The Scoop on Poop

Public Sanitation in Colonial America and Beyond

Young America Post #3

In the mid-1980’s while teaching graduate students in Amsterdam, I was taking a walk with a colleague one day when he stepped in something squishy. It turned out to be an artifact left on the sidewalk by a local dog. But the dog was not at fault for leaving it there. Nor were the thousands of other dogs who dotted the landscape with similar offerings.

Imposing sanitation

“It’s a national disgrace!” he cried in annoyance. Actually, it was more like a continental disgrace since the situation was the same in virtually all European cities I’d visited. A statistic I read (whose source I promptly forgot) indicated that tens of tons of doggy detritus were collected daily in Paris at about the same time. It was not hard to believe. There was no sidewalk in any major city where you didn’t have to watch your step carefully. Paris passed laws not long after that imposing stiff fines on dog-owners who didn’t pick up after their pets. I guess it helped a little.

And then there were horses. You remember all those lines of horse-drawn carriages with whip-carrying drivers waiting for unsuspecting tourists to take rides? You had to watch out for what they left behind as well. Nowadays, most urban horses have little poop-carriers attached to their hindquarters to prevent them from leaving presents on the streets. But not then. It was an olfactory cornucopia.

Walking down the street in 1790

But nothing compared to the 1700s and the early 1800s. Besides which, of course, the streets back then weren’t paved. I’ve walked on streets in formerly communist countries where the mud was two or three inches deep. I’ll never forget the squosh, squosh sound that accompanied those walks. You had to make sure every time you lifted a foot that it was still carrying a shoe. And there was also the danger of losing ones footing, as one of my eastern European colleagues did, and falling––to get up and try vainly to scrape the mud off his new suit. Now if you mix into that mud a bit of what horses leave, goats and sheep leave, and don’t forget the ‘free range’ chickens (which most of them were in those days), the geese, the ducks, and the night-time human poop and piddle thrown out windows of the houses lining the streets right up to the sidewalks (if there were any), and you have a sticky, fragrant mixture no one really wants to contend with.

Training the nose

Yet they did. This was life. Additionally, on those muddy streets you might throw in a few rats, hogs, dogs, and raccoons to make it more realistic, as well as fluttering seagulls if you were anywhere near the sea, broken crockery, ashes, rotting vegetables, rancid meat, sour milk, and anything else you can think of that was sharp and stinky––as well as things you’ve never thought of. You don’t have to ask if it smelled bad. To us, it would be over-powering.

But to them…? One author (Katherine Ashenburg, The Dirt on Clean, 2007) alludes to a quotation from St. Bernard who said ‘where all stink, no one smells.’ She also noted, “The nose is adaptable, and teachable.” This was their life, but they didn’t see it. They didn’t smell it. They’d never been without it. So when you read my historical novels––or anyone’s for that matter––keep this miasma in mind. But also remember that it did not appear to them in the same way it would appear to us.

They didn’t know the connection between waste products and disease. Street cleaning and sanitation didn’t begin in earnest until almost the end of the nineteenth century. But our forebearers in the eighteenth century survived. Or at least enough of them survived to provide the basis for today’s civilization. Though it is almost never mentioned in literature, just keep in mind that living with the outcome of the ‘carbon cycle,’ i.e. bodies, was a bit more complex to them than it is for us. And a lot less pleasant. Figure that into the time and effort it took to do anything, and you’ll have a better feel for the life of the founders of our country.

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