How did people go to the bathroom in the past?
During early years on the frontier, people would go behind a tree or in the woods. Most houses had a chamber pot which was just a round bowl. They would use this pot during the night or when the weather was too bad to go outside.
There were both indoor and outdoor privies, also called outhouses. These small rooms ranged from a hole in the ground with a log across it for sitting, to a raised platform with a hole in the seat. Some privies at inns or even at private houses had multiple holes, or seats, so obviously people used them at the same time. Some even included a child-size seat.
There was no toilet tissue back then. People used leaves, grass, or even dry corn cobs for wiping.
Chamber pots had to be emptied each day. This was usually done by emptying them down the privy hole. With liquid waste, some just threw the contents out in the yard. There are stories of people in the towns being hit by waste from a chamber pot dumped from an open upstairs window.
Water closets first appeared in the 1700s. These early toilets usually had a cistern or tank above to hold water with a pipe running down to the toilet. When the handle was pulled, it opened a trap door sending water to wash the waste into a sewer or cesspool . It didn’t work very well in cleaning all the waste out of the privy and there was no way to keep the smell from the sewer or cesspool from wafting back up.
Sewers had to take the waste somewhere. Today, sewers are connected to sewage treatment plants which remove the impurities and return the water to the system. In the past, sewers usually dumped waste into rivers and streams. Cesspools or privies in the town were often emptied by workers with wagons, who hauled off the waste and dumped it in a pit.
These methods of disposal often caused the outbreak of disease as germs got into the water supply. It wasn’t until 1883 that a scientist found a germ for cholera under the microscope. City and town leaders then learned that good sanitation methods would keep disease from spreading.
Early Nashville settlers had chosen to build Fort Nashboro close to a spring. By 1826, water from the spring was being pumped into the public square reservoir through wooden pipes. Sewers made from brick and clay were constructed in Nashville beginning in 1823. Most dumped into springs and the river.
- Photograph entitled, “cluttered outhouses.” Although this photo was taken in 1905 in New York City, it shows how a city outhouse may have looked in the 1800s. Two side-by-side outhouses are shown as well as the large amount of debris surrounding them. New York Public Library
- Photograph entitled, “man peeking out of an outhouse.” Although this photo was taken in 1900, it shows how an outhouse may have looked in the 1800s. A man can be seen looking out of the outhouse window. Tennessee State Library and Archives
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