found significant? It will focus on television shows for Black families. Regular followers of this column know the significance I place on the family structure. So, Johnson’s television channel immediately brought to mind an activity most of us participated in in the ’50s and ’60s. We gathered around our 12-inch Zenith black and white television to watch shows along with neighbors and friends. Johnson will provide original and acquired programming with movies, documentaries, short films, music, comedy, visual and performing arts and faith and inspirational programs in his television venture. Hearing about Aspire and reading additional details on Johnson’s website, I could not avoid thinking about the family-oriented television shows I watched with my family and friends, back in the day.
I recognize a number of you did not have television in your homes until the late ’50s and early ’60s. Some families experienced occasional viewing interruptions, because they had to feed the coin box on the side of the television. This was necessary to keep the set operating. This was how some people paid for their television. I have no doubt you have vivid memories of those shows you and other family members simply had to see — even though we are speaking of some 50 or 60 years ago. The favorite shows during our childhood and teen years contained no sex or profanity. Some of my colleagues identified their favorite shows as “Lassie,” “I Love Lucy,” “Jack Benny,” “Art Linkletter,” “Mr. Ed,” “Flipper,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Hazel,” “Red Skelton,” “Danny Thomas,” “Milton Berle,” “Dinah Shore,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Father Knows Best,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and “The Honeymooners.” Even action, mystery, police and detective shows were suitable for family viewing. Think back to shows in this category from the ’50s and ’60s such as “Dragnet,” “Ironside,” “Private Eye,” “Peter Gunn,” “Ellery Queen,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Hawaiian Eye” and “The Fugitive.” Others that probably kept you in front of your television were “Mission Impossible,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E,” “The Mod Squad,” “Hawaii 5-0” and the comedy detective show “Get Smart.” No, I did not ignore “I Spy;” how could I forget this show with Philadelphia’s own Bill Cosby? For most of us, what followed family dinner and doing the dishes was a trip to the living room to watch television. Back in the day, the living room was the place where we watched shows on those large black and white console television sets.
Mine was not the first family on my block to get television. I still have vivid memories of visiting my friend’s home on the same block, on Saturday mornings to watch “Frontier Playhouse.” Several kids would gather to watch this show. It had a variety of cowboys; a different one was featured each week. There were Tex Ritter, Bob Steele, Wild Bill Elliott, Buck Jones, Whip Wilson, the Cisco Kid Lash LaRue, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. I did not like the singing cowboys. I was a big fan of Johnny Mack Brown, but my all-time favorite was the Durango Kid; the cowboy who wore all black with a black mask and rode a white horse. Parents did not find it necessary to sit with their children to watch these movies. They knew they were clean Western shows. However, family members, often came together to watch shows like “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Maverick,” “The Lone Ranger,” “The Rifleman,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” “Bonanza,” “Wagon Train” and “Cheyenne.” I know a large number of you just had to be in front of your television when “The Adventures of Superman” appeared.
Some television shows were produced specifically for children and they did fit into the category of family-oriented television. I cannot believe that some of you did not watch “The Musketeers” and “Howdy Doody.”
I know you still remember some of the personalities that were part of The “Howdy Doody” show: Buffalo Bob Smith, Mr. Bluster, WinterSpringSummerFall, Chief Thunderthud, and, of course, Clarabelle Hornblower. I still refer to the “peanut gallery” and sometimes find myself singing, “What time is it; what time is it? It’s Howdy Doody time; it’s Howdy Doody time.” Given my love for do wop music, I even sing these words in a doo-wop style. Am I the only one who watched “Willie the Worm” and “Kukla, Fran and Ollie”? As you entered your teens, I suspect many of you watched “The Little Rascals,” “The Dead End Kids,” Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy.
There were other memorable television shows back in the day. They included science fiction and variety shows. Was “Star Trek” one you watched? What about ”Twilight Zone”? The most popular variety show was the Ed Sullivan show. Now, here is a question to test your knowledge of this show. What was its correct name? Give up? It was “Toast of the Town.” One other show I watched with my parents and I suspect few children watched was “What’s My Line?”
