Saturday, February 6, 2021

Where Did All the Outhouses Go?

If you are old enough, or perhaps if you grew up in the country, you probably knew and used an outhouse (also called privy or biffy) somewhere—perhaps at a summer cabin if nowhere else. Often a modest, wooden structure situated a distance from the house, preferably down wind, the outhouse was a necessity for the pioneers of early Grinnell who lived in a world without city water or a sanitary sewer. Most privies were built atop a vault dug into the earth; an elevated seat and a door that would close gave users some comfort and privacy while they attended to nature's call. A variation looked much the same, but had no excavated vault beneath it; instead, a pail stood beneath the seat to collect excretions (which someone had to empty periodically). Often outhouse owners hid their privies, planting flowers or sweet-smelling bushes around the building, hoping thereby to obscure the structure and mask the odors that inevitably attached to outhouses. My grandfather, for instance, had honeysuckle growing around his privy, but some owners preferred lilacs or tall blooms like hollyhocks to help hide the outhouse from view.

Modern photo of a rural outhouse (not hidden by bush or flowers)

For obvious reasons, outhouses within a growing town like early Grinnell raised problems: the greater the concentration of people, the greater the concentration of outhouses—and outhouse output. Furthermore, outhouse pits might contaminate the shallow wells often dug in areas where the water table was high, as it has long been in Grinnell. Privies also attracted flies which might then carry infectious disease from the outhouses into living quarters. Consequently, by the end of the nineteenth century, as infectious disease overran towns like Grinnell, public health officials increasingly called for an end to outhouses.

Today's post looks at the outhouses of early Grinnell, and how they disappeared a century ago.


If you look around today's Grinnell, you will find no outhouses—city ordinance prohibits them. Even finding a photograph of Grinnell's privies of yesteryear is almost impossible; a phenomenon that was obviously essential and ubiquitous in early Grinnell is barely documented and apparently rarely photographed. How, then, can we prove that Grinnell had outhouses?

Experts tell us that rectangular depressions in the backyard or the discovery of areas where plants grow extravagantly might point to the sites of former privies, and metal-detecting probes sometimes identify the location of former outhouses. Archeologists have used all these methods to find evidence of old outhouse sites, since privy vaults—which were often filled with all manner of household trash—have yielded some fascinating finds. Another avenue of discovery lies with Sanborn insurance maps, drawn to identify buildings and the risks of fire that their construction or business might pose. However, not all old Sanborn maps show outhouses—typically small, one-story structures built of wood—presumably because these unimposing, unheated structures did not represent much threat of fire; workers tasked with drawing up the maps were no doubt happy to skip checking out these stinky little backyard conveniences. Happily, some late nineteenth-century Sanborn maps do depict outhouses (although without identifying labels), and early Grinnell maps are part of that group. 

The November 1883 Sanborn map of downtown Grinnell, for instance, shows that behind most of the businesses on Commercial, Broad, Main, and Fourth Avenue there stood, along with barns, storage sheds, and other minor buildings, small, wooden, one-story structures that must have been outhouses. Businessmen stuck at their stores or workers putting in full days at a factory needed a toilet, of course; in the era that preceded flush toilets, nearby privies were essential.

November 1883 Sanborn Map of Grinnell Commercial District; arrows point to likely outhouses

The demand was no less important at home, where an entire family had to devise a means for dealing with urination and defecation. In late nineteenth-century Grinnell, privies stood in almost every yard, as the rare, surviving testimony confirms. Martin Pearce (1916-98), for example, told interviewers in 1992 that when he was a boy, "The whole south end of the town of Grinnell...every house had an outhouse behind it down on the alley" ("Voices of the Past," Gene Breiting (1913-99) recalled that, when he was a boy living on Pearl Street, "There were a lot of least in the areas where we were there were six outhouses behind the houses there" ("Voices of the Past," 

Often the small structures were distanced from the house, perhaps situated against the rear lot line; the biffy might stand alone, but sometimes it was built adjacent to a wood shed or small barn (where one's horse was adding to the quantity of poop). Breiting remembered about his family home that "to the rear end of the lot were the wood shed and coal shed and outhouse, [and-DK] we had a plank for our walkway" through the backyard (ibid.). Siting the biffy away from the house provided privacy and kept unwanted smells distant.

