Deadsplinter Reads – An Outhouse Joke Book

Sitting Around and Thinking

Sun over an Outhouse

Old Time Potty Humor

It may come as no surprise to regular readers that I have a Little Library out front. Most books that get dropped off are best sellers, cookbooks, biographies, kids books, and the occasional religious tract. But not long ago, somebody dropped off this little gem:

Front Cover of The Specialist by Chic Sale

I had never heard of this book, nor its author, Charles (Chic) Sale. But it was old enough (copyright 1929, now expired) that I figured it deserved a look. It quickly seemed almost like an alien artifact.

It’s only 31 pages, with illustrations, and it’s about the dimensions of an index card.

Should You Read It?

You can read the text of The Specialist here in about ten minutes, if you want. But to be honest, it takes more effort than it may be worth.

The reason is that it’s basically the transcription of a Vaudeville routine that Sale performed, complete with exaggerated “rustic” speech such as:

You’ve heerd a lot of pratin’ and prattlin’ about this bein’ the age of specialization. I’m a carpenter by trade. At one time I could of built a house, barn, church, or chicken coop. But I seen the need of a specialist in my line, so I studied her. I got her; she’s mine. Gentlemen, you are face to face with the champion privybuilder of Sangamon County.

It turns out that Sale’s routine was so successful that he felt the need the copyright it. A lot of old routines like “Niagara Falls” were passed around so much that enforcing ownership was impossible. So he commissioned the artist Roy James to add a few drawings to bolster his claim that this was a complete and unique work that was entitled to legal protection. For example, here is a cariacature of Sale as “specialist” Lem Putt.

Illustration of Chic Sale

It’s likely that The Specialist was meant more as a memento than anything else, or maybe as the equivalent of sheet music for people who might want to perform the routine at home.

What Is Going On Here?

One thing that struck me is that this was published only a few years before the rise of the Catholic Legion of Decency and the Hays Code, and eight years after Ulysses was declared obscene and in violation of the Comstock Act. Prohibition was in full force, and the Scopes Trial occurred four years earlier. Which meant that The Specialist was probably about as far as a printed work could go without triggering moralistic authorities. Possibly this depiction of an outhouse was enough to raise some hackles.

Illustration of family driving past an outhouse

Depictions of toilets in movies were rare until the 1960s — one of the scandalous scenes of Psycho was the depiction of mere bits of torn paper being flushed. Maybe one selling point of The Specialist was the fact that its small size meant it was easy to hide from polite company.

The closest The Specialist comes to referring to actual defecation is references to a box for corncobs and a hook for hanging catalogs without actually mentioning the act of wiping.

I can give you a nail or hook for the catalogue, and besides, a box for cobs. You take your pa for instance: he’s of the old school and naturally he’d prefer the box; so put ’em both in, Elmer. Won’t cost you a bit more for the box and keeps peace in the family. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” I sez.

The Sears Catalog was revolutionary in its time — it was the sole source for both luxury items and essential goods at a time when much of rural America had few stores. And that included toilet paper, which went on sale in the latter half of the 19th Century, but was still hard to find well into the 20th Century. But of course people weren’t buying toilet paper from Sears so much as using unwanted pages for free.

Who Was Chic Sale?

By the time of publication, Sale had crossed over to movies, like many other Vaudevillians. He performed in many silent comedies and then made the transition to talkies, including an appearance in Treasure Island along with Jackie Cooper, Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore.

But he never shook the connection to outhouses, which he regretted. His name became a popular synonym for outhouses, and there is even a quick reference to him by Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers.

Sale died in 1936. His obituary includes a sample of his non-outhouse humor:

Best known for his impersonations of elderly characters, the comedian commented a short while ago that 25 years ago he was playing the part of an 80 year old man, but that in his middle age he was doing young men’s parts. “If I live to be 70,” Sale remarked, “I expect to be Shirley Temple’s biggest rival.”

Yes, the past really is a different country.

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