The (Not So) Good (Smelling) Old Days

By Larry Coffin

For the Valley News

Published: 09-22-2017 10:00 PM

The sanitary equipment of the house is an all-important matter, as there is no other feature of the home which will afford more comfort and be so conducive to perfect health as good plumbing.

St. Johnsbury Caledonian, May 23, 1906

From the beginning of human activity, each society has developed norms regarding the disposal of human waste and the cleansing of the body. Some early civilizations developed elaborate structures to meet those needs and others were far more informal about it.

Colonial New Englanders avoided bathing as it opened one to “the ravages of various diseases.” Washing up or sponging off meant cleaning hands and face. That, combined with infrequent changing of clothes, meant that they were blissfully unaware of their own stench.

Most families had an outhouse, called a privy after the Latin word for private. Even village homes had privies until municipal sewage systems were developed in the late 19th century. Area farms were more likely to rely on outhouses into the 20th century. It some cases, the privy was attached to the house and in others located a short distance away as a protection against the smell and well water pollution. This facility, often featuring two or three holes, was located over a pit.

Once a year the farmer would muck out the pit, mix the excrement, sometimes called night soil, with something like sawdust or wood ashes and spread it on the fields as fertilizer. Farmers Almanacs from the 1840s encouraged this practice because the so-called poudrette was “universally wasted.”

The author of a letter in an 1876 edition of Vermont Farmer wrote: “I have seen the manure from a family of eight sufficient to enrich four acres of land fit for any crop.”

A dangerous problem was created when the privy was located near drinking water sources. After 1870, the Vermont Board of Health warned against diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria and dysentery that were being contracted by farm families when sewerage entered their water source.

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In 1871, the report of the board included the following: “At the bottom of the garden, or even further away, stands a temple of defame, the common privy. From this establishment arises in warm weather the vilest smell imaginable; while in winter, cold air blasts through loose boards and also up from under the seat, causing infinite discomfort and danger.”

The New Hampshire Board of Health’s 1885 report added: “The privy is a detestable and dangerous necessity. It is so near the well as to pollute that, so near the kitchen as to lend an odor to that, and so near enough to the parlor to remind us of what is unpleasant.” The report went on to suggest improvements that might mitigate these problems.

Until the introduction of toilet paper, privies often had a pile of corn cobs or catalogs and almanacs available. Cobs were used only when fresh or when boiled to soften them. Publications such as the Sears Roebuck catalog were free and widely available. When changes were made in paper manufacturing in the early 1930s these publications were less suitable.

Joseph Gayetty created the first commercial toilet paper in 1857 and it was advertised as “the greatest necessity of the age.” The Scott Paper Company offered the first rolled toilet paper in 1879. In 1882, the St. Johnsbury newspaper advertised six packs of toilet tissue for 25 cents. In the early 1890s toilet tissue was being manufactured by Bradford’s Waits River Paper Co., and Wells Rivers’ Adams Paper Co. Toilet paper fixtures were stocked in most hardware stores.

By that time, in many households, the toilet and bath were moving indoors. More homes were being built with bathrooms featuring flush toilets connected to indoor plumbing systems. The earlier problem of venting sewer gases was being solved by new valve designs. There were still those who felt that the additional construction cost of a bathroom did not make sense.

Water closets in ordinary homes began to be mentioned in Vermont newspapers after the 1870s. Prior to that they were found only in upscale hotels and the homes of the wealthy and the ads for them were from Boston plumbing outlets.

In the 1880s, water closets featured a high 10-gallon tank suspended above the toilet and operated by a pull chain. In the 1920s, the tank type toilet was introduced, reducing a flush to five to seven gallons. Sears Roebuck offered a basic “modern water closet” for $11.95.

Running water usually meant a gravity feed from a spring or well into a box or tub in the kitchen. By 1900, earlier log pipes were being replaced by ones made of lead. An advertisement for a Vermont farm for sale in 1900 mentioned “running water to the house” as a positive feature. That was a definite advantage over the handpump in the yard.

For many, bathing still meant a washtub in the kitchen. Many bedrooms were equipped with a wash stand or dry sink that held a porcelain pitcher and wash basin and towel rack. The earlier prejudices against bathing were replaced by the realization of the value of washing to prevent disease.

By the late 1880s, companies such as Mott Iron Works began to advertise claw-foot bathtubs. By then the ritual of the Saturday night bath was observed by many. That made sense in anticipation of Sunday church services and weekend visitors.

I interviewed two individuals who grew up in local farm houses and confirmed what is described above. Theresa Cassady Shepard, 89, of Bradford, Vt., grew up three miles from the village of Groton, Vt. From the time she was born in 1928 until she was married and moved to a farm in Piermont in 1947, Shepard lived in a home without indoor plumbing or running water. This condition was primarily the result of not having electricity.

