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Even Centuries Ago, When You Had To Go, You Had To Go

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

Walking around your neighborhood, school yard or forest preserve, you might find evidence of animals even if you don’t actually see them. Some leave behind footprints. Some leave behind fur. Some leave behind scat. Scat is just a fancy way of saying animal poop. If you look closely, you can discover what animal it was based on the shape, color, smell and bits of undigested food. A deer isn’t going to have fur in their pellets.

A chamber pot and a Sears catalog. (Photo by Sara Russell)

But what about us? People are animals, too, which means we leave behind our traces. You’ll find footprints in soggy ground or leftover snow. Hopefully, you won’t find human poop on the ground when you’re walking around. That’s what bathrooms and outhouses are for! But it does get you thinking – what did people do with their waste in the past?

People who lived at the historic house at Riverview Farmstead Preserve 150 years ago didn’t have flush toilets. Instead, they used chamber pots and privies.

Go waaaaaayyyy over there

If you look around the house at Riverview, you won’t find any bathrooms inside. Instead, the Clow family who made Riverview home built a separate tiny bathroom building about 100 feet away from their house. Whether you called it an outhouse, a privy or the john, it needed to be close enough for easy access but far enough to keep the smells at bay! Under the privy seat was a hole to collect, well, all the waste.

How to use the privy

Just take a seat and go. The best part is you don’t have to worry about flushing. But you might want to make sure to bring a stick to scare away any critters that have made the privy home. No one wants to get comfortable just to be startled by a snake!

Care for a wipe? There was no such thing as toilet paper in those days. At the Riverview residence, they used corn cobs that were softened with water. Another option was the Sears catalog. It was a magazine that you could use to order merchandise that would come in the mail. Think of it as an old-fashioned Amazon. It makes for great reading while on the john. When you’re done, just rip out a page and wipe.

What happens when the hole fills up?

With the entire family, farmhands, servants and guests all using one privy, the hole eventually fills up. When that happened, the men and boys would shovel out the entire contents and spread it all over the fields. Ahhhh, fertilizer.

Not a cooking pot

Imagine it’s the middle of the night at Riverview Farmstead, and a storm is raging. Are you going to run outside? Nope. Instead, you would creep to the corner and use a chamber pot. They are basically buckets — with a lid if you’re lucky — that people did their business in. There was a whole lot less privacy, too, because for most of 1860s the entire family lived and slept in one room.

Liquid gold

In the morning, chamber pots would have to be emptied out, usually by a younger member of the family. Wouldn’t you hate to have that on your chore list?

The contents of the pot might get thrown in the privy. But if it was just urine, sometimes families would save it. Why? Because urine has ammonia in it, which is perfect for tanning leather, setting dyes or colors in fabrics or even cleaning clothes! Waste not, want not.

The next time you use the bathroom, thank your lucky stars for the walls around you and modern plumbing to take all your traces away. Check out Riverview Farmstead Preserve on Book Road in Naperville to imagine a time before all these modern conveniences. There are historic buildings – houses and a big red barn – and prairie paths – to look for animal evidence – all alongside the DuPage River.

Guided tours of Riverview’s historic buildings are scheduled throughout spring, summer and fall. Check out the Forest Preserve District of Will County events page to see the full tour schedule.

____________ Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.


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