Outhouses and Night Soil Men: New York City Before the Invention of Indoor Plumbing and Indoor Toilets

A hundred and fifty years ago New Yorkers had just a few choices when it came to taking care of their lavatory needs— visit an outhouse or use a chamber pot.

Indoor toilets proved slow to gain popularity when they were first introduced in the second half of the nineteenth century. Initially, many residents feared the newfangled invention would bring poisonous gases into their homes, leading to illness and even death.

Until the late nineteenth century, most New Yorkers relied solely on outhouses located in backyards and alleys.

New York Outhouse 1

While some residents had their own private outhouses, anyone living in a tenement would have shared facilities with their neighbors. The outhouse/resident ratio varied, but most tenements had just three to four outhouses, and it was not uncommon to find over 100 people living in a single tenement building. This meant that people often shared a single outhouse with anywhere from 25 to 30 of their neighbors, making long line-ups and limited privacy common problems.

If bathroom breaks were undesirable in the daytime hours, at night, especially in the dead of winter when running down several flights of stairs to street level posed additional dangers, most city residents turned to their chamber pots.

Since most tenements had little or no ventilation, however, the stench from the chamber pots could quickly become unbearable. To help control the stench, chamber pots had to be emptied into backyard outhouses on a regular basis.

New York Outhouse 2

Outside the city, outhouses were usually temporary structures built over a hole in the ground. As the holes filled up, the outhouses were simply moved to a new location and the holes covered over with fresh soil. In urban areas, limited space meant that most outhouses were permanent structures. This also meant that removing human waste was a thriving business in the nineteenth-century New York.

At the time, human waste was euphemistically known as “night soil.” This is presumably because the so-called night soil cart men, who worked for companies that had been lucky enough to win a coveted city contract for waste removal, made their living largely after dark. Their unenviable job involved shoveling waste from the city’s outhouses into carts (sometimes other garbage and animal carcasses would also be collected) and then disposing of the contents.

New York Outhouse 3

Although at least some of New York’s night soil ended up being dumped in empty lots on the Upper West Side (some of this human excrement was reportedly even used as fertilizer during the construction of Central Park), most of the city’s night soil was dumped into the city’s surrounding waterways. At best, the night soil was placed on steamboats and dumped far out in the harbor (this form of dumping was legal at the time). At worst, the night soil was simply dumped off the side of piers located on the East River and Hudson.

By the time indoor toilets arrived in New York City, they were far from new. The first patent for a flushing lavatory was issued in 1775 to Scottish inventor Alexander Cumming. In the coming decades, Cumming’s invention would continue to be perfected, but still, indoor toilets did not become the norm in most cities until the late nineteenth century and did not reach many rural areas until decades later.

New York Outhouse 4

In New York, two obstacles slowed the arrival of indoor toilets.

First, there was the problem of creating a sewage system in an already developed urban area. Laying sewage pipes under an already existing urban area, however, proved to be a difficult, costly and at times politically contentious endeavor. For this reason, Brooklyn, which developed later, had a distinct advantage and outpaced Manhattan on the sewage front.

Today, New York is home to over 6,000 miles of mains and pipes with some of the pipes dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.

The other obstacle was an at-the-time broadly accepted theory about sewer gases. While sewer gases are a nuisance (modern plumbing usually prevents the gases from seeping into homes), in the nineteenth century, many physicians and the general public believed that if inhaled, the gases could lead to severe illness and even death, because there was a strong conviction that the gases carried disease.

It was not until the turn of the 20th century that most people in the medical profession agreed that sewer gases were not a source of disease and that on the contrary, continuing to deny city residents access to indoor toilets was contributing to the spread of deadly diseases.

With this realization, the push to install indoor toilets and running water across New York City intensified. The Tenement Act of 1901 clearly states, “In every tenement house here after erected there shall be a separate water-closet in a separate compartment within each apartment.” Although new tenement construction had to comply and nearly all buildings erected after 1910 were built with indoor toilets, many existing tenement owners were slow to come into line with the new regulations. Indeed, in 1937, an estimated 165,000 families living in tenements were still without access to private indoor toilets.

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