1893 Sanborn map of Grinnell; arrows point to likely outhouses in one block of residential Grinnell

John Nollen (1869-1952), who hailed from Pella but was Grinnell College president from 1932 to 1940, recalled a similar arrangement at his Pella boyhood home.
Our childhood home is quite clear in my mind...The house was heated by stoves...and lighted by kerosene bathroom, no plumbing, a cistern behind the house for "soft water," a well in front, remote from contamination, for drinking and cooking water...A 'privy' the back yard (John Scholte Nollen, A History of Grinnell College Through 1952 [Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1953], p. 233).
No doubt the pioneers of Grinnell were accustomed to privies, but as the town grew, city fathers looked for ways to eliminate outhouses. Waves of infectious disease like cholera and typhoid—both of which were common in nineteenth-century Iowa—helped drive founding of the Iowa State Board of Health in 1880. The Board of Health, in turn, encouraged Iowa communities to clean up. In Grinnell the first efforts to improve local sanitation came in the 1890s with the installation of the first water lines and the first sanitary sewer.
Before city water arrived in Grinnell, most townsfolk had to find their own water. Many houses boasted cisterns which would collect "soft" rain water. Depending upon where the cistern stood, homeowners could arrange plumbing to bring the water into kitchens or baths. For example, at the Henry Watters house at 334 East Street, the cistern was in the basement. Recalling the house she moved into in 1902, Sara McIlrath Maurer (1890-1973) described the cistern:
It was a large round wooden tank on top of the [basement] floor, and filling the space directly under the kitchen. In the rainy seasons we had to watch and turn the water off outside, lest the tank get too full and run over...In the kitchen above there was a cistern pump worked by hand at the east end of the boxed in, dark cast-iron sink.... (Sara McIlrath Maurer, "334 Elm Street," January 1963, p. 2; Local History Archive, Drake Community Library)
Cisterns were an invaluable source of water that was suitable for bathing and washing. And when rain fell hard, cisterns might fill quickly, as happened in late July 1911 when Grinnell recorded 1.56 inches of rain in one hour (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, August 1, 1911); in June 1913 the town was drenched with 4.75 inches of rain, flooding streets and filling cisterns (ibid., June 7, 1913). So long as rainfall was generous, Grinnell households enjoyed a plentiful supply of rain water, but when drought hit central Iowa, as it did several times in the late nineteenth century, cisterns went dry. A December 1889 article in the Grinnell Herald, for example, reported that "the water [supply] question is again getting serious hereabouts. A great many wells and cisterns are dry and water for stock is scarce" (December 3, 1889).

Missouri Valley Times, December 21, 1899

This circumstance encouraged Grinnell homeowners to drill their own wells; with a high water table, Grinnell wells need not have been deep, but the ubiquity of outhouses in town presented a constant risk to well water. As the authors of the 1912 U.S. Geological Survey paper pointed out,
Shallow dug wells, walled as they generally are by brick or tile, that permit the inflow of water from top to bottom, are usually unsafe in a town or even in the country unless they are well protected from contamination by kitchen or household waste, privies, drainage from stable yards, and all similar sources of pollution...Infectious material is likely to enter it at any time...the undoubtedly in direct proportion to the prevalence of privy vaults, cesspools, badly drained streets, and decaying garbage (W. H. Norton, et al., Underground Water Resources of Iowa [Washington, DC: Government Printing office, 1912], p. 196)
All these considerations drove city officials to commission a city water system that would be immune to surface contaminants.

The first step was to acquire a water source, and in 1892 Grinnell authorized drilling the first of several deep wells that reached into the Jordan (technically, the Cambrian-Ordovician) Aquifer. Dug to a depth of nearly 2000 feet, Grinnell's first well was estimated to produce "150,000 gallons of water suitable for culinary and mechanical use" (Water and Sewage Works 4[1893]:122). Because planners originally figured that a deep well that penetrated below clay and shale need not be cased, the first well had a short life, the walls soon collapsing. A second well was drilled in 1901, the drill bit pushing deeper than 2000 feet (ibid.,  21[1901]:54). A third well was sunk in 1906 (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, November 10, 1906), and a fourth opened in 1910 (ibid., January 25, 1910). These last two wells were both encased with six-inch cast iron pipe (Leonard Fletcher, History of Poweshiek County, 2 vols. [Chicago, 1911], 1:366).  Storage of sufficient water supply was also important, so that, as early as 1903, the city proposed erection of a 116-foot water tower. An innovation was the use of compressed air to pump water from the wells, a development admired by other communities then contemplating new water sources (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 9, 1907).

Illustration of the Jordan (Cambrian-Ordovician) Aquifer from which Grinnell gets its water

Once a reliable source of water was established, city officials began the expensive process of laying pipe so that individual properties could connect to the system. In 1894 Grinnell solicited bids on laying "four miles of water mains along with forty-five hydrants, one elevated tower and one surface reservoir" (Water and Sewage Works 6[1894]:93). 

1898 Grinnell Sanborn Map depiction of Grinnell Water Works, 2nd & Main

Some of the earliest water hook-ups in Grinnell occurred along Broad, Park, and High streets. For example, in November 1894 the city connected residences at 1011 and 1127 Broad, at 833 and 904 High, and at 1019 Park Street. Every year thereafter more and more Grinnell homes joined the city water system. A 1914 city ordinance required any properties possessing a "water closet" to join the city system (and pay the city for the water). Some factories resisted initially, claiming that their use of the Arbor Lake soft water relieved them of the need to connect to the city system, but the courts ruled otherwise (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, May 27, 1914). 
Chicago Hall, built 1883; razed 1958

With a supply of water at hand, the next step was to provide a city sewer system that would eliminate the many Grinnell outhouses and their nasty cousins, "dry closets," which collected body waste until someone emptied them. Waldo Walker's 1997 timeline of Grinnell College buildings reported that in 1895-96 the college treasurer told trustees that "if the contemplated city sewer is put in this summer, we can rid ourselves of the intolerable stench of Chicago Hall which accompanies the dry closets on the second and third floors" (, p. 13). Exactly when Chicago Hall joined the city sewer system is unclear, but its neighbor, Blair Hall, was connected to the city sewer only in 1903 (Scarlet and Black, April 18, 1903).