Black-oriented television shows did exist, but were limited. “Julia” was unique not only because of its Black main character, but also because Julia was a professional, a nurse. “The Mod Squad” and “I Spy” included Black characters. Nat King Cole and Flip Wilson had their own variety shows. While many Black Americans claim they did not approve of the ’50s’ and ’60s’ “Amos ’n’ Andy” show, a whole lot of them gathered around their television sets to watch it. Without a doubt, plenty of laughs were provided by that show.
Watching television is a big part of the lives of most people. Hours are spent in front of the set. During my childhood and young adult life, television embraced family values. Thus, I wish Johnson the utmost success with his Black-oriented television channel. By launching this channel, I know he recognizes the importance of infusing the lives of our children and adults with some positive aspects. While he has indicated his intention to include both new shows and old Black shows, I hope he will revisit and update some of our Black shows from the past, even shows like “Amos ’n’ Andy,” to provide us with a perspective of what Black television was like, back in the day.
What did you do this weekend? Did you go to the movies, drive to the shore, treat your “significant other” to dinner at his or her favorite restaurant? Perhaps you went to a dance where everyone in Philadelphia society had to go to be seen. Did you hop a train to New York City for dinner and a show, or did you have friends over for a barbeque or a card game?
Whatever you did, it was probably something you had planned for weeks. Then again, it may have been an activity you thought of just a few days ago. Whatever the time frame, it was something that was planned; planned because so much of what we do today is structured. We seem to lack the capacity to just do things in an impromptu manner. Life, for that matter, was not always as we see it today. You may recall that we had a great deal of fun on weekends without much planning, without a need to do something special and spending little, if any, money.
I know those who are not from back in the day have difficulty understanding how anyone could have had fun if it did not involve an activity that was not on your calendar. Having fun without spending money is a difficult concept to comprehend. However, I believe the simple way of life we enjoyed back then had an impact on the way we spent our time. After all, resources were slim. Therefore, we had to be creative and employ ways to survive in our interpersonal relationships despite the fact we had little or nothing in our pockets. But let me warn you that just because times are hard and resources are not what they used to be, do not think that you can go back to our ways of the past to enable your relationships to survive and grow. I believe you will have limited success in impressing a friend, in particular, a date. But let us look at some of those simple things we did that supported wholesome relationships back in the day.
I know many of you recall visits to friends’ homes with nothing specific to do, and the suggestion was made to go for a walk. A walk involving two males can be a serious bonding experience providing an opportunity to get to know one another better. However, I should emphasize that a leisurely walk used to be one of the best dates one could experience. I have serious doubts that the suggestion to go for a walk on a date, particularly a first date, would be well received today. Chances are it would be your first and last date.
One of the major advantages in going for a walk during my teen years was that it cost no money. Furthermore, you were able to do two things you had experience doing: You knew how to walk and talk. Just think, walks generally involve just two people; walks serve as an ideal time for the parties to get to know one another. In agreeing to go for a walk, the two people involved have automatically made a commitment to talk. Walks also have the added advantage of providing exercise. If you grew up in a neighborhood like my West Philadelphia one, you could have taken a long walk out to Fairmount Park to enjoy the scenery. You may have walked to the other side of town, to neighborhoods with impressive homes and lawns. Perhaps your walks included some of the historical sites in and around where your date lived. Your walk could have been to your grandmother’s home so you could introduce your new date. Or, your date could have been to one of my favorite places, the “Avenue” that was in most neighborhoods. These were the strips that contained the stores where a great deal of window-shopping could take place while out for a simple walk. Going for walks provided quiet time that forced asking and answering questions; an experience in which you knew you had made significant progress if you were holding hands as the two of you made your way back home, back in the day.
