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," https://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/grinnell:23312). Gene Breiting (1913-99) recalled that, when he was a boy living on Pearl Street, "There were a lot of outhouses...at least in the areas where we were there were six outhouses behind the houses there" ("Voices of the Past," https://digital.grinnell.edu/islandora/object/grinnell:23301).
|1893 Sanborn map of Grinnell; arrows point to likely outhouses in one block of residential Grinnell|
Our childhood home is quite clear in my mind...The house was heated by stoves...and lighted by kerosene lamps..no 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'...in the back yard (John Scholte Nollen, A History of Grinnell College Through 1952 [Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1953], p. 233).
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)
|Missouri Valley Times, December 21, 1899|
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 danger...is 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)
|Illustration of the Jordan (Cambrian-Ordovician) Aquifer from which Grinnell gets its water|
|1898 Grinnell Sanborn Map depiction of Grinnell Water Works, 2nd & Main|
|Chicago Hall, built 1883; razed 1958|
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 2:51-55). 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.
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).
|Advertisement for a Flush Toilet from Grinnell store in Marshalltown Newspaper|
(Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, August 27, 1900)