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    The following information has been transcribed and/or edited by Michael R. Reilly to document early sanitary conditions in Waukesha 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 Old World. Judging from former visitations of the epidemic, it is probable that it will appear in this country during the coming summer. Large cities are already their sanitary conditions, and Congress has established a National Board of Health 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 defensive condition, but small communities ought to protect themselves. Indeed, this is a matter that interests every householder in the land. The question, "Are you ready for the cholera?" appeals to "you" on the farm, as well as to "you" in the paved and sewered streets of the city. While we do not know all about the cholera, one fact is definitely fixed: It is encouraged by decomposing animal and vegetable matter---everything comprised in the elegant but expressive term---filth.

    The first step, in city or country, is to look to the house and its surroundings, and place them in complete order. It is the wastes of our daily lives that constitute the source of danger. Outside of well ordered cities, there is rarely complete provision for disposing of the wastes of the family. On the farm, the arrangements for getting rid of these wastes, not merely covering them out of sight, but depositing them where they can do no harm, 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 menace of typhoid and other diseases, and offering an open welcome to cholera. The house itself may have its damp cellars and unhealthy rooms. Air, sunshine and the white-wash brush will soon cure these. 

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

    Nothing can be more inadequate for the purpose than the ordinary privy vault. It is not only a constant offence, but a continuous source of danger, its contents often contaminating wells at the distance of a hundred feet or more, and bringing disease and death into the family. There is but one thing to be done with a privy vault---abolish it! Do this at once, before the hot weather. It is impossible to mend, improve or make it tolerable. fill it up and 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 removes all excuse for the unsightly presence. 

    An earth closet may be placed in any convenient room; one may be partitioned off in a shed; in a barn, or other out-building, or the closet may occupy a small room in the house without unpleasant results. The material 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 store in barrels or boxes in a dry place. Where coal is burned, sifted ashes will answer 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 from a hopper, may be purchased if preferred, but a simple and inexpensive closet may be 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, "Defence Against Cholera and Other Preventable Diseases", recommendations by Wisconsin 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 ventilated by a free opening into them outside of the house. Cesspools should not be tolerated at all if it be possible to avoid their use. If they are absolutely necessary they should be so constructed as to be water-tight, so that leakage into the surrounding soil, and later, into the well, may be prevented. At proper intervals their contents should be wholly removed, but during the heated season it will probably be wiser to have them frequently and effectively disinfected, but not otherwise disturbed. 

    The contents of the privy vault should be disinfected and removed, and the vault should be again disinfected after cleansing. It would be an immense stride toward better sanitation if privy vaults were everywhere abolished, and water-closets substituted wherever practicable, the dry-earth system being employed elsewhere. This should certainly be done in all thickly settled localities, for in the the privy-vault is almost certain to be in dangerous proximity to the well. No expensive appliances are necessary; simply have no vault whatever, but put a large pail under the seat, and cover each deposit plentifully with fine, dry earth, or with coal (not wood) ashes. This is the whole principle of even the most expensive earth-closet arrangements, and nothing more than this is needed. Dry earth used in this way is a perfect deodorizer, and the contents of the pail may be handled without offense, and used as a garden fertilizer. The only essential things are that the earth be dry and in fine powder, and that it be used in quantity sufficient to absorb all moisture.

    A recent statute emphasizes the relation between the (Wisconsin) State (Health) Board and the local boards of health, and requires the 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 of health, and reporting the organization, with the name and address of the health officer, to the State Board of Health, if this has not already been done.

In addition to these things, in all incorporated villages and cities, the health board should provide for systematic surveys, by which every house in every part of each such village or city shall be visited, thoroughly examined, and a record of all unsanitary conditions shown by such examination made and kept for future use, upon blank forms suitably prepared for the purpose. Such a record 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 any premises upon which unsanitary conditions are found to exist; should receive specific directions for their removal or correction, and a reasonable but limited time should be assigned within which the improvement is to be effected. At the end of this time, if the directions given have not been carried out, the necessary work should be done by the local health board at the expense of the property. In making such an inspection as is here suggested especial attention should be paid to the condition of boarding houses, lodging houses and hotels, particularly those of the lower grades, and if at any time diarrhoeal diseases prevail, all such establishments should be watched and guarded with the most zealous care, and their privies should be disinfected daily.

But besides all this, Local Health Boards have an important duty in regard to newly arrived immigrants who frequently come from a part of the old world where contagious disease has prevailed, bringing with them, more often in their baggage 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 are unpacking their effects, and then, and for several days thereafter, they should be under the careful observation of the Health Officer, which observation should also extend to any neighbors who may have been visitors to such family, especially if they lent help in the unpacking and arrangement of the household effects. Any deviation from perfect health in the newly arrived family, or in any visitors to them, should be carefully and promptly examined. Persons coming from districts known to be infected with any contagious disease should be kept under the same careful surveillance until all danger of the development of disease in them or from them has passed.

