Sanitary – Are you Ready for Cholera? Privy Vaults

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Sanitary – Are you Ready for Cholera? Privy Vaults

 The following information has been transcribedand/or edited by Michael R. Reilly to document early sanitary conditions inWaukesha County and its’ local municipalities.

For further reading by Mike Reilly on this subject, click on:  The World & Milwaukee Early Sanitation History – Outhouses, Privies, Scavengers & Sewers,  or Privileged Privy Prattle

First  Added December 18, 2005

Last Update 12/20/2005


Are You Ready for Cholera ?

    Cholera last year [1884] ravaged portions of the OldWorld. Judging from former visitations of the epidemic, it is probable that itwill appear in this country during the coming summer. Large cities are alreadytheir sanitary conditions, and Congress has established a National Board ofHealth to aid the States in repelling an invasion of the cholera from abroad.Not only should ports of entry and crowded populations be in a defensivecondition, but small communities ought to protect themselves. Indeed, this is amatter that interests every householder in the land. The question, “Are youready for the cholera?” appeals to “you” on the farm, as well asto “you” in the paved and sewered streets of the city. While we do notknow all about the cholera, one fact is definitely fixed: It is encouraged bydecomposing animal and vegetable matter—everything comprised in the elegantbut expressive term—filth.

The first step, in city or country, is to look to thehouse and its surroundings, and place them in complete order. It is the wastesof our daily lives that constitute the source of danger. Outside of well orderedcities, there is rarely complete provision for disposing of the wastes of thefamily. On the farm, the arrangements for getting rid of these wastes, notmerely covering them out of sight, but depositing them where they can do noharm, are usually most inadequate. it is not rare to see an expensive house,with an open sink drain leading from the kitchen at the rear, a constant menaceof typhoid and other diseases, and offering an open welcome to cholera. Thehouse itself may have its damp cellars and unhealthy rooms. Air, sunshine andthe white-wash brush will soon cure these.

The surroundings of the house are of more importance asthe family wastes are removed from the house with usually little care as to whatbecomes of them afterwards. The wastes are of three sorts. First, garbage—thekitchen solid refuse, including ashes. Second, liquid waste–kitchen slops,washing water, etc. Third, the waste of the human body. Leaving the other wastesto another time, we call attention to the wastes of our bodies as the mostdangerous of all, and at the same time the most readily disposed of.

Nothing can be more inadequate for the purpose than theordinary privy vault. It is not only a constant offence, but a continuous sourceof danger, its contents often contaminating wells at the distance of a hundredfeet or more, and bringing disease and death into the family. There is but onething to be done with a privy vault—abolish it! Do this at once, before thehot weather. It is impossible to mend, improve or make it tolerable. fill it upand be done with it. The substitute for the vault is the earth closet, use it.Such buildings are usually eye-sores, and the filling up of the vault removesall excuse for the unsightly presence.

An earth closet may be placed in any convenient room; onemay be partitioned off in a shed; in a barn, or other out-building, or thecloset may occupy a small room in the house without unpleasant results. Thematerial required is dry loam, not sand, but good soil, the stiffer the better.Dry this earth thoroughly, by spreading it on a platform of boards in the sun.When dust dry, pass it through a sieve to removed lumps, stones, etc., and storein barrels or boxes in a dry place. Where coal is burned, sifted ashes willanswer in place of dry earth, but wood ashes must not be used. For the closet,self-acting ones, in which the weight of the person liberates the dry earth froma hopper, may be purchased if preferred, but a simple and inexpensive closet maybe made at a small cost, that will answer as well as the most costly affair.Source:  Waukesha Freeman, May 7, 1885.

An excerpt from a June 11, 1885 article, “DefenceAgainst Cholera and Other Preventable Diseases”, recommendations byWisconsin State Board of Health. The condition of the drains should be examined;care should be taken to see that they are unobstructed, and also are ventilatedby a free opening into them outside of the house. Cesspools should not betolerated at all if it be possible to avoid their use. If they are absolutelynecessary they should be so constructed as to be water-tight, so that leakageinto the surrounding soil, and later, into the well, may be prevented. At properintervals their contents should be wholly removed, but during the heated seasonit will probably be wiser to have them frequently and effectively disinfected,but not otherwise disturbed.

The contents of the privy vault should be disinfected andremoved, and the vault should be again disinfected after cleansing. It would bean immense stride toward better sanitation if privy vaults were everywhereabolished, and water-closets substituted wherever practicable, the dry-earthsystem being employed elsewhere. This should certainly be done in all thicklysettled localities, for in the the privy-vault is almost certain to be indangerous proximity to the well. No expensive appliances are necessary; simplyhave no vault whatever, but put a large pail under the seat, and cover eachdeposit plentifully with fine, dry earth, or with coal (not wood) ashes. This isthe whole principle of even the most expensive earth-closet arrangements, andnothing more than this is needed. Dry earth used in this way is a perfectdeodorizer, and the contents of the pail may be handled without offense, andused as a garden fertilizer. The only essential things are that the earth be dryand in fine powder, and that it be used in quantity sufficient to absorball moisture.

