top of page

History of Naples: The Vanishing Outhouse

November 2, 1989

by Bob Vierhile

[Note: Text and images in this piece are presented as they appeared in the original 1989 newsletter, including the masthead shown below]

From the time the Jamestown Colony was settled in 1607 until just a few years ago in American history, there was one element of American life that was seldom talked about although it was very, very essential - THE OUTHOUSE.

Someone once said that privies are funny because of their very existence sitting out there behind the house or the barn, seldom mentioned in the books of architecture and complete ignored by historians. Nevertheless, there they were for centuries: Sitting just down a path in a downwind spot behind a tavern, a farm house, or a village house.

If you travel to Williamsburg, Virginia, you will see the old homes and taverns of the colonial period, all so beautifully restored. And, out there in back, in the "necessary house." Often, this "necessary" was cleverly decorated or adorned with high unpeekable windows, with a tight-fitting wood door, and usually one or two outdated Sears catalogs lying next to the one or two holes that constituted the interior. Some of the more classic designs had a "step-up" for the youngsters and the handicapped.

Naples had its share of outhouses. Early pictures of West Avenue, East Avenue, and Vine Street taken from either the hillsides at the creekbank in the case of East Avenue clearly show an outhouse in about the same position behind each house on the street and, in almost every case, about the same distance from the house.

A tour of Naples today shows that there are only one or two of these vital necessities in the pre-plumbing days still left in Naples Village. One of these in on Elizabeth Street and the other on Lyon Street. In both cases when the outhouses were put out of use by inside plumbing, the owners simply turned the tall, quaint buildings into tool sheds, and as tool sheds they have remained with the help of several paint jobs to keep them from rotting.

There are still two in Italy Valley, one of which the reporter states is still in daily use. Somebody said there's also an outhouse up Gulick way and someplace in the woods on Gannett Hill. But that's it. No more.

NAPLES ARTIST DARRYL ABRAHAM shows the mischief that used to be done on Halloween to local outhouses.

Some of the older folks in Naples remember the days in the 1930's and 1940's when the outhouses provided some of the best excitement on Halloween. Every October 31st the outbuildings on West Avenue and East Avenue took a beating. Most of the younger generation spent the evening tipping all of them over. One retired farmer on Reed Street got so sick of having to reset his outhouse on Halloween that he put a concrete foundation under it and had it hinged to the back. It usually took him less than an hour to reset his outhouse and get it back into operation after Halloween.

Reverend Gordon Proper tells about the outhouses in West Gulick and how difficult it was to keep them from tipping over m the heavy winter winds. Most of the people in Gulick had their privies tied up to a big tree or the barn, or attached to either building, so they wouldn't get blow away," says Gordon. "I remember that when I was a kid, my father ran a rope from the house to the outhouse that we could hang onto as we made that dangerous trip in a winter storm."

That necessary trip to the outhouse in the morning was a real waker-upper. In the summer, you'd be able to sit there in the quiet of the morning and hear the birds singing in the tree tops. In the winter, you wouldn't tarry a minute longer that you had to in odor to get back to the warmth of the wood fire in the kitchen stove.

But the days of the outhouses were numbered in the early 1900's. Two plumbing pioneers, Henry Moule and Thomas Crapper, invented the flush toilet and inside plumbing. Now, the outhouse is a little mare than early folklore.

Pedal-driven "rain bath".

Linking cleanliness with godliness is realy nothing new. Early book of etiquette associated proper habits of the toilet with inward purity. Hygiene was a major cause for doctor, preacher, and layman alike as "rainbaths" and tubs were poured full of hot water boiled on the kitchen stove, becoming popular in local hardwares and an absolutely necessary weekly ritual in many Naples homes.

Healthy and wealthy Neapolitans insisted that the vigorous use of soap and water had much more to do with duty than to vanity. In early Naples, a public bath was available three days a week for women and children, and two days a week for menfolk.

As soon as plumbing became available in Naples it became almost an obsession with the townspeople. First, only the wealthy families like the Widmers, the Maxfields, the Suttons, the Tours, and the prospering Main Street merchants had "bathrooms". The early plumbing was basically for weekly baths, but after the pioneers in plumbing, Moule and Crapper, perfected the flush toilet, the bathroom became one of the most important rooms in the house. Everyone in Naples had to have one to keep up with the Maxfields and the Widmers.

There is no question that the Plumbing Pioneer in Naples was Harry Stone who lived on South Main Street in Naples and worked for the Bolles Hardware. Harry Stone did almost all of the plumbing work and tinsmithing work in Naples for years. His shop was on the first floor of the Morgan Hose Company building.

The Bolles Hardware took great pride in its business of adding to the comforts of Naples people. In August 1900, John Bulks and his son John C. Bolles (who had just graduated from Naples High School) purchased the business that was owned by Herb Graham and located on one side of what is now Vierhile's Store.

In 1904, George A. Bolles became a partner in the business while young John C. became a traveling salesman for a wholesale hardware firm. However, in 1906 John C. Bolles came back to Naples and took sole ownership of the Bolles Hardware.

John Bolles was at great merchandiser, running a large ad every single week in the Naples Record which attested to the low prices he offered on all kinds of hardware and the new bathroom fixtures and plumbing. Over the years, the Bolles Hardware put in most of the new inhouse necessaries in Naples. Mr. Bolles was very well liked in Naples and hired good men to work for him. Among his clerks and mechanics were: John Lewis, Robert A. Tobey, Henry I. Manahan, Howard Tyler, Rudolph A. Rohlin, Hermann Graff, Harold Arnold, and others. On February 19, 1945, Curtis J. Phillips and S.K. Farrar of Newark bought the business and opened it in the building that presently houses the Naples Pharmacy.

The outhouse was slower to disappear on the farms around Naples. When the first Gould pumps came into existence in the 1920's, Carl Misel who lived on East Avenue became the Pump Man in Naples. He provided running water in the farm homes by pumping well water and cistern water into kitchens and bathrooms. Other early plumbers who helped eliminate the outhouses were Karl Potter, Berty Roys, and Lloyd Clawson.

Today, you've got to search hard and long to find one of these outhouses still standing. Today's residents hardly remember this era. However, a reminder of the importance of the outhouse occurs during grape festivals and flea markets when some of these portable white johnnys appear at various outdoor sites to continue doing what they have always done -- "save the day" for many a man, woman, and child.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page