New Hampshire: The Privy’s Murky History

Death and taxes are traditionally considered to be two of life’s inevitable occurrences.

To this I’ll add a third: the daily act of producing human waste.

Before toilet paper was invented and became widely available, the method of self-cleaning varied. Wealthy people used “wool, lace or hemp ablutions, while the not so wealthy either used their hands and water or various materials like rags, wood shavings, leaves, sticks grass, hay, stone, sand, moss, water, snow, dried corn cobs, and corn husks.” As time passed, and other resources became available, waste paper (such as old newspaper) was also used.

The earliest form of commercially sold toilet paper in the United States was introduced in 1857 but it wasn’t in general use until about 1880.  This made me start thinking about the condition of people’s under garments.  No wonder they were called “unmentionables.”

The earliest New Hampshire bathrooms were any spot that was most convenient in the great outdoors, graduating to dry pit latrines. The most rudimentary type would be uncovered, but as time passed it developed into a small covered building, often called an “outhouse” [aka privy, back-house, waste-house, closet, john, jake, crapper, outdoor plumbing, sanitary, closet, one-holer, or two-holer etc, outdoor toilet, and bucket toilet].

For those who preferred to spend those private moments indoors, a bowl or pot was used to collect the specimens, that were later emptied into the home’s privy, or even into the garden, or a nearby woods.  This container was called a “chamber pot” [aka commode, pot, potty, thunder jug, night bowl].

With New Hampshire’s growing population, and thusly an increase in “night-soil” (as human sewage was referred to in older times, continuing to this day), problems arose regarding its odor and tendency to be a source of disease. Men were hired to dig out, and cart away this human product, into the country.

Some people attempted to capitalize on the growing problem of refuse disposal. In 1856 Amherst NH’s “Farmers Cabinet” advertised Poudrette and Tafeu, specialty manures manufactured by the Lodi Manufacturing Co., and composed of (or should I say decomposed of) “contents of the Sinks and Privies of New-York City, and free from offensive odor.” Poudrette was composed of two-thirds night soil and one third decomposed vegetable fibre. Tafeu was composed of three-fourths night soil and one-fourth No. 1 Peruvian Guano.  James F. Shores Jr. of Portsmouth NH was the local sales agent. [Did you ever hear of the United States “Guano Wars”? Be sure to click on the link to “Peruvian Guano” to learn more.]

In 1857 the outside “privies” were removed and “water closets” were
installed indoors, in New Hampshire’s State House in Concord, New Hampshire.

In 1866 the NH Medical Society printed an extensive report stating that chemical disinfectants did not lessen the “poisonous influences” of the outhouse. Also in that year the Farmer’s Cabinet, printed in Amherst NH offered several chemical solutions to “destroy the foulest of smells.”  In this same year descriptions of privies include the following sizes: 10×15 feet, and 24×18 feet.  Outhouses many times had more than one seat.  It was not uncommon for homes with large families to have an outhouse with seats in both adult and child sizes.

Eventually toilet technology produced pour-flush latrines, and perforated toilet paper rolls.  The current New Hampshire generation generally has little knowledge of the culture of outhouse use.

Early-American privies can be wonderful resource for today’s archaeologists. In 1964 a privy in the vicinity of the Pitt Tavern in Portsmouth NH was excavated.  Because artifacts that were thrown into privies were thrown into a relatively “soft” environment, and not tread upon, they tend to be much larger that those found elsewhere, and can often be reassembled into nearly complete objects.  Also, the privy was a natural location for buttons or buckles, coins and keys to be separated from their owners, fall into the hole, and not be retrieved. Since glass bottles were often thrown into a privy hole, collectors sometimes view old outhouse sites as a collector’s paradise.

In June of 2005 a New Hampshire man made headlines for being charged with criminal trespass and disorderly conduct after being found in the vault of an outhouse.  Apparently he climbed into a U.S. Forest Service log cabin privy in Albany NH (there’s no door to enter the vault section, so he had to climb in through the “hatch”). A young lady who was trying to use the outhouse heard a noise, looked in the tank and saw the face of Gary Moody.  Yikes!  The police said he was so badly covered with excrement, that they had to treat him as hazardous waste, and decontaminate him.  Gary said he was looking for a wedding ring, but he pleaded no contest and was fined $1,000, plus $700 in restitution to the U.S. Forest Service, and has to stay off national forest land for two years. If he behaves well for two years, a 30 day sentence in the House of Correction will be suspended.

Janice Brown

P.S. Information about New Hampshire’s privy history is scarce. In earlier days, it was a topic that was not often discussed outside a family’s immediate circle, nor was it written about.

**Additional Reading**

-Mentioning the Unmentionable: Naughty Words for Bloggers-

Under the Outhouse

Vintage Outhouse Postcards [Postcard Museum]

Dirty & Slovenly to a Degree

Antique New Hampshire 1800s Outhouses (Photographs)

Frequently Asked Questions about Outhouses

Washington Sat Here

History of Plumbing in America

-History Beneath Our Feet-

-Industry Info: Toilet Paper

Toilet Paper Curiosities

Toilet Paper, Mentioning the Unmentionable

A Fancy NH Outhouse (photo)

Building the Perfect Privvy

Man Pulled from Woman’s Outhouse Tank

He Fell Into a Ring of Mire

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One Response to New Hampshire: The Privy’s Murky History

  1. Janice you certainly researched this murky history of the unmentionable! I do always enjoy your writings and the use of words! What a subject we all wrote on but it was interesting!

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