Friday, December 23, 2016
The Irregular Guide to New York City Entry #9: Outhouses and Privies
Go for a stroll through Manhattan’s Greenwich Village or Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by so many old houses that you may feel like you’ve taken a trip back in time. Many of the buildings you’ll pass were constructed in the first half of the nineteenth century. Lovely, aren’t they? Now here’s something to think about: most were built before indoor plumbing made its way to New York. So where did people go to the toilet, you ask? Why, in the backyard, of course!
Take a peek behind any old house or apartment building in New York City, and you’re likely to find a yard of some sort. Today, these little patches of ground are used for gardens or barbecue grills. But not long ago, they would have held an outhouse or privy. These structures came in all shapes and sizes. Some were quite fancy. Others were little more than a shack. But no matter how nicely an outhouse may have been decorated, it was still just an outdoor toilet built over a pit.
If you were rich, your family would have had its own outhouse. If you lived in an apartment building in a poor neighborhood like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, you probably shared the same privy with more than fifty other people. Even the deepest pits tend to fill up rather quickly when that many people are making deposits. The filth would often overflow into the courtyard and seep into neighboring basements. Keeping an outhouse or privy (somewhat) sanitary was a nasty business. Just like today, well-off New Yorkers hired others to do their dirty work. The pits beneath their outhouses were emptied by “necessary tubmen” who worked the nightshift. While the rich slumbered, the tubmen would fill their “night carts” with sewage, which they later dumped in the city’s rivers. On hot summer nights, even the wealthy couldn’t escape from the stench that followed the tubmen as they made their rounds.
Want to visit a New York outhouse? There’s a reconstructed privy at the Tenement Museum, located at 97 Orchard Street.
Want to read a bit more? Click here.