Automobile rides were extremely popular in the past. They were a way to kill time, spend time with your friends, or get to know a prospective girlfriend or boyfriend. This was particularly true if you or one of your friends were able to borrow an automobile. It was also true if one of your friends had a part-time job and had managed to purchase an automobile. I recall quite well getting together with some neighborhood friends and when unable to decide how to spend the evening or weekend, we went for a ride. In cases where one was going to visit a young lady, one might simply ask, “Do you want to go for a ride?” So, you drove out to Fairmount Park to one of the “lovers’ lanes” along the East River or West River drives. Perhaps you found your way to the famous George’s Hill. Now, I know that you old-school folk recall this area, as it was a popular destination when a date involved something as simple as an automobile ride. Then again, a ride to the airport was popular. The absence of today’s security measures enabled you to sit in your automobile and watch airplanes land and take off. Taking rides to one of these designations may appear to be corny according to today’s dating standards, but these rides enabled us to have a lot of fun without having detailed, pre-plans to go anywhere.
Sitting around on your stoop or porch was another way to have fun, even though it was not regarded as special. It was something to do if you did not enjoy walking or going for an automobile ride with your friends. Coming together with a group of friends or someone very special, just to sit outside, was one of those weekend activities that neatly fell into the definition of not doing anything planned and not doing anything special, but still having special time. It was on the stoop or porch where everyone’s business was told. It may have been a discussion of what new boy or girl had moved into the neighborhood. It usually was the setting in which those new to the neighborhood were introduced to others. You probably learned who was going South for the summer, going off to camp or going away to college. It was in these gatherings that we learned about our friends’ families. We learned where they were born and how they arrived in the neighborhood where they currently lived.
While we may not have been doing anything of significance on the porch or stoop, we took time to plan what we would be doing the next time we came together. You may also recall that these gatherings occasionally led to playing games that are but faint memories for most of us — games like giant steps, dumb school, blind man’s bluff, games that resulted in having significant fun, without any prior planning and spending little or no money. On the other hand, sitting on the stoop or porch, has been a romantic experience for a number of us who were dating or experiencing our first date. Tell me you do not recall those long hours sitting on your parents’ glider where wholesome relationships were born. The porch and the stoop created many relationships that resulted in love and understanding, relationships that eventually led to marriage and enabled many of us to have wholesome families today.
Going for a walk, an automobile ride going nowhere, sitting around on the stoop or porch, playing cards, or playing neighborhood games were enjoyable activities not necessarily encouraged today. As I suggested earlier, these approaches were useful in order to bond with friends or to develop a romantic relationship: approaches that may not bode well in building today’s relationships. While they may simply not work in today’s fast-paced and technological environment, they were useful and effective; great for another era; that era I fondly refer to as back in the day.
Many of us have friends and associates who must keep up with the current fashions. You can easily tell who they are; clothing styles change one day and they show up wearing new, fashionable outfits by the next day. Some even roll out in new fads before they are in stores. This is because of those monthly magazines that come to their homes; and the fashion shows they frequent.
Fortunately, I do not fall in this category. My wardrobe tends to be very conservative; things that I wore 15 or 20 years ago can still be worn today. My size has not changed much and I make every effort not to abuse my clothing. Nor do I get caught up in the new styles, which saves me a lot of money. “Keeping up with the Joneses” has never been a major influence on what I wear.
Today’s clothing styles invariably take me back to some that were popular during my day. You remember those styles that came, went and are back again. Such is the case with the miniskirt. If you grew up back in the day, you will recall the miniskirt. You may also recall hot pants. This was in the. ’60s. You must remember also how hemlines on skirts and dresses kept creeping up. By the mid-1960s, anyone who had the body to pull it off was wearing a miniskirt. Hemlines were four to five inches above the knee in New York City and seven to eight inches above the knee in London. Within the past few years, we have seen a resurgence of the miniskirt. Yes, today miniskirts are just as short, but perhaps a bit tighter. Back in the day, however, there appeared to be more discretion in wearing them. Only those who could wear one did so. Today, too many people wear miniskirts when they lack the physique for them. I have a rule about miniskirt:; You have no business wearing one today if you wore one back in the day. Believe me, it will not fit the same and will not look the same!
Then there are fashions from back in the day that should remain there, never to be resurrected. For women, stockings with seams are one. For both women and men, the platform shoe is another fad, from my point of view, that should have remained buried in the past. But today, platform shoes are back, at least for females. Other styles that should remain in the past are bell-bottom pants, iridescent suits, Nehru jackets and Bermuda shorts. One fad so bad it was not even suitable back then was knickers. I cannot imagine anyone embracing this style today.