In 1895 the city moved forward with plans for installing a sanitary sewer. Opposition to the sewer emerged immediately, opponents going to court to restrain the city "council from assessing the cost of constructing the sewer to the abutting property" (Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, August 10, 1895). Litigation slowed construction, but by 1902 the city could report having made 279 connections to its new sanitary sewer. Nevertheless, there were serious problems. Because the city had "no natural drainage system," planners opened the discharge into Little Bear Creek, which flowed east away from Grinnell, making its way to Malcom. After a rather dry year, "the collection of sewage along the banks of this stream has become most offensive," a Grinnell correspondent reported to the Marshalltown newspaper (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 19, 1902). Several farmers with property along the Little Bear Creek (among them William Vogt, Jacob Wisecarver, Herman Speth, and Henry Rohr) sued the city, seeking to prevent Grinnell from dumping sewage in the creek. City fathers debated how to proceed; for openers, council members visited Marshalltown to inspect its disposal plant (ibid., May 1, 1902). Soon thereafter Grinnell contracted with O. P. Herrick of Des Moines to construct a large multi-chambered concrete septic tank to retain the solids emerging from the newly-constructed 18-inch sewer outlet on Grinnell's east side (A. Marston, "The New Sewage Disposal Plant at Grinnell, Iowa," The Iowa Engineer 2[1902]:51-55). With more than 10.5 miles of sanitary sewer, these changes might have been sufficient, so long as plenty of water accompanied the sludge through the pipes. However, farmers downstream remained dissatisfied, and sued again.

Compounding the problem of sewage discharge was the city's intention of expanding the sewer.  Spring 1907 the council asked the college's Samuel Buck to investigate how the sewer might run through the west side of town (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 2, 1907). The first bids for a sewer in west Grinnell proved too high (ibid., August 8, 1907), obliging the council to reconsider. The following year, however, the city accepted bids for another 19,000 feet of sewer pipes in east Grinnell (ibid., May 6, 1908). Work on west Grinnell's sewer began in earnest only in summer 1915. Rainy weather and the depth of some of the excavations (up to 50 feet in places) delayed the project, the central tunnel of which ran along 2nd Avenue. By April 1917 the entire system was in operation, a new tunnel directing the entire flow across the city, from east to west, emptying all the city's sewage into septic tanks and filter beds two miles west of town (ibid., April 25, 1917). State inspectors pronounced the new disposal plant a success (ibid., April 25, 1917; ibid., March 25, 1919).

With a satisfactory solution to treating city sewage and with sewer connections established over most of the town, the city was positioned to eliminate outhouses from Grinnell. An August 1st, 1917 ordinance declared that 
no building or portion of building within the fire limits of the city of Grinnell...may be rented, leased or occupied...which is not provided with at least one water closet connected to the sanitary sewer...and no cesspool, privy vault or manure pit shall be maintained or used with the same area (Charles B. Bell, The Government of the City of Grinnell, Iowa [Iowa City, 1917], p. 44).
Grinnell outhouses ceased to exist.
It is easy to see how much dirtier was early Grinnell than today's city, despite the subsequent doubling of town population. The city's unpaved streets, littered with horse manure, were dusty in dry weather and mucky cesspools in the rain. The men and women who traversed the wooden sidewalks or dared cross the muddy streets inevitably collected the city's ambient dirt on shoes and clothing. At home and at work, they did their private business in outhouses whose summertime odors attracted hordes of flies (along with wasps and hornets). In winter the outdoor, unheated privies presented a serious obstacle to performing nature's most basic tasks.
Advertisement for a Flush Toilet from Grinnell store in Marshalltown Newspaper
(Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, August 27, 1900)

The arrival of city water and a sanitary sewer dramatically altered this world. By 1917 the city had obliged all homeowners to connect to the sanitary sewer, thereby dooming the town's outhouses. Flush toilets, for sale in Grinnell since at least 1900, began to replace backyard privies. Likewise, the gradual reach of city water to all Grinnell homes made baths more comfortable, more accessible, and more frequent. The washing machine—many of which were being manufactured in downtown Grinnell—connected to these new water sources, generated cleaner clothes to cover the cleaner bodies. Cement sidewalks (ibid., May 6, 1908) and street-paving, which began in earnest in Grinnell in 1909 (ibid.April 20, 1909) and followed much of the sewer and water main excavations (ibid., July 16, 1914), added to the considerable improvements occasioned by the provision of city water and a sanitary sewer. 

The result of all this civic improvement was a very different Grinnell. Not only were noisome outhouses missing from the town's topography, but even the smell of human sweat diminished, giving Grinnell residents a sharply different olfactory experience, and a much healthier world in which to live.

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