A recent statute emphasizes the relation between the(Wisconsin) State (Health) Board and the local boards of health, and requiresthe latter to cooperate with the former. The first duty, then, of all town,city, and village boards is that of efficiently organizing a local board ofhealth, and reporting the organization, with the name and address of the healthofficer, to the State Board of Health, if this has not already been done.

In addition to these things, in all incorporated villages and cities, thehealth board should provide for systematic surveys, by which every house inevery part of each such village or city shall be visited, thoroughly examined,and a record of all unsanitary conditions shown by such examination made andkept for future use, upon blank forms suitably prepared for the purpose. Such arecord should embody the following facts:

  • 1. Such designation of the place by street and number that it may be identified without the possibility of a mistake.
  • 2. A general description of the premises, whether high or low, dry or damp, well drained or not, and facilities for drainage.
  • 3. A general description of the house, whether of wood or brick, in good or bad repair, names of owner and occupants, and particularly if it be a tenement house, whether over-crowded or not.
  • 4. The general condition of all out-buildings in regard to cleanliness.
  • 5. The source of water supply.
  • 6. A particular account of all existing unsanitary conditions, such as accumulations of garbage, foul cesspools, privy vaults either full or in bad condition, and the proximity of cess-pool, privy or stable to the well, if any exists.
  • 7. If possible, a record of any form of sickness existing at the time of examination or recently prevalent, especially if any deaths have occurred and if the disease has been of diarrhoeal, dysenteric, or typhoid form.
  • 8. The recommendations of the sanitary inspector.

Immediately upon completion of this inspection, the owner or occupant of anypremises upon which unsanitary conditions are found to exist; should receivespecific directions for their removal or correction, and a reasonable butlimited time should be assigned within which the improvement is to beeffected. At the end of this time, if the directions given have not been carriedout, the necessary work should be done by the local health board at the expenseof the property. In making such an inspection as is here suggested especialattention should be paid to the condition of boarding houses, lodging houses andhotels, particularly those of the lower grades, and if at any time diarrhoealdiseases prevail, all such establishments should be watched and guarded withthe most zealous care, and their privies should be disinfected daily.

But besides all this, Local Health Boards have an important duty in regard tonewly arrived immigrants who frequently come from a part of the old world wherecontagious disease has prevailed, bringing with them, more often in theirbaggage than in their persons, the germs of such disease. A time, therefore,when such comers are sources of the greatest danger is that when they areunpacking their effects, and then, and for several days thereafter, they shouldbe under the careful observation of the Health Officer, which observation shouldalso extend to any neighbors who may have been visitors to such family,especially if they lent help in the unpacking and arrangement of the householdeffects. Any deviation from perfect health in the newly arrived family, or inany visitors to them, should be carefully and promptly examined. Persons comingfrom districts known to be infected with any contagious disease should be keptunder the same careful surveillance until all danger of the development ofdisease in them or from them has passed.

At all times the duly appointed health officer should beinvested with ample authority to act in any emergency. Should cholera or otherdangerous disease come, there will then be no time to call the Health Boardtogether for the discussion of plans. These must be definitely decided onbeforehand so that what can be done and what is to be done, shall be clearlyunderstood. If cholera, or small pox, or other virulent disease, appear in aprivate house, it should be at once quarantined, as well persons whose presenceis not absolutely needful therein should be removed, and closely contiguoushouses should either be abandoned for the time being or kept under the closetwatch. Should death occur, the burial of the body should be speedy and private.

Disinfection and Disinfectants

The term disinfection is used here rather in its popularthan in its strict sense. for cleansing premises in the absence of any specific”germs” of disease, the use of those germicides or true disinfectantswhich would be recommended in the presence of such germs, is not necessary. Todeodorize and sufficiently to disinfect privy vaults, cess-pools, drains andsimilar places, as a measure of cleanliness, the plentiful use of copperas orsulphate of iron, or of chloride of lime (as recommended by the Committee ondisinfectants of the American Public Health Association) will be sufficient. Thecopperas may be prepared for use by dissolving one and one-half pounds in agallon of water. the chloride of lime may be used either by sprinkling the drypowder freely over any place or material which is needful to disinfect, or bydissolving one pound in four gallons of water. Of either solution a sufficientquantity to keep down all offensive odors, should be used daily, or as often asoccasion may require. Should cholera or other virulent disease make itsappearance, more powerful and specific disinfectants will be required, and fulldirections for preparing such, and for their safe and efficient use, will bepublished in due season by this Board.

