Musings of a Privy Digger

When I tell people I dig outhouses, their reaction is predictable. I usually preempt their typical questions about it with comments about how quickly things decay when buried. Having spent so much of my life in the toilet so to speak I have become somewhat fascinated (forgive me here) with the subject. From time to time I find myself wondering about the private habits of the people who deposited the artifacts we dig. You just don’t read about these things in history books, and it would be considered indelicate to ask your teacher or professor about such things.

In fact, our language is full of euphemisms to describe such activities e.g. "waste management". We have the "restroom", the "washroom" and the "bathroom" as though we were going for a rest or a bath when we excuse ourselves. Even the word "toilet", which is less acceptable than any of the above, is derived from a French word meaning "shaving cloth".

Likewise, our ancestors had their euphemistic terms for the "necessaries" as they called them, such as the "outhouse", the "chamberpot" , the "thunderpot" or less often as the "thundermug". It is rare not to find shards of chamberpots when we dig in a privy, because no Victorian bedroom would have been complete without the "necessaries" either tucked under the bed or beside it in the commode, ( a commode was a low cabinet sometimes fitted with top with a hole in it). That our ancestors joked about such things as is evident from the old song:


I came home on Saturday night,
As drunk as I could be.
And there was a hat upon the rack,
Where my hat ought to be.
So I said to my wife, the curse of my life,
"Explain this thing to me,
Whose is that hat upon the rack,
Where my hat ought to be?"

"Oh, you're drunk you fool,
You silly old fool,
You're as drunk as a (slang deleted) can be,
That's not a hat upon the rack,
But a chamberpot you see."

Obviously nothing is known about mankind’s bathroom habits from prehistory, however archaeological evidence shows the invention of the flush toilet goes at least back to the time of King Minos on the Island of Crete sometime around 1700 BC. "The Sea Kings of Crete were renowned for their extravagant bathrooms, running hot and cold water systems, and fountains constructed with fabulous jewels and workings of gold and silver."

On this continent, Indians in the desert Southwest, were well versed in irrigation and water management and built extensive canal systems, but no evidence of any piping, privies or latrines is found in their multi-unit apartment style dwellings. It is reported that the Indians shunned communal places of defecation opting instead for the nearest bush no doubt..

So too, did the Romans have a highly developed water management system, but unlike the Indians they had an exceptionally sophisticated level of waste management as well. Even at the fringes of the Empire, in the north of England, at the fortifications along Hadrian’s wall, one finds large latrines built with water running through to carry off the wastes. In the cities proper, " A luxury toilet in the private houses of the well-to-do was a small, oblong hole in the floor, without a seat - similar to toilets that prevailed in the Far East and other sections of the world even today. A vertical drain connected the toilet to a cesspool below. " At its zenith, Rome had over one million residents and sewage disposal was a definite problem despite underground drains and a sewer system, part of which is still in use today.

"In public latrines, a communal bucket of salt water stood close by in which rested a long stick with a sponge tied to one end. The user would cleanse his person with the spongy end and return the stick to the water for the next one to use. The stick later evolved into the shape of a hockey stick, and the source for the expression "getting hold of the wrong end of the stick." It also provided an excellent medium for passing along bacteria and the assorted diseases they engendered. Running water for the latrine either was supplied by stone water tanks or else by an aqueduct…"


Waste management took a turn for the worse following the fall of the Roman Empire. In the 15th and 16th centuries, English castles had "privies," (small rooms featuring a wooden or stone seat placed over a vertical shaft that leading to a moat, a barrel, or a pit). Poorer people simply threw their wastes into the gutter.

Indeed, people have not always treated their bodily wastes with the ritualistic sophistication of saying, "Excuse me, I must go powder my nose." Quite the contrary, in England and much of Europe during the industrial revolution, when so many people moved to the cities and into crowded and unsanitary living conditions, politeness dictated that people tossing waste out of their windows onto the street below were to shout, "Gardez L’eau" (literally "watch out for the water"). This saying remains a part of British vocabulary today in the use of the word "loo", slang for toilet. Things got so bad in England that in 1848 a Public Health Act was passed mandating some kind of arrangement for every house whether it be a flush toilet, a privy or an ash pit. The Act did little to solve the problem for soon after the streets were cleaned up, the rivers started to reek. The Thames quickly gained a reputation as a "cesspool" and in the hot summer of 1859, the smell from the river was so pungent that Parliament had to be suspended. Disease, and cholera in particular, was a problem.

Lest you think things were any better in the colonies, cholera was spread through immigrants from infected European countries. Irishmen, fleeing the poverty of the potato famine, who could scrape together three pounds for passage, carried chamber pots on their journey to North America. The crowded conditions created by greedy ship owners who forced as many as 500 passengers in space intended for 150 resulted in dangerous conditions for passengers who shared slop buckets and rancid water.

Early settlers like their Native American counterparts, used rivers, woods, and shrubs to fulfill their toilet needs. In towns and, later, cities, people emptied their pots out doors and out windows, just as they had in merry old England. As early as 1700, ordinances were passed to prevent people from throwing waste in the street. Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the founding fathers of the Constitution, and respected professor had the bad luck to have a well with horrible-tasting water in his back yard. The whole town, believing in its medicinal value, flocked to it to cure all kinds of ailments. When the overpumped well went dry, the people learned too late that the well connected to the doctor's privy.

