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Archaeology
of a
San Francisco Neighborhood

This Web site was funded by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

It was created by Anthropological Studies Center (ASC).

Sanitation

 

In the days before flushing toilets, every house would have had its privy, or outdoor pit toilet. Privies were holes in the ground, generally a few feet deep and lined with wood. In towns and cities they were dug along the rear boundary fence, as far from the house as was possible. A privy was generally not fancy, with only a seat for comfort, a lid to stifle the odors, and an outhouse around it for privacy. The privy outhouses were familiar features along the rear boundary lines of house lots in nineteenth-century American towns and cities. As the privy filled up, it was often 'mucked out', and the material carted off for uses such as fertilizer.

Chamber pots like the ones in these images were an essential part of the privy system. They were used during the night, by children and by those who were too sick or the infirm to venture outside to the privy itself. Chamber pots were made of ceramic, generally white in color and often came with lids. They could be sold in matching toilet sets that included a wash basin, water ewer, soap dish and slop bowl. Unlike the rest of the toilet set however, the chamber pot was kept hidden in cupboards, commodes, washstands, or in the poorest of households, possibly under the bed.

Once a house lot was connected to town water and sewage, the privy was often abandoned for the convenience of facilities closer to the house and less pungent in odor. In the absence of city garbage services, abandoned privy holes became favorite dumping sites for household refuse. Privy holes filled with household refuse are among the most useful archaeological features sought by archaeologists working in a city, since their artifacts provide insights into the lives of the people who used them. Once the privy was abandoned, associated items such as chamber pots were also discarded. Frequently, a family's chamber pots were themselves thrown down the abandoned privy hole, their broken pieces to be later excavated and reconstructed by archaeologists

The information on this web page was based on a more extensive essay on sanitation in a section of Chapter 5: "From Chamber Pots to Privies that Flush", a chapter in Putting the “There” There: Historical Archaeological of West Oakland. The complete report is available for free download here.

 


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