…By direction of the State Board of Health,

J. T. Reeve, M. D., Secretary

The Dry Earth Closet 

(Waukesha Freeman, June 18, 1885)

    Nothing more intimately concerns human welfare than theproper disposal of refuse and offal; and no trouble can be too much which shallsurely serve to keep it from mischief it is certain to do, sooner or later, ifleft alone. An old subscriber, appreciating this important fact, asks how toconstruct a dry earth closet. Since the regular fixtures for such a closet, bywhich on a pulling a handle, as in the water closet, the earth is evenlyscattered over each deposit, can lo longer be found on sale, all that can bedone now is to place a box of dry earth conveniently in the privy, with a smalltin scoop for handling the earth. The best form of a receptacle for the excretais a box of galvanized iron, about two and a half feet square, and eighteeninches deep, mounted, but not fastened at all, on the frame of an ordinary Irishman’s wheelbarrow, the body of which has been previously knocked off. Whenfull, this is easily trundled to any part of the garden, and the box can beturned bottomside up on the ground by tipping the borrow; then, in winter whenits contents are liable to be frozen fast, they can be loosened in a few minutesby pouring some boiling hot water over the box in this position. The seat of thecloset should be so high above the ground that this box can be run under, on itsborrow, up a slight incline; then the heavy load will come out of itself as soonas the handles of the vehicle are raised from the ground.

It will not “pay a farmer to dry and team earth tothe village”, for the sake of the fertilizing material that he may carryout again on his return trip, in the earth that has been used in the closet;analyses of such earth have proved this, even in cases where i has been usedover again two or three times. If one has no garden close at hand, from whichthe earth can be taken, and where it can be deposited and covered out of sight,or does not burn hard coal, so as to have a supply of ashes, which will answeralmost as well as dry earth, then some expense will be necessary to get dryearth, and have it removed when changed; but the garden is even only a verysmall one it will be quite sufficient. As for the the material to be used as adeodorizer, road scrappings will serve as well as any dry loam; prairie soilwould be excellent, but sand will not answer. A wire sieve, with meshes about a quarterof an inch wide will do for the sifting. It is important that the material used,whatever it be, be thoroughly dried. This can be expeditiously accomplished onlyby spreading it out in a layer not over two inches thick, on a tight boardplatform raised a little from the ground so that the air can circulate under it,and placed where the sun will shine upon it all day long; to hasten the dryingthe earth may be stirred occasionally with a rake or hoe. The largest part ofthe labor of keeping up a dry earth closet comes in just here, in maintainingthe supply of properly dried earth.

But the dry earth closet system is worthall the labor it may cost, in its convenience, its comfort, and its freedom fromthe danger to health and offence to the senses which belong to the vault or thecesspool. When properly manages the dry earth closet need not be detached fromthe house, and put, as the ordinary privy must be, where it can only be reachedwith much discomfort or exposure in cold or stormy weather, or at night; andwhen properly managed it is absolutely free from danger; no wells or springs canbe poisoned by it, however near they may be. It is indeed unfortunate that thesystem has been so little appreciated in this country, that the manufacture ofthe simple and inexpensive fixtures required has not been supported by thedemand for them. The chief reason why it has not been more widely adopted isdoubtless to be found in the trouble it makes; it will not run itself, like thewater closet when the pipes are once laid; nor can it be left to itself toaccumulate nastiness from one year to another, besides filtering possiblepestilence into the soil, such as the vault with a porous bottom can be left; itneeds regular, though not frequent, care and attention, and makes some work.But, as said at the offset, there is nothing that so much needs care andattention in the disposal of it, as the offal of human habitations. — [Dr. G.C. Caldwell].


Waukesha Freeman, October 4, 1880 “Farm and Home” – FarmRakings

Water – if pure water does not flow at the barn, look intomeans for securing it. Barn-yard wells are convenient, but often dangerous tothe health, if not of animals, certainly of men, who may drink at them. If thewater from spring can be led to the house and barn, by all means bring it down -use plain iron pipes or enameled ones – not “galvanized” pipes. Zincis a slow poison, but not quite so bad as lead. A well on higher ground willoften furnish flowing water, conducted by a siphon, at the level of thebuildings. No well should be dug at a less distance than 300 feet from abarn-yard, cesspool, or privy vault. [From the American Agriculturist]

May 6, 1886

A level-headed writer declares that the two farm nuisances are the hatefuland hideous barn yard and the privy vault. The sewage should be caught in awooden box and mingled with earth and ashes from day to day so that it will notbe offensive, and then, when the receptacle is full, it should be emptied overthe land as a fertilizer. Then it will not poison wells and springs.


September 25, 1919

School Needs Several Changes

Miss Aurel Baker, County School Nurse, Makes Report, gives Advice

    The village school at Hartland is generally supposed to be of high standards.,,, The report says in part: “The sanitary conditions of your schoolbuilding and grounds are not what they should be. The well which supplies waterfor the school is only twelve feet from the privy vault and the children usetheir hands for drinking cups. By all means the water from this well should notbe used for drinking purposes unless a frequent analysis is made. Pupils havebeen instructed to use the well adjoining the playground.”

“The basements where the toilets are located are so dark that they mustbe artificially lighted a greater part of the day.”


FAVORITE DRINK? Right now I could killan Irish wheelbarrow with a broken wheel

(Baileys- GrandMarnier-Frangelico-Cointreau-Galliano- Cream and crushed ice)

Now, this wasn’t the definition intended, but there aresuch things as “Irish wheelbarrow” races.