The dress hat for women is another story. While wearing hats is a tradition for many females, in some circles it is also viewed as a fad. Those of us from back in the day can really appreciate the dress hat. You may be like me with fond memories of your mother and grandmother wearing their fine hats, occasionally with a veil, to church or to some fine affair. Occasionally, you will see someone sporting a dress hat, and to me, it always signals style and class. When a lady tops off her dress hat with long matching gloves, it is indeed special. I would love to see hats dusted off and gloves worn year-round instead of only during the winter. Hats and gloves are bygone styles of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s that I would love to see return.
These styles bring back memories of how we used to convert our clothing into the current styles of my day; not by spending money and not by purchasing new wardrobes, but by making our own alterations or patronizing skilled tailors or homemakers with excellent sewing skills, who were found in every neighborhood back in the day.
I had not given much attention to alterations from the past until last week when I drove by a dry-cleaning establishment near my home. A sign in the window advertised the narrowing of suit lapels. I have not seen a sign like this in many years. If you were around back in the day and wanted to appear fashionable, you took your suits and sport jackets to a tailor to have the lapels narrowed. Many of us did not have the money to run out and buy new suits or sport coats when the three-to-four-inch-wide lapels were clearly out of style. I know you had suits, as I did, that were hand-me-downs with wide lapels. Much of my wardrobe came from my uncle. Whenever he visited,, he showed up with three or four suits he no longer wanted. While they were well cared for, their lapels were dead giveaways that they had been around for a while.
If the width of your lapels was so important you had them narrowed, then I know you went the extra mile to have additional buttonholes and buttons placed on your jackets. There was a time when everyone wanted more than two buttons on his jacket. So, many of us sought out tailors to modify the number of buttons. These jackets were not cut for more than two buttons, but we changed them anyway. Having three or four buttons was more important than the imperfect look that resulted from forcing a two-button jacket into a four-button one. The forced fit just lacked a factory-tailored appearance. But at least we were in style.
When I was in college in the late ’50s, one of my classmates, a “Philly guy,” showed up on campus wearing those skinny stovepipe trousers popular during that time. When I saw his pants, I just had to sport this look; to me, it was really cool. A Glen paid sport coat with black narrow-leg pants still stands out in my mind as one of the coolest looks from the past. Like most of my college friends, I could not run out and purchase this new-style pant. When I arrived home for a break, everyone was wearing narrow-leg pants. So I did what my friends did; I went to my tailor to have my wide-leg pants narrowed. I turned to my sister, and with my assistance in opening up the wide legs, she did the sewing to narrow them. I completed the job by ironing a new crease in the narrowed legs. Call me a cheapskate if you will, but many of us took on a lot of projects ourselves; things that people with money readily paid for, but not those of us with limited means, back in the day.
Do you recall what was done when cuffs on a man’s pants became popular? Most males were wearing pants with plain bottoms, no cuffs. In most cases, there was insufficient material to make a cuff. So, we went off again to our tailors or to someone who could sew. When there was insufficient fabric for a cuff, only a fraction of it at the bottom of the pants leg was slightly turned up to give the appearance of a cuff. In fact, tailors back then referred to this as a “fake cuff.” When bell-bottom pants became popular, did you open up the pants leg and place a matching fabric in the inside seam area to enable you to be in style? Or, did you envy the buttoned-down, Ivy League shirts worn by some of your friends to such an extent that you simply sewed buttons on your collars? Sounds corny, I know, but we found any creative ways to be in style with a needle and thread, back in the day.
Most fashion-minded people enhance their wardrobes today by patronizing their favorite clothing stores, buying new outfits or even new wardrobes. Even if an alteration is an option to get in style today, a major problem is locating a skilled tailor or someone with good sewing skills. There was a time when there was a tailor on every corner or an expert sewer in every family. Well, those days are gone. If you happen to have a good tailor today, it is someone you have probably dealt with for many years and you dread the day when he or she is no longer around.
