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.
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.