Latest about COVID-19 and W&M's Path Forward.

Info for... William & Mary
William & Mary W&M menu close William & Mary

Front Street Privies (Outhouses)

Privies in the Front Street yards probably resembled the one in the drawings.Efforts were underway in Danville at the close of the nineteenth century to improve public health. Civic and business leaders recognized the need to fight the spread of disease and insure the health and economic survival of the community. One such action was the City Council’s resolution for mandatory vaccination to fend off a smallpox epidemic that struck the region in the late 1890s. Danville’s population was deemed highly vulnerable to the disease due to the general transience of mill workers (Beardsley 1987:46). The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a time of increasing public awareness of health and sanitation, as was expressed in local advertisements and lighthearted humor. Development of Danville’s sewer system at the close of the nineteenth century was intended to address the rising concern. However, the course of sewer expansion in North Danville excluded the mill tenements along Front Street, much as it did in Schoolfield.

In urban areas, health reformers recommended privies with removable pails.City Council records suggest that Danville’s emerging sanitation system was available to some owners of “improved” properties in the vicinity of Front Street by the turn of the century, but it was not accessible to Front Street’s occupants until decades later. The expanding water and sewer systems permitted indoor “water closets” to replace “earth closets” or privies. The number of privies that remained may have been quite large, however, and required regulation because of potential health threats. The major concern was their potential to contaminate cisterns, wells, and the Dan River, all of which were sources of water for city residents. Although sources of contamination were known, it may have been thought that access to the municipal water system early on helped to diminish the threat for tenants along Front Street and in Schoolfield, and may have (along with cost considerations) contributed to the lack of initiative on the part of the mill to buy into the sewer system.

The abandonment and filling of the service alley behind 44PY181 sometime between 1920 and the late 1940s may reflect diminishing maintenance services by the company, and its desire to end the “burdens of operating a real estate business and supervising the living conditions of...workers” (Mitchell 1968:vii). Concrete footings/foundations were added to some privies as these were either rebuilt or replaced, but the privies themselves were not superseded by sanitary sewers until after the mill sold the properties around 1950. Abandonment dates of privy-related deposits and features indicate that several of these features were probably utilized and/or abandoned as late as the 1940s and 1950s. The late abandonment dates indicate that periodic cleaning must have occurred, but the presence of numerous slop holes suggest lapses in maintenance. Tenants were forced to seek other options for the disposal of their waste.

Privies with removable pails were regularly collected by a scavenger or 'slop' wagon The excavation of privies at Sites 44PY178 and 44PY181 provides clues about their construction costs and potential hazards. The relatively shallow depths of the privies were probably due in part to difficulties posed by cutting into the underlying bedrock, and cost considerations for the mill, which required regular maintenance as stipulated in the ordinances for continued use and a more sanitary environment. These Front Street privies do not appear to have met the design standards advocated by early twentieth-century health reformers for “sanitary urban privies,” which utilized a pail system. The examples at Sites 44PY178 and 44PY181 probably resembled a less expensive and less sanitary type proposed for rural use. Shallow privies like those on the Front Street properties were also cheaper to build than deeper versions, but were usually more expensive over the long term due to higher cleaning costs. The use of wood lining, as opposed to brick or some other lasting material, reflects a limited financial investment. Historian Nell C. Thompson noted that privies in Schoolfield used the pail system initially and later, concrete tanks. Wood lining in the shallow Front Street privies may have been considered sufficient, where stability (for cleaning purposes) was not essential. The traditional perception in the nineteenth century was that deep privies were more sanitary and more sociably acceptable because deposits were “out of sight, out of mind.” Although deep privies reduced the frequency of cleaning, these frequently contaminated groundwater. Some privies were even intentionally dug beneath the water table so deposits could be flushed out naturally (Stottman 2000:55). Privies were rarely intended to be leak proof, even those lined with brick. The use of brick allowed for greater depth, and increased stability for cleaning purposes.

The privies at the Front Street sites were more basic, following a less expensive and less sanitary design recommended for rural areas. Many of these shallow privies at Front Street were lined with wood rather than more durable brick.Research on other sites has shown that shallow privies, like those at 44PY178 and 44PY181, were actually more sanitary and environmentally sound if regularly cleaned (Stottman 2000:54). The many slop holes clustered around the privies at 44PY178 and 44PY181 suggest that the amount of waste exceeded privy capacities, however, and households had to resort to disposal into informal pits. The occupants probably cleaned overflowing privies themselves and deposited the excess waste into pits, as well as waste from slop jars sent from the house (Thompson 1984:26). Considerable effort went into digging them based upon their overall size and the fact that many cut well into bedrock. Most of these pits appear to have been left open for short periods of time and were used more than once based upon their depths and fill characteristics. Tenants in New York City nearly a half-century earlier disposed of waste in a similar fashion to those along Front Street, although perhaps a little more indiscriminately. Sanitary inspector Dr. Robert Newman observed in 1866:

Perhaps one-half of these [tenant] houses have well-arranged drainage pipes throughout, for the removal of house-slops, which arrangement works well if the sewerage is good, and the sewers not blocked up. But if the former evils are superadded to bad sewerage, the locality is rendered insalubrious by foul emanations, stagnant water, etc. The tenants of houses without house-drainage generally throw their house-slops indiscriminately anywhere into the streets, alleys, courts, yards, and sometimes even into cellars and passages (Wade 1970:151).

The economic circumstances of the households at Sites 44PY178 and 44PY181 may have been such that they could not afford to have their privies cleaned regularly, or the company failed to do so. Schoolfield had a sanitation staff, so the mill probably provided this service for its Front Street tenants (Thompson 1984:26, 27). The city appears to have provided this service to its residents for a fee, though it is not clear how long it continued to do so (DCCP MR#537; Danville’s General Ordinances 1907). As the city tried to eliminate privies and provide sewer hookup in the decade prior to World War II, it may have become increasingly difficult to find scavengers to do the work on a regular basis. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that some privies on Sites 44PY178 and 44PY181 continued in use as late as the early 1950s. A 1949 Sanborn insurance map indicates a sewer line on the Front Street properties. However, City Council minutes from April 10, 1953, contain a resolution for the appropriation of funds “to cover the cost of sewer main on Lower Keen Street.” This suggests that the Front Street properties may not have been connected to the sewer system until the early 1950s, over a half a century after the first families made Front Street their home. Similarly, the Schoolfield community did not receive a sewer system until annexed by Danville in 1951 (Hoffman 1985: Ella Paxton interview). Years earlier, in 1923, “consideration [by the mill] was given to the construction of a sewer system but the residents declined because of the higher rent costs that would result” (Thompson 1984:25).