The family backhouse was a two-holer attached to the backside of the woodshed. Each bedroom had a chamber pot. When the pit began to smell, her mother or father would apply lime or sawdust. She said that every spring her father would remove the back of the pit and using a wagon and horses would carry the contents to be spread on the hayfield.

Bathing was usually accomplished in a large galvanized tub set in the kitchen. Water was heated in the reservoir attached to the wood-burning kitchen stove. The tub held only several inches of water. Asked if it was a Saturday night ritual, she said that you took a bath “when you couldn’t stand yourself.” After she bathed and went off to bed, her father would use the same water for his bath.

Otherwise, bathing was with a washcloth and a basin of water for a daily washing up. Water came from a large metal container with gravity feed. Sometimes in the summer, the well would begin to dry up and the family would have to prime the handpump in order to get water for the house.

The 1940 census revealed that nearly half of American houses lacked piped hot water, a bathtub or shower or a flush toilet. Census figures showed that about 29 percent of households in Vermont did not have flush toilets. In New Hampshire, it was about 25 percent of households.

One of those homes was near Sunday Mountain in Orford. My second interview was with a woman who lived there from the 1940s to the early ’60s. She told me they had running water to the kitchen and to a tub in the bathroom, but no flush toilet. Cold water was piped into a holding tank above the kitchen. From there, water flowed into a tank next to the wood stove to be heated.

“Luckily, the outhouse was located off the bathroom that included an enclosed passageway through an unheated area in the back of two sheds. It was a well-crafted two holer on the east corner of the house that looked like a small addition. So that we didn’t have to make the long trek at night, each member of the family was provided with a chamber pot under the bed that was emptied each morning.”

During two recent speaking engagements, I asked for comments about privies and indoor plumbing. Descriptions of the outhouse facilities varied. One person mentioned their childhood outhouse was wall-papered with the same gold paper as the living room.

Some participants responded by telling about the fear of snakes, bees and flies and the need to carry a “spider switch” when visiting the privy. They told of pranks played against the unsuspecting, especially at Halloween. When the topic of wintertime visits was raised, the universal response was “you did what you had to do.”

Those who lived in villages and cities had to deal with sewage on a larger scale and public health concerns led to the decline of urban outhouses. Homes and businesses began to be required to connect to municipal sewer systems. After installing a municipal water system in 1891, the village of Bradford turned to the issue of a sewer system to replace individual cesspools. One result of not having a proper sewer system was the loss to Ludlow of the proposed Vermont Odd Fellows’ Home in 1895.

The first vote to create a village system failed at a special village meeting in 1896. It was not until 1927 that the village voted to construct a sewage system.

As with most municipal systems, raw sewage was flushed into nearby waterways. In the 1950s, the Connecticut River was being described as the “world’s best landscaped sewer.” Until Bradford’s sewage treatment plant began to operate in October 1978, the nearby Waits River received the village sewage.

In 1903, the Vermont Board of Health report contained the following description of the situation in Ryegate: “several sewers running, one down Main street and the others which empty into the bed of the river as it formerly ran … a most filthy and unwholesome place.”

In 1972, and after the State passed legislation to deal with pollution in the state’s waterways, Ryegate voted to acquire land in both East and South Ryegate for sewer treatment sites.

Wells River and Woodsville both used adjacent rivers for sewers until the early 1980s when a treatment plant was built in Woodsville to serve those two villages and portions of North Haverhill.

Until these improvements were made, nearby rivers and lakes were often so polluted as to make them unusable for drinking water. Woodsville Water Works, begun in 1885, suspended using the Ammonoosuc as a source of drinking water in 1906 because of sewage and industrial waste from upriver towns.

Advancements in sewage treatment were also reflected in home facilities. By 1960, the number of New Hampshire and Vermont homes without a flush toilet was less than 8 percent. That was less than half the number of a decade before.

Nationwide, a high percentage of all new homes have 2 or more bathrooms. The National Association of Home Builders has found that buyers like the number of bathrooms “to roughly equal the number of bedrooms.” While that may not be as common in the Upper Valley, selling a house without at least a second half or full bathroom is difficult. High-end bathrooms now feature spa-like amenities — elaborate tubs, luxury showers, heated floors, accent lighting and dual-flush toilets.

There are a number of titles given to what use to be called “the necessity.” The toilet, john, lavatory or the head, the facilities, the loo and the powder room. The latest AARP Bulletin reports that June is National Bathroom Reading Month.

Regardless of what you call the little room and whether or not you have a stack of reading materials nearby, consider how far we have come from the cold and drafty privy in the backyard and the skimpy warm water in a tub in the kitchen. Give regular thanks for that.

Larry Coffin is president of the Bradford, Vt., Historical Society. An earlier version of this article appeared in theBradford Journal-Opinion.