In our spare time, many of us sit around shooting the breeze; reflecting on world events. The subjects include the horrible state of our economy, politics, education, weight gain or loss and dating relationships. Dysfunctional behavior in our communities, especially among young people, is a topic seldom avoided. These discussions about our young people invariably reflect on what has gone wrong. We try to analyze why there are differences in the way things are now when compared to the past. We continuously ask why things are so different today. Everyone has an opinion but we know that there are no easy answers. For me, however, Father’s Day, brings memories of my father and reminds me of a core belief with respect to why I believe things are so different. My views speak directly to and perhaps are near the top of the list of reasons my generation was able to rise above the negative challenges of the past. Yes, there is no question that the world was significantly different, fathers were significantly different and relationships between father’s and their families were quite different. One, of the things from the past that stands out in my mind can be captured in a phrase to which most of us can relate; “Fathers just did not take any mess.” So, let me on this Father’s Day, thank my father for his guidance that resulted in my strong value system; a value system with a cornerstone of strong discipline. Discipline can be harsh! So, let me make it clear, I loved my father and he loved me. He did all within his power to provide for me and my siblings. I grew up in a wholesome family environment. He worked his “butt” off to purchase a house that he turned into a comfortable home; instilled in me a strong religious foundation; sacrificed to put me through college; and along with my mother nurtured me. I make this acknowledgement in light of the emphasis I shall place on discipline that came not only through discussions and lectures but most notably through physical confrontations. I was not afraid of my father but I was clearly afraid of the consequences of my actions that may not have been in keeping with my father’s mandates. I would not think of doing something that he did not embrace. Like many of you, I strongly believe that I have a good life today because of the hand my father dealt me, back in the day.
I recognize that the discipline I experienced growing up does not fit the practices of many modern day fathers. You hear fathers today proclaim that they do not believe in putting their hands on their children. Large segments of our society embrace this view. They say that it is barbaric; that beating children is inhumane. They believe that they can keep their children in line through discussions; through strict rules and regulations. You also hear children saying that their fathers better not touch them as they will report them to the authorities; something a child would not think of saying to their father back in my era. Now, I am not advocating for parents to discipline their children with forceful means; however, I am thankful for the licks across my posterior from my father when I was a child. When he verbally confronted me, the licks had more of an impact. No matter where you stand with regard to how a child should be disciplined, few people can deny its importance, perhaps nothing physical, but nevertheless, discipline of some sort. Yes, I recall the looks; fathers could stare at you in a manner that would stop you in your tracks; looks that communicated to you that whatever you were doing or even thinking, you had better stop and think about the actions you were considering. Then there were the words that struck fear in your heart; words like “I bought you into this world and I will take you out.” Or, “As long as you live in this house, you will do as I say.” But, the actions of my father had a long and lasting impact; actions that centered on his belt, a.k.a., “old Betsy,” communicated with me in the most emphatic and lasting manner possible, back in the day.
I will never forget the image of my father, confronting me when I had done something really bad, pulling that large, thick belt out of his belt loops. The tears started to flow before the belt came from around his waist. I know that many of you had similar experiences with your fathers. My father’s use of his belt is most vivid in an incident that occurred when I was a very young boy. While I do not recall what I did wrong, I recall that I was wearing a heavy blue snow suit. You recall the snow suits from the past that were made with heavy fabric to protect children from the elements. Yet, those rhythmic “licks” were felt through the snow suit. As I reflect on this incident, it seems as though I can still feel the sting. As the licks increased, the tears flowed. I also cannot forget those incidents when my father confronted me and my siblings for something that one of us did wrong. When no one would speak up as to who was guilty of the wrongdoing, you know what happened; everyone received a beating, back then.
