Privies to plumbing; creature comforts come to Laramie

There was a time when nearly all Laramie buildings had privies out back.

 There is a whole now-forgotten culture around the use of privies, also referred to as outhouses, back-houses, and “Chick Sale’s” after the name of a vaudevillian comedian Charles Sale (1885-1936) who specialized in privy jokes. It was common for someone to excuse himself by saying he was going to visit Chick Sale.

 Sale’s humorous essay, “The Specialist” on how to construct a privy, advised that it should be near the woodpile, so users could bring in a load of wood—pretending that’s the reason they went out back.

 “Privies should be painted a light color,” he also recommended—for nighttime visibility.

 The very presence of a back door in houses was a necessity to give quick access to the privy. Due to its odiferous nature, it was often as far away from the house as possible, accessible by a well-worn path, and next to the barn or stable on the back alley.

 A “privy quilt” often hung by the back door to use as a shawl. It could have been cut from a useable part of a well-worn quilt; a hole from constantly being hung and removed quickly from a hook makes its new purpose clear.

 The Sears Catalog often hung on a nail in the privy. Chick Sale deplored stiffer paper and colored printing that came along later. Those were not nearly as effective, he claimed. “In the old days you could hang the catalog up in January and by June you would only be to the harness section,” he said.

 However, Laramie’s Trabing Commercial Company advertised “toilet paper” for 25 cents per roll in their 1888 catalog, perhaps hoping to avoid having their catalog put to that use.

 Many a family has the story of a grandparent breaking a hip by falling on the way to the privy. On moonless nights those paths were dark--Laramie didn’t get electricity until 1886. Imagine the nuisance of lighting a candle or lantern first, and worse yet, finding where someone had left it before going outside.

 For nighttime use, and for invalids, there were chamber pots or “thunder buckets.” They matched the pitcher and basin sets on washstands in most private bedrooms before the days of indoor plumbing. Considerate hostesses crocheted a cover for the lid of the porcelain or enameled pots so the telltale clank of the lid wouldn’t announce its use to a sleeping household.

 In the morning someone had to empty the chamber pots into the outside privy and clean them. “Chamber maids” had that unpleasant job in relatively well-to-do Laramie homes.

 Although indoor toilets had been invented before Laramie was founded in 1868, without a municipal sewage system there was nothing to connect them to except individual cesspool reservoirs that presented additional maintenance problems.

 The first Laramie sewage system was probably the one built in 1885 to serve the Union Pacific Hotel at the foot of Ivinson Avenue (then called South A Street). The six-inch pipe ran 2,150 feet—directly to the Laramie River.

 Two years earlier it was reported that the Trabing Building at 2nd and Garfield Streets (then South C) was to have an indoor bathroom.  Though big news at the time, it is not clear if the drain was to be connected to a cesspool or to the river. 

 A municipal sewage system did eventually develop; most Laramie houses built after 1885, including the 1892 Ivinson Mansion, had indoor plumbing. Few, if any, of the original privies still exist in the oldest parts of Laramie. Their original locations are clearly marked on the 1883 Sanborn insurance maps available on microfilm at Laramie libraries.

 For a while there were amateur urban archaeologists in Laramie who sought out old privy locations for “digs” to see what bottles and other treasures might have been tossed in the privy for disposal.

 Indoor toilets were known since ancient Rome, but they were non-flushing open bottom chairs built over moving streams, moats, bare ground or latrines located many floors below. Ships at sea had them, so did early railroad passenger cars.

 Mechanically flushing toilets, first called water closets, were invented in England around 1600.  The innovation was ignored for over 100 years before patents started to be issued for design improvements.  However, the lack of a water reservoir in the drain and backpressure meant that sewer gasses could enter the dwelling.

 The P- or U-trap below the drain was a major improvement, and by the 1850’s indoor flush toilets were common in the eastern U.S., though still smelly. So “water closets” were a separate little room in a house, not installed with other bathroom fixtures as they are today.

 English plumber Thomas Crapper (1836-1910) held a few new patents, and is credited with the fortitude it took to invent the modern plumbing fixture showroom. His name was embossed prominently on nearly every fixture he sold, giving new meaning to his family name.

 In warmer parts of the U.S. it was common when adding indoor plumbing to put toilets on the back porch, enclosed but apart from the rest of the house. That, of course, wasn’t practical in climates with freezing weather, but even in Laramie some of the first indoor toilets were put on back porches. The location made sense; everyone was used to going out the back door for that purpose.

 All that changed in 1874 with the discovery of a solution to the odor problem through venting of the sewer line through roofs. One might think, therefore, that modern plumbing became common here almost from Laramie’s beginning.

 However, the fear of foul odors that might carry disease caused the improved design to take some time to get established. It was nearly 10 years before indoor toilets became common, though the convenience was clear to anyone who used a privy.  By 1900 nearly all Laramie property owners who made the request had been connected to the municipal sewage system. Laramie City Council prohibited the building of new privies within city limits in 1910. 

By Judy Knight

Caption.  View looking east from the old Courthouse shows a house at 601 South A St. (now Ivinson Ave.). A backyard privy stands out as does a neighbor’s.  The image is after 1887 because it shows UW’s Old Main in the background—still with its tower. The foreground house didn’t last. It had been replaced even before all the houses on that block were removed when the “new’ Safeway store was built in the early 1960s. The site is now the side and back of Advance Auto Parts at 611 Grand Ave., in the now “old” Safeway building. Photo courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum.