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The World & Milwaukee Early Sanitation History – Outhouses, Privies, Scavengers & Sewers


Privileged Privy Prattle

by Mike Reilly, copyright 2/19/97

Last Revised 12/18/2005

Back in 1996 the Iowa Antique Bottleers published an article in their newsletter describing the duties of a “scavenger”. I often wondered if Milwaukee had similar ordinances and names for people who cleaned outhouses or privy vaults as they’re described here. Listed below you’ll find selected sections from chapters dealing with buildings and health that many of you outhouse diggers can truly appreciate. It’s also a good look at a bit of our history.

And speaking of history, let’s first take a look at early sanitation efforts.

The people of ancient times disposed of human waste with no more care than their garbage. In the fifth century, the people of Athens simply allowed their wastes to pile up at the outskirts of the city. These people who gave great thought to about public hygiene and pure drinking water couldn’t care less about safely treating their human waste products.

The Romans built sewers primarily for the conveyance of storm water. The other items that floated along were of no concern. Most homes or apartments were served by cesspools or covered storage tanks behind the dwelling. Every now and then, manure merchants would collect the wastes and sell it as fertilizer. People who lived on the second and higher floors didn’t always use the common, ground-floor privies. They would use chamber pots and dump the contents out their windows and onto the street or alley below. Latrines were sometimes water-flushed in ancient times and the Middle Ages using either diverted streams or buckets.

There were practically no sewage systems in any Middle Ages city or town. Chamber pots were normally dumped in street ditches and open sewers. Occasionally, lime or carbolic acid was used to flush the sewers. Outside of the cities and towns people used cesspools. Where there was running water, they positioned their privies so that the waste dropped directly into the river or stream. Medieval Paris was noted for its smell. The west side of towns were favored because of prevailing western winds. The east side had the worst odors. To thwart the smells typical of the day, a pomegranate stuffed with cloves was set out in each room, the for runner of the Airwick.

It wasn’t surprising that under these conditions whole cities would fall to hepatitis and typhoid. Many health officials today believe that recent continued population growth stems not due to medicine advances but to advances in municipal hygiene.

The city of Bunzlau in Silesia (Germany now Poland controlled) was purportedly the first to install a sewage treatment plant. London didn’t build a sewer for human waste until 1815. From the Roman era until about 1840, little improvement was made in sewers and sewage treatment. Basically it was moved from place to place, usually downhill.

The Privy in Depth

The four basic disposal systems are the privy, the straight pipe, the cesspool, the septic tank, and finally followed by the modern waste treatment facilities. “Outdoor plumbing” or the privy remained pretty common in design. A three-sided shack with a door sitting on top of a hole in the ground, or as I mentioned earlier above flowing water. This was truly one of the most uncomplicated device man has ever known. It required no energy (some grunting and gas excluded), no special training in its use, and hardly any maintenance other to dig another hole and move the shack when the first had filled up. The only thing it needed to work was gravity and the amount of traffic, determined the number of seats.

The location was usually determined by the easiest digging spot and how fast you needed to get there. Old-timers would line the hole with a wooden crib to keep the sides from caving in. Later stones, brick and hydraulic cement were employed to keep the hole intact and in some required locations, provide a water-tight seal, hence the term “privy vault” found in municipal ordinances. Besides the standard bench with one or more holes, a trough or funnel may have been attached to one side, directing liquid wastes to the hole below. To add a touch of class, a toilet seat may have been installed. Nothing quite like a little sliver in the right place to get your attention.

The problems with privies were, one, the odor, which was masked at times with the addition of lime or to a lesser degree, dirt. Second problem were flies during the warmer months, and to a lesser extent various vermin taking up residence within (which was strictly forbidden by most municipal codes). And lastly, they filled up, so you had to go dig another hole and start over, or read on.

The Straight Pipe – Where one lived in the city (in the latter half of the 19th century) the installation of a sewer line constructed of wood, brick or metal pipe determined if you could run a pipe from your privy to it. This was relatively trouble-free, if you sent a bucket or two of water down the hole after use, but it presented serious health and pollution problems as well. For homes outside of areas connected by sewers, you simply ran a pipe (downhill) away from the privy to a field, hole, or river. But it also had serious health issues.

Next came the cesspool, and again it was very simple to use. Dig a bigger hole, line it (this wasn’t necessarily the rule) with wood, stone or brick and direct your straight pipe or communal “straight pipe” system to it. Smaller ones were covered with wood lids. Every so often the cesspool had to be cleaned out or another dug in its place.

