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Sanitation Reform and Class Prejudice

Sanitation for most millworker households at the turn of the century, and for decades to follow, involved a long-standing reliance on privies. These practices persisted even as municipal sewer systems literally began to develop around them (Pena and Denmon 2000). Archaeologist M. Jay Stottman (2000:57) suggests that privies “may have attained some symbolic meaning of sanitation to those who used them for so long...” and “...had become a cultural institution, from which stories, jokes, myths, and folklore were created.”

As for privies [in Schoolfield], at first they contained large buckets under the seats, but afterwards a so-called “honey wagon,” maneuvered by a stoic, black and mysterious driver, went through the back alleys about the task of removing the waste from the cement tanks under the seats to haul to the river. Anyone who lived there will remember forever Hambone, who sat majestically above the “honey wagon” with his nose stuck high in the air, for more reasons than one.... It was said that one day the driver dropped his coat into the contents of his wagon. He went to the rescue but his helper said “Leave it alone. It was old anyway, wudn’t it? “Yeah,” replied the driver, “but it had my lunch in the pocket” (Thompson 1984:26).

It was known that the refusal or inability to change could have dire health consequences. Middle-class politicians and business leaders understood that “filth diseases” were caused by poor waste disposal practices and contaminated drinking water, but they were also instilled with the notion that the working poor were harbingers of disease, lacking the moral and intellectual fortitude to take care of themselves (Cain 1879; Carnes-McNaughton and Harper 2000:102). This characterization often led to complacency on the part of community leaders and restricted the poor’s access to municipal sewerage. Studies have shown that status influenced the order in which particular sections of a city received services (Pena and Denmon 2000:84). Typically, the working poor, or laboring class who lived in tenements, were the last to benefit from municipal systems such as water and sewer. “A water company runs its pipes only to those streets which will pay; the poor cannot pay, and no stream flows to gladden their sight, to allay their thirst, or bath their bodies. Every drop that flows has its price, and as it falls is watched with as jealous an eye as if it were expected that it would congeal into a diamond” (Newman 1856:23, quoted from Pena and Denmon 2000:84).