Livy and the Privy

Private Sanitation in Colonial America and Beyond

Young America Post #4

Titus Livius (59 B.C to 17 A.D.), known to us as ‘Livy,’ was not the most popular Latin author of the eighteenth century. That’s the reason that pages of his tome, Rome, were more often seen at ‘reading sites’ of the eighteenth century than, say, those of Virgil or Cicero. It’s a matter of little debate whether they were used for reading or more urgent purposes.

Bathroom tissue?

Some years ago I was guest professor at a new seminary in a communist eastern European country whose sole acknowledgement of one of the main necessities of life was a small, three-sided, covered wooden structure whose fourth side was an opening that faced a ten-foot tall brick wall about four feet away. In the absence of what television commercials euphemistically call ‘bathroom tissue’ (a sweetening of the concept ‘toilet paper,’ a phrase nobody had used until 1857), they used pages of unread books. Or perhaps they had been read in the past but nobody was reading them much any longer. And never after that.

In the seventeen-hundreds, paper was also not a requirement. Sometimes a corncob would do just as well. Or maybe it would just have to do. Of course, if you lived near a forest there was no need for luxuries such as the convenience structure mentioned above. It was nice to have them in the winter, I imagine, or if you had a lot of reading to catch up on, but not necessary. They had many different names. They were outhouses, backhouses, johnny houses, earth closets, jakes, and a variety of less savory names related to what occurred there. Or maybe they weren’t less savory, but you wouldn’t put those names in a respectable blog.

Where it ended up

They did know something about quarantine in those days, as evidenced by the fact that they isolated victims of smallpox and yellow fever. They did not, however, realize that more disease was conveyed through human waste than through airborne particles or touch. It was not a sanitary time. Those of us who live in developed countries have little appreciation of the modesty and discretion that can be swept away on the wave of necessity. Waste was dropped by children wherever they happened to be, and by adults wherever they could find a somewhat private place or time. It showed up in the streets, yes, but also in back gardens, in bushes near public buildings, and in many places where one wouldn’t expect it.

Which, in turn, caused it to show up on shoes, on hands that removed the shoes, on clothing, on vegetables from the kitchen gardens, in drinking water, and in numerous other places. Given that water had to be drawn from wells and brought into houses (almost no indoor plumbing of any sort for anyone until after 1840 –– though the White House had installed running water on the main floor in 1833), produce was unlikely to be washed. Presumably, cooking it in boiling water would kill some bacteria, but bacteria remained on anything eaten raw. A contemporary sanitation specialist estimated that “people who live in areas of inadequate sanitation ingest 10 grams of fecal matter every day,” (quoted by Rose George, The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters, 2008). It would have been no different at the time of, say, George Washington’s inauguration in March, 1789.

Banks of privies?

Reticence to speak of these matters has caused us to have little documentation of the nature of sanitation for meeting places such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Perhaps, like some churches I attended in communist Europe, they had banks of privies behind the buildings. Probably not many discreet conferences going on there, however.

Yet they got things done––for example, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, the National Bank, the appropriation of funds for the first six American frigates. Now using the ‘latrine’ on those babies was another matter. To be left for another time. But you can be sure, in any case, that they had no clean stalls, no ‘bathroom tissue,’ and no privacy. I guess, at least in that department, we’ve come a little ways since their time.

1 thought on “Livy and the Privy”

  1. So glad we have come a long ways since those times–but that is not in every country. As per your examples, there are still many countries where necessary actions still happen in extremely basic privy conditions.


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