In 1844 no fewer than fifty-three overflowing cesspits were found under Windsor Castle. There was a case of a titled English host standing at the door of his manor to greet guests arriving in a carriage when they were engulfed in an overflowing cesspool that caused the driveway to sink. There was loss of life.

The End (?) of the Privy

The modern water-closet or toilet was pioneered in 1775 by a London watchmaker, Alexander Cumming and improved upon by inventor Joseph Bramah in 1778. It originally consisted of a cast-iron bowl with a flap valve (a hinged valve permitting flow in only one direction); the bowl emptying directly into the drain pipe to a cesspool or city sewer system.

Later experiments added a curved section of pipe to prevent sewer gas from entering the house. In the mid-19th century, ceramic toilet bowls were introduced for easier cleaning, and traps were made more effective by venting. In 1890 the modern “washdown closet” form was developed. 1915 found the elevated water-tank unnecessary, and the tank was lowered to its present position.

Two Frenchmen, Mouras and Moigno, found that a tank or box (septic tank) placed in a sewer line between a house and a cesspool, which the line fed, would trap the solids in the waste. The solids could then be removed from the tank rather than cleaning the cesspool. Later in 1896, a Scotchman named Donald Cameron developed the modern sealed, (almost) airtight septic tank chamber in which anaerobic bacteria attack and destroy the pathogens in domestic waste water.

More Privy Talk

Next let’s do a little defining of terms terms. PRIVY is a noun, first appearing in the 14th century, and is defined as a small building having a bench with holes through which the user may defecate or urinate. The word OUTHOUSE also appeared in the 14th century with reference to PRIVY, OUTBUILDING, NECESSARY HOUSE, BACKHOUSE (c.1847), CRAPPER* (c.1932, though usually used in a vulgar sense for a toilet). Many municipal codes use the words PRIVY VAULT, never “outhouse”. As I mentioned earlier, our fore-fathers soon learned that all sorts of nasty things leaked out of privies into the water supply causing illness and major epidemics. For that reason they insisted that newer privies being dug were lined in such a manner as to be water-tight (the VAULT).

Other names across the ocean associated with a privy or toilet are loo, biffy, chamber of commerce, holy of holies, cloakroom, shot-tower, and smallest room. In France, the pisser; Italy it’s numero cento; New Zealand, the sit-house or Here-it-are. Australian males call it a dike while the family term is the proverbial, short for the proverbial brick outhouse. Again from England comes the word john dating from 1735 and the place of easement. In the U.S. it’s still called a comfort station.

Now you’re probably wondering why a bottle collector should know about outhouse history. Well it had a direct influence on what you privy diggers find or don’t find in many dug in cities and towns.

But before we get into that, I need to introduce the person most influential in determining the remains of many privy vaults. Back in 16th century Britain, around 1530 the name “scavenger” came into use. A scavenger was a person employed to remove dirt and refuse from streets. Other terms of endearment are garbage collector or monger, and junk collector. The verb “scavenge” appeared c. 1644 meaning to clean away dirt or refuse from; Cleanse – a street; to remove (as an undesirable constituent) from a substance or region by chemical or physical means; to salvage from discarded or refuse material, also to salvage usable material from, and as a verb intransitive – to work or act as a scavenger.

Some earlier terms I’ve found of interest: the name for the medieval privy closet was garderobe. The individuals in those days who cleaned out the privies and cesspools were called gongfermors or gongfarmer (appeared in 1814) – a scavenger. Gong is a word (appeared in 1633) for the contents of a privy, the ordure (appeared in 1388) as the French called it. A gong-burl was the hole of a privy.

In Stow’s Surv (1633) 666 – No goungfermour shall carry any Ordure till after nine of the Clocke in the night.

How did the privy get its name. Well as a guess it may have come from the following term, privy or privey chamber – a room, reserved for the private or exclusive use of a particular person or persons; a private room, in which one is not liable to interruption or disturbance. There is also a reference to “privy members or parts” – the external organs of sex; the private parts.

According to Lawrence Wright’s book “Clean and Decent – The History of the Bathroom and the W.C.” the term gongfarmer was replaced with the name of “Night Men” in England. It was said to be a deservingly well paid trade in the 14th century and some provided their customers with elegantly engraved trade cards. By the 1850’s London’s use for them was diminishing because of building sewers that replaced cesspools.

