Renfrew audience goes from outhouse to inhouse

March 15, 2002|BY RICHARD F. BELISLE

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - Getting rid of human waste is as old as mankind. Even Deuteronomy in the Old Testament has some advice on it.

Even Deuteronomy in the Old Testament has some advice on it. "When thy will ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which commeth from thee."

About 60 people learned a lot about the subject at the Renfrew Institute Thursday night in a speech by Kent Mountford, a former federal government marine biologist who worked around the Chesapeake Bay for 30 years.

In retirement, Mountford, 63, studies the history and technology of the bay's drainage basin. He lives in Calvert County, Md.

His topic Thursday was Outhouse to Inhouse, a treatise on the history of the subject of human waste.

These days, privies are Mountford's passion.

Most Americans had indoor plumbing by the first half of the 20th century, although some outhouses are still in use today, he said. Whenever he spots one, Mountford stops and photographs it as part of his research.


Native Americans had no problems with their waste. "They simply deposited wherever the need occasioned," Mountford said.

As the country became more populated, disposing human waste became a serious problem. Poor sanitation polluted rivers and streams and harbored vicious diseases like cholera, typhus and even anthrax, he said. "Seventeenth- century sanitation was conducted with no understanding of the germ theory of disease," he said.

Privies, a mark of colonial times, have become treasure troves for modern archaeologists, Mountford said. Diggings in them have produced old coins, bottles, pottery shards, all of which provide clues to precise dating, he said. "Each layer marks a passage in human habitation," he said.

The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries have suffered much over the centuries from human waste. It was common practice in the 1930s for anyone who lived near the water to have outhouses at the end of their docks. They dumped directly into the bay.

"The idea was to get wastes immediately into the creek or bay since it was viewed as a nonpotable water supply," Mountford said.

During the Great Depression and up through 1945 Franklin Roosevelt's Work Progress Administration workers rebuilt and relocated 2.3 million private privies, mostly in the South, he said.

The federal government in the 1920s put out bulletins offering suggestions to property owners on the best way to build and site privies, Mountford said.

The concept of an inside flush toilet was introduced in England in 1596 by John Harrington, godson to Queen Elizabeth I.

Septic tanks are buried beneath the landscape today. They work OK for solids when properly maintained, but the concentration of dissolved nitrogen in the resulting effluent often ends up in streams or in the groundwater, Mountford said.

When nitrogen in groundwater or wells reaches 10 parts per million it can be a health hazard, especially to babies, he said.

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