But seriously…. World Toilet Day – today, November 19 – is kind of a big deal, considering the vast numbers of people across the globe who do not have access to indoor plumbing. According to the United Nations, 3.6 billion people in the world today do not have a toilet that is “not shared with other households, that either treats or disposes of human waste on site, stores it safely to be emptied and treated off-site, or connects to a functioning sewer.” Nearly 500 million people must practice “open defecation” (PDF) somewhere outside their homes. Ultimately, “life without a toilet is dirty, dangerous, and undignified.” A lack of toilets also deeply impacts people with toilets because “poor sanitation contaminates drinking-water sources, rivers, beaches and food crops, spreading deadly diseases among the wider population.”
Editor’s Note: Looking back in time, people’s personal hygiene, fashion choices, medical treatments, and more can seem disgusting. When confronted with gross practices, our first reaction can be to dismiss our ancestors as primitive, ignorant, or just silly. Before such judgments, however, we should try to understand the reasons behind these practices and recognize that our own descendants will judge some of what we do as gross. Here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, we’ve come to describe our efforts to understand the historically disgusting as “Colonial Grossology.”
At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we’re frequently asked by visitors where the Washington family’s privy (what an outhouse was called in the 1700s) was located. The fact is the Washingtons didn’t have a privy (or a well, for that matter.) We’re often met with looks of disbelief when we pass on this bit of information. Ground penetrating radar conducted at Ferry Farm confirms the lack of a privy and a well, which would have been picked up immediately by this technology. As discussed here and here, the Washingtons and most colonial Virginians used chamber pots to go to the bathroom. Indeed, for this part of Virginia in the 18th century, many households didn’t need a privy.
Sadly, this lack of a specific sanitary place for human waste was a familiar one for those who lived in the 1700s. Because of their poor understanding of germ-caused diseases at the time, 18th century people did not fully appreciate the health dangers presented by human waste. They did make obvious correlations, however. Noting how sick people were getting from drinking water, local colonial governments started enacting laws which prohibited privies from being dug too close to the water table. They also frequently ordered that wells be dug a safe distance from privies.
Privies took many forms before modern plumbing. They could be deep, brick-lined shafts that could go 30 feet or more into the ground with substantial above ground buildings. They could also be made out of a simple wooden barrel placed in the ground with a humble structure above it. Small privies could accommodate one person at a time. Larger privies could potentially have eight seats or more (and not much privacy).
Regardless, privies had to be emptied at some point and it was some nasty business. Probably the most unglamorous job prior to indoor plumbing was that of the night soil men. Sounds scary, and it is. These workers descended into the depths of a privy and scooped the contents into wagons that were carted away. They did this at night usually because most neighborhood citizens would rather be asleep when that terrible smell wafted around. Usually, this human waste would be carted to local farms and sold as fertilizer (yep).
Who were the night soil men at Ferry Farm? Well, the Washingtons owned some 20 enslaved workers. Invariably, some enslaved, typically children, were tasked with emptying chamber pots and fetching water. They dumped chamber pots in the area behind the Washington house that archaeologists call the “midden.” This was a trash pile where everything from human waste to table scraps to broken household items was thrown away. Enslaved workers also fetched water for the Washingtons from a spring and stream, not far from the Rappahannock River, at the base of the bluff where the house stood. Every day, these workers made multiple trips up and down the hill carrying heavy wooden buckets probably hanging from each end of a carrying pole or “milkmaid’s yoke.” Hence no need for an outside toilet or well.
But a privy was not just a toilet. Like the Washington’s backyard midden, most privies were also used to dispose of any garbage from a house or institution. This means food waste, broken pottery, bottles, and sometimes much more scandalous items were thrown into that void only to be brought up again by the night soil men. Often, when a privy had degraded to the point where it was no longer draining properly or was falling in on itself, it was abandoned with all of the precious garbage sealed within. Wells were treated the same way. Once they had lived out their life, they were filled in with the lovely broken things that archaeologists love to look for. While unsanitary for their original users, historic privies plus wells can be a treasure trove of information for us today.
Privies. Chamber pots. Thankfully, they were necessities for our ancestors but not for most of us today. That said, there are still many people in our 21st-century world who must go to the bathroom as if it were still the 18th century. On this World Toilet Day, let’s hope more can be done for the health and dignity of people without safe and sanitary toilets.
Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist
Manager of Public Programs