While the " outhouse" became the icon of the American backyard, it was by no means the only method of waste disposal. Both here and abroad, inventions and patents, resulted in improvements in the development of the flush toilet. As early as "1596, Sir John Harrington of England invented a toilet (which he called a water closet) for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I. So many people made fun of his ridiculous-looking contraption that he never built another one." Close to two hundred years would pass before the idea was to again gain popularity. In 1775, London watchmaker Alexander Cummings reinvented the water closet, creating what is known as the "S" trap – a curved piece of pipe that holds standing water – to prevent sewer smells from entering the house. While this did improve the odor problem, it did little to halt the spread of disease. Other innovations followed. In 1777, Samuel Prosser patented the plunger closet. , In 1778, Joseph Bramah created a two piece toilet that employed a hinged valve at the bottom of the bowl. He received a patent for the float and valve flushing system. This principle is still used in today’s toilets. It was however, Thomas Twyford, in 1885, who changed the course of bathroom history by inventing the first one-piece toilet. Twyford's model was also the first constructed of porcelain, much easier to clean than the previous wood or metal models.

Closer to home, at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, visitors can still see his indoor privy with a system of pulleys for servants to empty the pots from his "earth closet." In another display of American ingenuity, William Campbell and James T. Henry received the first American patent for a toilet (called a plunger closet) granted in 1857. Largely unsuccessful improvements continued to be made in the 1870s to 1890s in the search for sanitary "water closet". American designs were generally inferior to English ones and most "water closets" of this period were imported. A wide variety of products was offered including those with decorative bowls, glazed underneath with artistic designs, some even stamped with the names of well known pottery manufacturers.

No discussion of modern toilet history would be complete without reference to the mythology surrounding one Thomas Crapper. Mr. Crapper was a real individual who ran a successful plumbing business in England from 1861 until he retired in 1904. Although he is often mistakenly credited with inventing the toilet, he did hold nine plumbing related patents, three of which were for water closets. Albert Giblin, claimed by some to be an employee of Crapper, held the 1819 British Patent for the Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer, an invention enabling the toilet to flush effectively. The confusion stems from the likelihood that Crapper bought the patent rights from Giblin and marketed the device himself.

A second popular myth is that the word "crap" is derived from Thomas Crapper's name.

There are numerous theories regarding the origin of the word "crap". Webster’s Dictionary indicates the term to have originated around 1897-1898. Other sources suggest possibilities including the Dutch "Krappe"; Low German "krape" meaning a vile and inedible fish; or Middle English "crappy". More likely is the story that World War I doughboys passing through England saw the words T. Crapper-Chelsea printed on toilet tanks and coined the slang term "crapper" for toilet. The mythology is persistent and both stories are frequently heard whenever the subject comes up.

Chicago is credited with having the first comprehensive sewerage project in the country (designed by E. S. Chesbrough in 1885), but it was the city of New York that provided the model for the development of water supply and sewage disposal systems across the country.

"Engineer Julius W. Adams provided the framework upon which modem sewerage is based. In 1857, Adams was commissioned to sewer the city of Brooklyn, which then covered 20 square miles. There was no data available in proportioning sewers for the needs of the people. Yet, working from scratch, Adams developed guidelines and designs that made modem sanitary engineering possible. More importantly, he published the results. By the end of the century, how to textbooks would be available for towns and cities to use all across the country.

The pieces to the puzzle of good plumbing had finally come together proper venting, waterworks and sewers brought the closet indoors to stay. American potters duplicated the successes of their English predecessors, and then some. Finally, the mass production line brought down the cost of production of fixtures, fittings and valves, making them affordable and available from the rich on down. With the final correlation between disease and water borne bacteria the impetus to plumbing was complete."

The pattern we privy diggers see mirrors the history presented above. The archaeological evidence we’ve uncovered shows most 19th century dwellings did not have indoor plumbing, although we occasionally find a property for which no outdoor privy can be located. Beginning around the mid-1850s, a few finer homes had built in "bathrooms". Around the turn of the century we find "flushers", outdoor toilets with clay or iron drain pipes leading into an underground vault, an underground brick structure plastered on the inside and having a exit drain tile near the top. Sometimes flushers were built right on top of older holes, the older hole serving as the septic tank. We often find clay tiles intruding into the earlier privy wall. These tiles, generally put in around the turn of the century, served as an overflow mechanism from the privy hole to the newly built sewers at the street. We regularly find privies, judging from the artifacts, that were still being used well into the 20th century. Many holes yield screw top bottles some bearing the inscription "Federal Law Forbids Reuse or Resale of this bottle", indicating a date well into the 1930’s. Rural areas took even longer to update waste disposal methods.

For hundreds of years the privy provided not only a place for elimination of wastes, but also a convenient place to deposit trash. Across the nation the pattern is ubiquitous. In the early privies, those dating before 1840, we find very little in the way of artifacts, usually only organic waste (kitchen scrapes, bones and seeds), window glass, and shards of pottery or porcelain. Containers were valuable. Glass was reused or sent back to factory for cullet (broken glass used by the glass factories to start a new batch). Wholesale dumping of household trash, based on our archaeological evidence, began increasing around the 1840s - 1850s commensurate with the rise in industrial capability. As people began to accumulate greater and greater quantities of refuse we find greater quantities of these artifacts in the outhouse. With the rise in the incidence of indoor plumbing, other places had to be found for dumping, hence the increase in the number of town and city dumps. In my experience, the bunk of bottles and artifacts taken from dumps date to the last twenty years of the 19th century.

The warmth and comfort we take for granted today seems luxurious compared to the drafty confines of the outhouse. Many a time I have pictured some poor soul making a trip to the backyard in the dead of winter. Perhaps it is just as well that people’s private habits remain buried. Nevertheless, as a privy digger, I consider myself fortunate to have the pleasure and opportunity to dig into America’s past.


The Secrets of Privy Digging:              Privy Secrets and Little Known Facts

Sources: Plumbing and Mechanical, July 1987, July 1988, June 1993

The reader wishing even more information on this topic is referred to Plumbing and Mechanical which has a ten article series on the history of plumbing.