    At all times the duly appointed health officer should be invested with ample authority to act in any emergency. Should cholera or other dangerous disease come, there will then be no time to call the Health Board together for the discussion of plans. These must be definitely decided on beforehand so that what can be done and what is to be done, shall be clearly understood. If cholera, or small pox, or other virulent disease, appear in a private house, it should be at once quarantined, as well persons whose presence is not absolutely needful therein should be removed, and closely contiguous houses should either be abandoned for the time being or kept under the closet watch. 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 popular than in its strict sense. for cleansing premises in the absence of any specific "germs" of disease, the use of those germicides or true disinfectants which would be recommended in the presence of such germs, is not necessary. To deodorize and sufficiently to disinfect privy vaults, cess-pools, drains and similar places, as a measure of cleanliness, the plentiful use of copperas or sulphate of iron, or of chloride of lime (as recommended by the Committee on disinfectants of the American Public Health Association) will be sufficient. The copperas may be prepared for use by dissolving one and one-half pounds in a gallon of water. the chloride of lime may be used either by sprinkling the dry powder freely over any place or material which is needful to disinfect, or by dissolving one pound in four gallons of water. Of either solution a sufficient quantity to keep down all offensive odors, should be used daily, or as often as occasion may require. Should cholera or other virulent disease make its appearance, more powerful and specific disinfectants will be required, and full directions for preparing such, and for their safe and efficient use, will be published 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 the proper disposal of refuse and offal; and no trouble can be too much which shall surely serve to keep it from mischief it is certain to do, sooner or later, if left alone. An old subscriber, appreciating this important fact, asks how to construct a dry earth closet. Since the regular fixtures for such a closet, by which on a pulling a handle, as in the water closet, the earth is evenly scattered over each deposit, can lo longer be found on sale, all that can be done now is to place a box of dry earth conveniently in the privy, with a small tin scoop for handling the earth. The best form of a receptacle for the excreta is a box of galvanized iron, about two and a half feet square, and eighteen inches 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. When full, this is easily trundled to any part of the garden, and the box can be turned bottomside up on the ground by tipping the borrow; then, in winter when its contents are liable to be frozen fast, they can be loosened in a few minutes by pouring some boiling hot water over the box in this position. The seat of the closet should be so high above the ground that this box can be run under, on its borrow, up a slight incline; then the heavy load will come out of itself as soon as the handles of the vehicle are raised from the ground.

    It will not "pay a farmer to dry and team earth to the village", for the sake of the fertilizing material that he may carry out 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 used over again two or three times. If one has no garden close at hand, from which the 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 answer almost as well as dry earth, then some expense will be necessary to get dry earth, and have it removed when changed; but the garden is even only a very small one it will be quite sufficient. As for the the material to be used as a deodorizer, road scrappings will serve as well as any dry loam; prairie soil would be excellent, but sand will not answer. A wire sieve, with meshes about a quarter of 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 only by spreading it out in a layer not over two inches thick, on a tight board platform 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 drying the earth may be stirred occasionally with a rake or hoe. The largest part of the labor of keeping up a dry earth closet comes in just here, in maintaining the supply of properly dried earth.

    But the dry earth closet system is worth all the labor it may cost, in its convenience, its comfort, and its freedom from the danger to health and offence to the senses which belong to the vault or the cesspool. When properly manages the dry earth closet need not be detached from the house, and put, as the ordinary privy must be, where it can only be reached with much discomfort or exposure in cold or stormy weather, or at night; and when properly managed it is absolutely free from danger; no wells or springs can be poisoned by it, however near they may be. It is indeed unfortunate that the system has been so little appreciated in this country, that the manufacture of the simple and inexpensive fixtures required has not been supported by the demand for them. The chief reason why it has not been more widely adopted is doubtless to be found in the trouble it makes; it will not run itself, like the water closet when the pipes are once laid; nor can it be left to itself to accumulate nastiness from one year to another, besides filtering possible pestilence into the soil, such as the vault with a porous bottom can be left; it needs 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 and attention in the disposal of it, as the offal of human habitations. -- [Dr. G. C. Caldwell].


Waukesha Freeman, October 4, 1880 "Farm and Home" - Farm Rakings

    Water - if pure water does not flow at the barn, look into means for securing it. Barn-yard wells are convenient, but often dangerous to the health, if not of animals, certainly of men, who may drink at them. If the water 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. Zinc is a slow poison, but not quite so bad as lead. A well on higher ground will often furnish flowing water, conducted by a siphon, at the level of the buildings. No well should be dug at a less distance than 300 feet from a barn-yard, cesspool, or privy vault. [From the American Agriculturist]

May 6, 1886

    A level-headed writer declares that the two farm nuisances are the hateful and hideous barn yard and the privy vault. The sewage should be caught in a wooden box and mingled with earth and ashes from day to day so that it will not be offensive, and then, when the receptacle is full, it should be emptied over the 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 school building and grounds are not what they should be. The well which supplies water for the school is only twelve feet from the privy vault and the children use their hands for drinking cups. By all means the water from this well should not be used for drinking purposes unless a frequent analysis is made. Pupils have been instructed to use the well adjoining the playground."

    "The basements where the toilets are located are so dark that they must be artificially lighted a greater part of the day."


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

    (Baileys- Grand Marnier-Frangelico-Cointreau-Galliano- Cream and crushed ice)

Now, this wasn't the definition intended, but there are such things as "Irish wheelbarrow" races.


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Copyright Sussex-Lisbon Area Historical Society, Inc., , 2002 - 2016, Except as noted: All documents placed on the website remain the property of the contributors, who retain publication rights in accordance with US Copyright Laws and Regulations. In keeping with our policy of providing free information on the Internet, these documents may be used by anyone for their personal research. They may be used by non-commercial entities, when written permission is obtained from the contributor, so long as all notices and submitter information are included. These electronic pages may NOT be reproduced in any format for profit. Any other use, including copying files to other sites, requires permission from the contributors PRIOR to uploading to the other sites. The submitter has given permission to the website to store the file(s) for free access. Such permission may be revoked upon written notice to the website webmaster. Website's design, hosting, and maintenance are donated by Website Editor & Webmaster: Michael R. Reilly (Mike)