*Thomas Crapper was born in 1837 in the Yorkshire town of Thorne. At age eleven he walked, 165 miles, to London and became a plumber’s apprentice. In 1861 he set himself in business as a Sanitary Engineer in “The Marlboro’ Works of Thomas Crapper & Co. In the old days the water for flushing a toilet was provided from a cistern in which there was a valve at the outlet to the flush pipe. When you pulled the chain it simply lifted up that valve and released the water. In other words you just pulled out the plug. Some people would tie the chain down so that the valve was perpetually open and the water flowing ceaselessly – either because they were too lazy to pull the chain every time or because they were ultra fastidious and wanted to insure an immaculate flushing of the bowl. Another problem was that the makers of the valves tried making a snug fit but over time the valve would fail to lodge properly after each flush. Both issues resulted in much wasted water for the city of London. As a result of the city’s call for an improved system, Thomas Crapper invented “Crapper’s Valveless Water Waste Preventer”. Mr. Crapper also invented several other toilet improvements. His firm also worked for London’s royal family.

City of Milwaukee Health Conditions (19th Century)

Milwaukee is the nearest large city to me, the author, to find the necessary information to describe to you events that unfolded during the latter half of the nineteenth century concerning the use of privies and the introduction of more sanitary measures.

Up to about 1870 in the city of Milwaukee, “Scavengers” were employed by the city and supervised by the Commissioner of Health (when the city fathers thought the position was necessary). Their primary job was to clean streets and alleys of garbage and a whole lot more. Occasionally they were called to clean out privy vaults or cesspools when neighbors complained to vocally to their alderman. It wasn’t until after the Commissioner of Health reported on the condition of the Milwaukee River, and others, and Lake Michigan that a serious undertaking of privy cleaning and concern over waste dumped into the sewer system began.

The Charter and General Ordinances of the City of Milwaukee – 1875, on pages 203-204 list ordinance sections pertaining to privy vaults and the use of scavengers.

Section 36. Any person or persons who shall engage in removing the contents of privy vaults, or cleaning cesspools, shall be considered “night scavengers” within the meaning of this chapter.

Section 37. No person or persons or company shall exercise the calling of a night scavenger without first obtaining a license for that purpose from the mayor of the city of Milwaukee. No license shall be granted, under the provisions of this ordinance, until the person applying therefore shall have executed and filed with the mayor a good and sufficient bond to the city of Milwaukee in the penal sum of two hundred dollars, with ample security, to be approved by the city comptroller, conditioned that such night scavenger shall well and truly keep and perform all and every of the provisions for the regulation of night scavengers contained in this chapter, and such license shall be in force for one year from the date thereof.

Section 38. Night-soil shall be removed by night scavengers only in scavenger wagons or carts, and no other way. Every scavenger wagon shall be provided with a covered water-tight box. On each side of said box shall be painted the words “night scavenger”, and also the number of the license, and on top of said box, when it is in use, shall be kept in a conspicuous place a lighted lamp of red or yellow glass.

Section 39. It shall be the duty of every night scavenger so licensed, when requested by the owner, agent or occupant of any privy or cesspool within the city, to remove the contents of the vaults of said privies, or the contents of the cesspools, and to deposit the same at such place and in such manner as the board of health may direct. (Author’s Note – Up to this time, it wasn’t uncommon for the scavenger to dump the same right into the river.)

Section 40. It shall be the further duty of said night scavenger to deodorize and disinfect the contents of every privy vault and cesspool before the removal of the contents of the same, in such a manner as the board of health, or health officer may direct, and the contents of no vault or cesspool shall be removed or disturbed except between the hours of 11 P.M. and 4 A.M.

Section 41. Night scavengers shall be allowed to charge and receive for every cubic foot so taken and removed by them from any privy or cesspool, the sum of twenty-five cents, and a sum approximating to the probable number of cubic feet in said privy vault or cesspool, may be demanded in advance from every owner, agent or occupant of any house or other premises requiring the services of such scavenger. The surplus, if any, to be handed over by said scavenger to the said owner, agent or tenant, as aforesaid, as soon as the number of cubic feet removed shall have been ascertained. Such scavenger shall, in every case, use due diligence in speedily and without delay completing the same. In all cases the privy vault and cesspool shall be left in a good condition, and the premises in and around said privy and cesspool shall be left clean and inoffensive.

Section 42. Owners, agents, or occupants of premises within the city desiring to remove the contents of any privy or cesspool themselves, without the aid of the night scavenger, shall not be allowed to do so except upon written permission by the board of health, or health officer, and then only in such a manner as may be directed in such permit.

