The Secret Life Of A Developing Country (Ours)


Local inhabitants’ faces became more open, travelers observed, as one went west. Nathaniel Hawthorne found a dramatic contrast in public appearances only a few days’ travel west of Boston. “The people out here,” in New York State just west of the Berkshires, he confided to his notebook in 1839, “show out their character much more strongly than they do with us,” in his native eastern Massachusetts. He compared the “quiet, silent, dull decency…in our public assemblages” with Westerners’ wider gamut of expressiveness, “mirth, anger, eccentricity, all showing themselves freely.” Westerners in general, the clergyman and publicist Henry Ward Beecher observed, had “far more freedom of manners, and more frankness and spontaneous geniality” than did the city or country people of the New England and Middle Atlantic states, as did the “odd mortals that wander in from the western border,” that Martineau observed in Washington’s political population.


Early-nineteenth-century Americans lived in a world of dirt, insects, and pungent smells. Farmyards were strewn with animal wastes, and farmers wore manure-spattered boots and trousers everywhere. Men’s and women’s working clothes alike were often stiff with dirt and dried sweat, and men’s shirts were often stained with “yellow rivulets” of tobacco juice. The locations of privies were all too obvious on warm or windy days. Unemptied chamber pots advertised their presence. Wet baby “napkins,” today’s diapers, were not immediately washed but simply put by the fire to dry. Vats of “chamber lye”—highly concentrated urine used for cleaning type or degreasing wool—perfumed all printing offices and many households. “The breath of that fiery bar-room,” as Underwood described a country tavern, “was overpowering. The odors of the hostlers’ boots, redolent of fish-oil and tallow, and of buffalo-robes and horse-blankets, the latter reminiscent of equine ammonia, almost got the better of the all-pervading fumes of spirits and tobacco.”

Densely populated, but poorly cleaned and drained, America’s cities were often far more noisome than its farmyards. Horse manure thickly covered city streets, and few neighborhoods were free from the spreading stench of tanneries and slaughterhouses. New York City accumulated so much refuse that it was generally believed the actual surfaces of the streets had not been seen for decades. During her stay in Cincinnati, the English writer Frances Trollope followed the practice of the vast majority of American city housewives when she threw her household “slops”—refuse food and dirty dishwater—out into the street. An irate neighbor soon informed her that municipal ordinances forbade “throwing such things at the sides of the streets” as she had done; “they must just all be cast right into the middle and the pigs soon takes them off.” In most cities hundreds, sometimes thousands, of free-roaming pigs scavenged the garbage; one exception was Charleston, South Carolina, where buzzards patrolled the streets. By converting garbage into pork, pigs kept city streets cleaner than they would otherwise have been, but the pigs themselves befouled the streets and those who ate their meat—primarily poor families—ran greater than usual risks of infection.


The most visible symbols of early American sanitation were privies or “necessary houses.” But Americans did not always use them; many rural householders simply took to the closest available patch of woods or brush. However, in more densely settled communities and in regions with cold winters, privies were in widespread use. They were not usually put in out-of-the-way locations. The fashion of some Northern farm families, according to Robert B. Thomas’s Farmer’s Almanack in 1826, had long been to have their “necessary planted in a garden or other conspicuous place.” Other countryfolk went even further in turning human wastes to agricultural account and built their outhouses “within the territory of a hog yard, that the swine may root and ruminate and devour the nastiness thereof.” Thomas was a long-standing critic of primitive manners in the countryside and roundly condemned these traditional sanitary arrangements as demonstrating a “want of taste, decency, and propriety.” The better-arranged necessaries of the prosperous emptied into vaults that could be opened and cleaned out. The dripping horse-drawn carts of the “nocturnal goldfinders,” who emptied the vaults and took their loads out for burial or water disposal—“night soil” was almost never used as manurewere a familiar part of nighttime traffic on city streets.

The humblest pieces of American household furniture were the chamber pots that allowed people to avoid dark and often cold nighttime journeys outdoors. Kept under beds or in corners of rooms, “chambers” were used primarily upon retiring and arising. Collecting, emptying, and cleaning them remained an unspoken, daily part of every housewife’s routine.