Looking back at some of my disciplinary experiences with my father, they appear to have been mild based on stories provided by some of my colleagues. I was told by one colleague that he could not remember his mild disciplinary encounters but as far as those times when he was really bad, his father’s behavior would fit the same pattern each time without exception. Quite often, it was as a result of an incident that occurred at school. You must remember that you could not go out anywhere and do something bad and not anticipate word getting home before you did. Can you still hear your mother’s words, “Wait until your father gets home?” Well, my colleague did! Once his father arrived home from work, he received a briefing from his mother, as to his inappropriate behavior. Without asking any questions, my colleague was told to report to his room and remove all of his clothing. His father told him that he would see him in his room after he finished his dinner. This type of situation occurred on more than one occasion, and occurred more than fifty years ago, still my colleague remembered his thoughts as he sat in his room in his “birthday suit.” He went on to tell me that the three to five minutes that he experienced the wrath of his father were times that he will always remember. Why did he have to remove all of his clothing? His father told him that he did not want to beat his money. If you had similar experiences, I would bet that once you came downstairs, your father would pull you aside and tell you that he still loved you. This was the type of relationship shared by many fathers and sons; fathers were not your friends, they were your fathers, back in the day.
I was told by another colleague that many families today are without fathers in the home and therefore it is difficult for fathers to play a dominant role today in disciplining their children. I was quickly reminded by a causal observer to this discussion that there were single parent families in the past. However, even in cases of separation or divorce, it was not unusual for a mother to tell her son, when he had done something wrong, that she would call his father who did not live in the home; a father who sometimes lived on the other side of town. A father’s belief in the importance of discipline caused him to go to his son’s home to put his son in line; he did this even though it may have taken several hours or even the next day before he arrived at his child’s home.
I am certain that a number of you do not like the emphasis I have placed on what some call “corporal punishment.” I have heard the arguments; there are more sensible ways to deal with the problems of children. But, from what I see in our communities, I relish the old time discipline that fathers knew how to administer. I strongly believe that young men and young women would not engage in the behaviors we see today if we had the old fashioned discipline of the past. Now, I am certainly not encouraging anyone to go out and do what fathers did in the past. Yet, some sort of strong discipline is needed. Few people can deny the importance of discipline, in particular, the type we received in the past. Few cannot deny that the discipline we used to receive was a determining factor in behavioral changes. While fathers were important in the discipline process, it was also family members; it also involved the extended family; it involved the neighbors; schools played a role; everyone with whom we came in contact played a role. Back in the day, young people were confronted regularly by almost anyone when they were doing something wrong. In the past, it was not unusual for a total stranger to correct or chastise you for inappropriate behavior. It was expected! It was expected because it was in keeping with the tone set by fathers and how fathers reacted to things bad behavior. So, on this Father’s Day, I would like to salute my father and fathers everywhere for their love, care and, believe it or not, their discipline that kept us in line and shaped out lives, back in the day.
As much as I sing praises about life in the past, there is something I prefer not to experience again. I suspect only a handful of you have experienced the focus of today’s column, something I experienced at least once in my life. Many feel this falls in the category of too much information. Let me alert you that it nearly fits this description.
When I walk from the parking lot to The Tribune offices, I am reminded of it. Plumbing pipes coming out of the walls of the older row homes in the area conjure up unpleasant memories. They are from the era when indoor plumbing became the norm for homes. The most practical way to remove waste material from rooms converted to bathrooms was through pipes going through walls and down the side of the building to the sewer. This was far more practical than running pipes through floors and walls inside.
This brings me to the “something” I referenced at the beginning of this column; the “something” we practiced prior to indoor plumbing. This was used by some of our parents and most of our grandparents. So join me as we visit the outhouse from back in the day.
Many of us think what we have today has always been part of life’s landscape. For many of us, there was no plastic toilet seat where we sat listening to our radios. The simple act of doing “the business” was a highly unpleasant act in the past. I tell you this from personal experience. It was probably 60 years ago, when my father took me to visit his brother in Savannah, Ga. While my uncle’s home was nice, it did not hit me until I had to go to the bathroom, that it was not as nice as I thought. I was told there was a small wood building outside, a few feet from the house, where I had to go to in order to relieve myself. This place I eventually visited on more than one occasion during our stay, was the outhouse. My uncle’s outhouse, like most, was, about the size of a telephone booth, made of rough wood, located behind his home. It was approximately five feet square and six feet high. While we tend to think of the outhouse being a part of a country setting, my uncle’s home was in the city. Some may be surprised, but our senior citizens know there were outhouses right here in our city. In Savannah and in other places for churches and schools a larger outhouse, usually the size of a chicken house, was provided.