Section 43. Any person without a license, as aforesaid, who shall engage in business as night scavengers, or who shall undertake to remove the contents of any privy vault or cesspool within the city, without license or permit, as foresaid, or any person who shall violate any of the last preceding seven sections of this chapter, shall, on conviction thereof, be subject to a fine not exceeding fifty dollars. Any any night scavenger who shall violate any provision of this chapter, shall upon conviction, pay such fine, not exceeding fifty dollars, as the court may impose.

Section 44. Every person or persons, who shall use the ODERLESS SINK EVACUATING APPARATUS for the purpose of cleaning vaults or cesspools in the city of Milwaukee, shall not be considered a night scavenger, but no person or persons shall use such apparatus for the purposes aforesaid, without first obtaining a license and executing a bond, as provided in section thirty-seven of this chapter; and every person so using such apparatus, shall in all things be subject to the provisions of section forty-one of this chapter, and liable to the penalties prescribed in the last preceding section.

The Milwaukee Sentinel carried a news item dated April 19, 1879 where the Health Commissioner orders the scavengers to muster on Market Square in full regalia – carts – hose attached, and all implements of their trade. Inspection was performed to determine capability, and wagons/tanks were filled with water to test for leaks. Any leakers were taken out of service until repaired.

Earlier in 1878, the Health Commissioner sent word to Racine and Chicago for parties to come with machines. He was trying to hire scavengers who owned the “odorless” machines to clean Milwaukee’s privies.

Additional Background

The first regular sewage system construction began in 1869. It was a combined system which disposed of both sewage and surface drainage of storm water. By approximately 1892, 207 miles of sewers had been constructed, sixty-seven were of brick and 140 miles of pipe.

Beginning in 1871, the Milwaukee Board of Water Commissioners began the construction of a city water supply whose initial completion was in 1873. By this time they had fifty-five miles of water mains installed. In 1875, the project was turned over to the Board of Public Works who also controlled the sewage system.

In his 1880 report, the Milwaukee Health Commissioner made numerous comments about the “River Nuisance”. All city sewers of the time emptied into city rivers and were carried out to Lake Michigan. Instead of installing a separate sewer system to carry only human wastes to some holding site, other less costly measures were advocated. Some of these were; no person may connect a privy to any city sewer unless means are provided and employed for the abundant flushing of the same with clean water every time it is used. No person may dump the contents of a privy into a sewer. No person may bury or cause the contents of any privy vault to be buried in the ground. The owner of a water-closet or privy connected to any sewer shall pay a special tax of five dollars per annum to the city. All such tax monies collected shall be used for flushing or otherwise cleaning or purifying the rivers in Milwaukee. It’s the responsibility of the Health Commissioner to see that all foul privy-vaults are to be cleaned and filled in with fresh earth beginning in the central part of the city and working towards the circumference.

The City also stalled in providing a separate sewer system for waste by building a flushing works system that pumped about 450,000,000 gallons of Lake Michigan water every 20-24 hours into the Milwaukee River at a point north of the downtown area. The water came through a twelve foot diameter pipe, 2,500 feet in length, costing $241,466.39. The project’s goal, begun in September, 1888, was to dilute and displace the entire volume of river water, keeping it in very fine condition. It also tended to cool the air along the river’s shoreline. The main reason though was to dispose of the city sewage by carrying it a distance south of the city limits, where all dangers of contagion would be avoided.

This next paragraph deals with some things that I, the writer, am not sure actually took place. Reasons for this are that I have not found any direct supporting evidence that what you are about to read was ever actually put in place, also, that I found in a 1890 City Directory, evidence of continued pumping of privy vaults.

After the privies were cleaned out and filled in, the Health Commissioner requested from the owner to procure galvanized iron pans of such dimensions and form as directed, and place one under each hole in the seat of the privy house. Each shall be located and constructed for easy access and may be quickly removed for cleaning and conveniently returned. The owners or users of the privies were to add ashes, earth or some other absorbing substance to keep the pans dry. The contents of these pans, together with garbage, offal, ashes and dead animals shall be removed three times each week at the city’s expense. These items were to be dumped outside of the city limits or delivered to gardeners or for other users of manure in uninhabited districts of the city.

It was the Health Commissioner’s responsibility to report on the amount of material removed, where removed to, and from what houses each week to the city Council. His duty was also to hire sufficient laborers and teams (wagons and horses) to perform the work required. He employed superintendents to see that those persons who cleaned out the privies and did the other collection, did their duty and earn their wages.

The Commissioner made the following remarks to support the “dry removal” system. Those mentioned concern privies and none of the other sources of river/lake contamination going on as well.

