Outhouses and Soil Men: Toilets in NYC 100 years ago #history

As much fun as it is to settle in with an historical novel and picture how life was then, I can’t help but think of a very human necessity. The toilet.

The Story I am working on now starts in NYC in 1917. By then, rich people having new houses built had indoor plumbing. But for poor folks living in older houses, they still had to use ye olde chamber pot during the night, and empty it daily into the outhouses. Those outhouses were wretched too.

It’s not an easy thing for a city to retrofit a sewer system to an already existing area of houses.

As poorer people moved into the houses already built, the landlords split the houses into several apartments so that multiple families could live in a house that initially housed one family. Houses built before 1910 did not have indoor toilets. There were several outhouses in the backyard, which were fine for a single family, but as the population increased, many more had to share the facilities.

Honestly, I never really thought about all this…. You probably haven’t either! Thank God for indoor plumbing.

In an urban area, there is only a small area available for outhouses, and they would fill up quickly. Enter the “Night Soil Cart Men.” Yes, really. Back then, they didn’t have a big truck with a hose to suck out the septic tank. These men rode horse-drawn carriages, carrying barrels. These men would go at night time, and clean out the outhouses and put the contents into barrels, and drive it away. How would you like to do that job for a living? The stench was unimaginable.  The waste was then dumped into rivers or steamboats which would then go far out into the harbor to unload. (It was legal at the time; it was a different world.)

In fact, until 1901, water did not come in through pipes; there was a communal pump in the courtyard which neighbors would share.

I am still researching when exactly pipes for kitchen sinks started coming into the house, for the common people. I have not found that out yet. Next time I complain that I have to get out of bed to use the restroom…I’ll remember at least we have indoor plumbing!





Here’s an interesting article:




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