Lauren Schiszik, M.H.P., Historic Preservation Planner and Staff Archaeologist, Baltimore City Department of Planning
The term “privy” means a secret and is often used as a colloquial term for outhouses. While the rough wooden outhouses are long gone from people’s backyards in Baltimore City and Maryland, the brick- or wood-lined pits that were used to dispose human waste and other trash are often still present underground. The remains of those privies can turn up all kinds of personal information about the people who used them, about their health, diet, heritage, and past times. From the rural mill villages of Dickeyville and Woodberry, to the dense quarters of Federal Hill, Fells Point, and Seton Hill, you can still find the remains of privies today in backyards and under garages if you know how to look for them.
Although Baltimore funded the construction of a comprehensive sewer system in the early 1900s, the business district downtown and the developing suburbs were the first to get indoor plumbing and bathrooms. While Baltimore’s public works department constructed sewer and water lines across the city, it was the responsibility of each property owner to install plumbing on their property. The oldest neighborhoods were often the ones that went much longer without interior plumbing due to the difficulty and expense of retrofitting plumbing and sewer lines into the buildings, and it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that every home in Baltimore had an indoor bathroom. Thus, people used privies in their backyards in many parts of Baltimore City into the 20th century, and these privies often served dual roles as bathroom and trash pit. There were “night soil collectors” that would muck out the privies and transport the contents to the city dump, but eventually, the privies were abandoned and filled in with trash. The contents within them are preserved, like a secret, in backyards all across the city.
Baltimore City has 38 local historic districts and over 200 Baltimore City Landmarks, which includes over 15,000 properties. These historic properties are subject to the review of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), and the design guidelines regulate work completed on the exteriors of properties, including the yard. Just like owners of properties in local historic districts are stewards of the built environment, they may also be the unknowing stewards of archaeological resources. CHAP’s design guidelines state that every reasonable effort must be made to identify, protect, and preserve archaeological significant resources, and direct that applicants should leave known archaeological resources intact, whenever possible. The Commission may require that work involving subsurface disturbance, such as excavation, utility work, and new construction, be subject to an archaeological assessment completed by a professional archaeologist. Excavation on properties in CHAP districts or on Baltimore City Landmarks requires approval from CHAP staff and may also require a building permit.
As archaeological sites, privies can provide an incredible amount of information about how people lived in the past. Written records often tell us very little about the people who collectively comprised the majority of Baltimore’s population: free and enslaved Black people, immigrants from Europe and Asia, women, children. In order to learn about their lives, historians often have to turn to other “texts” like oral histories and archaeological sites.
Archaeological sites are non-renewable cultural resources. The act of excavating a privy or other archaeological site destroys it, and thus, professional archaeologists take care when excavating a privy to only dig part of it. They leave the rest for future archaeologists who can hopefully learn more using less destructive methods. It is better still to leave known archaeological sites alone, preserving them in place, which stewards them for future generations. However, if an archaeological site is going to be disturbed due to construction or development, it is important to excavate them scientifically, systematically recording the finds, studying and cataloging the artifacts, and ultimately writing a report that shares a complete story of what the artifacts can tell about the people that used them. This ensures that although the site itself is gone, the information from the site is not lost.
Archaeological resources represent a wealth of historical information about our shared heritage. The privies that have been scientifically excavated and recorded in Baltimore have provided a plethora of information about people’s lives in the 19th and 20th centuries. Careful excavation can uncover different periods of use of the privy, offering tightly dated time frames for artifacts that can then be connected to specific families that lived at the property. Detailed analysis can provide insights about the economic status, heritage, diet, and health of the people that lived there. Mammal, fish, and bird bones, delicate eggshells, even botanical materials like fruit pits, nuts, and seeds can teach archaeologists about what cuts of meat were used, how the food was prepared, whether the family hunted game, raised fowl, fished, or foraged. The bottles – medicine, liquor, perfume – and the pieces of ceramic dishes can teach about health conditions, local businesses and manufacturers, national and international trade. There are artifacts that were likely accidentally dropped in the privy, like buttons, jewelry, keys, coins, and toys.
The discovery of these objects is thrilling, but the knowledge gleaned from them is even more thrilling, and is far more lasting if it is recorded and shared. There is a long history of unscientific privy-digging in Baltimore City and elsewhere across the country. Social media has raised the profile of privy-digging and relic hunting as both recreation and business. Folks share their finds on social media, allowing followers to experience the thrill of discovery and purchase the artifacts that are uncovered. Privies in local historic districts and local landmarks have been excavated without CHAP review or approval mostly because they are located in rear yards and are largely unseen. Thus, education about the value of privies and archaeological sites in terms of our collective heritage is vital, so that property owners can become stewards of these important, largely invisible resources.
If folks are interested in learning more about archaeology in Baltimore City, there are some wonderful organizations to follow and get involved with, like the Central Chapter of the Archeological Society of Maryland, the Herring Run Archeology Project, Baltimore Heritage, Baltimore Archaeology Forum, and the Baltimore Community Archaeology Lab.