Inside my uncle’s outhouse was a bench enclosed on the front, back and sides, constructed over a large hole dug into the ground. The hole was large enough to be covered by a bench that had at least one hole, sometimes two, the openings about the size of a bucket. I have wondered about a family outhouse having two holes, as I cannot imagine two people sharing such an undesirable environment for such a personal act.
While the holes could accommodate adults, they were problematic for younger children, who struggled to avoid slipping partly into the opening. These openings allowed your “business” to go into the hole under the outhouse. There was no light except for the sunlight coming through cracks in the building.
I have read several stories about the relationship between the outhouse and the term, “built like a brick s––house.” Some families had outhouses built of brick. Thus, country boys referred to a well-proportioned country girl this way.
I cannot recall what type of paper I used during my visits to the outhouse in Savannah. Some of my friends, honest enough to admit that they once used an outhouse, have indicated it contained a Sears catalog that served as toilet paper. I was told by others that in place of rolls of toilet paper, they had individual sheets of paper.
Obviously, there was nothing resembling a toilet seat cover in the outhouse. You should also understand that there was nothing like a disposable seat cover to provide protection. You recognize that no one back then was going into an outhouse with a newspaper or magazine for a leisurely visit, as is often the case today. It was much too smelly and far too unsanitary for anyone to stay in the outhouse any longer than necessary. I cannot imagine anyone banging on the door of the outhouse to rush the occupant due to their need to use it. Everyone went in and out as quickly as they could,.
Some of you are wondering what happened to “the stuff” that went through the hole in the bench into the hole in the ground. If you are eating, may I suggest you take a break until you are finished. One person told me that someone in his family shoveled out the waste material and placed it in another hole or large container to let it dry. Can you imagine this mandatory Saturday morning chore for a teenager? But, it does not stop there. After it dried, that waste was used as fertilizer for the family’s garden. Was this effective? According to another friend who grew up in the country and continues to live in the country, a pear fell from a tree near a hole he was cleaning; into all that mess. It was left there for several days. When he finally reached it, he threw it away, even though it was a ripe as it could possibly be from sitting in the waste material. From my friend’s point of view, this accidental experiment was just small evidence of the effectiveness of the remains from an outhouse.
Some families did something as simple as dumping lime into the hole, which effectively decomposed the waste. However, the most effective way to deal with it was to dig another large hole near the existing outhouse, move the existing outhouse over the new hole and use the dirt to fill in the hole of the old outhouse. I know what you are thinking: a great deal of hard work and a stench that would be with one for days.
Questions may arise as you think about your routine bathroom habits and how they relate to the outhouse. What happened when the need arose in the middle of the night? Usually, there was a container of some sort; under the bed or in a corner. It was emptied in the outhouse the next day. In some cases, it was a matter of going outside in the dead of night. A lantern was stored at the door to outside, to light one’s way to and from the outhouse. By the way, there was nowhere to wash your hands. Many families had pumps in their yards to wash their hands.
A friend shared his experience of using an outhouse while living in a five-story apartment building with four to five apartments on each floor. Families went down the hall to a community bathroom on a porch on each floor of the building. He remembered when a representative from the sanitation department came to empty the containers. In other cases, whatever was in the containers was thrown from the porch to a special area in the rear of the building. Another friend told me of his experience when his family arrived to the Philadelphia area from North Carolina. He said he will always remember his first experience sitting on a ceramic toilet seat. It was a huge step from his outhouse in the woods, back in the day.
As messy as an experience with an outhouse was, some people are nostalgic about them. Some collect images of outhouses. Some have salvaged their outhouses or even purchased old ones and display them on their properties, using them for storage. Some have outhouse pictures hanging on their bathroom walls. There are also outhouse diggers, who explore abandoned outhouse locations for treasures. If you go to your computer and search the term, you will find many sites providing information and pictures of outhouses. You will even find a picture of a two-story outhouse. Even with this level of nostalgia, I cannot find anyone expressing fond memories of the outhouse. The next time you go into your bathroom, just think about the challenges that confronted your ancestors when they went into the outhouse back in the day.