“The contents of old privy vaults are clandestinely run into the sewers to an alarming extent. I do not mean water-closets. The water-closet proper is furnished with means of copious flushing every time it is used. (Writer’s note – The people of the time thought that flushing the waste with water would disperse it enough that when it combined with river and lake water that it would cause little pollution harm. Raw, undiluted waste dumping was frowned on.) The privy vault has no means of flushing. Human excreta accumulate there in putrid masses, frequently amounting to many tons. More than a hundred tons were removed from one great vault in this city last year. A large number of vaults have a six-inch pipe in the bottom running to the public sewer. No water being used, the pipe usually clogs up. The vault then fills…”

“Not long ago a citizen bitterly complained of the Health Officer, because he would not let him cut a trench from a huge old tenement-house vault to the sewer. The scavenger corps removed from that vault to the farming land beyond the city limits about fifty tons of night soil…”

I listed the 1906 Milwaukee ordinances below as a comparison to those published in 1875 as a comparison to 30 years of change.

Milwaukee General Ordinances – 1906

Chapter 3 – Buildings, Section 103-107 Privy Vaults

Section 103. Hereafter no privy vault or vaults shall be built by any person, persons or company or corporation on any lot, part of lot, or land fronting on a street or alley in which water pipe and sewer has been laid, to which service pipe and house drain can be attached.

Section 104. If complaint shall be made to the health department of the city of Milwaukee that any privy vault now existing on any lot, or part of lot, or land fronting on any street or alley in which water pipe and sewer has been laid, is a nuisance, the commissioner of health may investigate said complaint; and if the complaint is substantiated the commissioner of health shall make complaint to the District court of Milwaukee county.

Section 105. All privy vaults hereafter erected or maintained by any person, persons, company or corporation, on any lot, or part of lot, or land fronting on any street, alley or public ground which is not provided with public sewer and water pipe, shall be constructed and maintained water-tight, and shall not be located within two feet of the line of any lot, part of lot, or land.

Section 106. It is hereby made the duty of the inspector of buildings of the city of Milwaukee to refuse a permit for the erection of any building upon any lot, part of lot, or land fronting on any street or alley which is supplied with water pipe and sewer, the building plan of which does not show, nor specifications state, the location of a water closet, or closets and fixtures, and their connection with water main pipe and sewer in the street or alley, as the case may be.

Section 107. Any person or persons, company or corporation, or the manager, agent or superintendent of any company or corporation violating any of the provisions of sections 103, 105 and 106 of this chapter shall be punished by a fine of not less than ten (10) dollars, nor more than one hundred (100) dollars.

Chapter 15 – Health, Sections 71-88 Cleaning Privy Vaults and Scavengers

Section 71. No person, company or corporation within the city of Milwaukee, shall empty, clean, cover or remove the contents of any privy vault except in the manner prescribed in this chapter and in pursuance of the directions, regulations and requirements of the commissioner of health.

Section 72. Any person, company or corporation who shall engage in the business of emptying, cleaning, covering or removing the contents of any privy vault shall be deemed a scavenger within the meaning of this chapter.

Section 73. No person, company or corporation shall exercise the business of scavenger in the city of Milwaukee without first having obtained a license therefore. Each scavenger shall pay for the use of the city the sum of ten dollars per annum for each wagon operated by him or them, and no other fees. Such license shall date from the first day of May in each year, and no license shall be issued for a less period than one year. All applications for license shall be made to the mayor, who is hereby given full power and authority to grant or refuse to grant any such license, as to him may seem best; such license shall be signed by the city clerk and sealed with the corporate seal of the city. No license shall be issued until the person applying for the same shall present to the clerk the city treasurer’s receipt for the payment to the city of the annual license fee. Whenever the mayor shall grant a license in pursuance of this chapter, he shall give to the person or persons applying for such license, a certificate of the same, signed with his name, to be delivered to the city treasurer. The city treasurer is hereby prohibited from receiving money for any license, from any person who does not present and surrender to him such certificate of the mayor.

Section 74. The cleaning, emptying and removing of the contents of privy vaults shall be done in an inoffensive manner, and any such scavenger having begun such scavenger work shall, without interruption or delay, finish the same, and shall in every instance leave the privy in as good condition upon the vault as when the work was undertaken.

Section 75. The contents of privy vaults so removed by any scavenger shall be conveyed beyond the city limits in air-tight tanks or vessels, and shall be disposed of in such manner as to cause no offense, and tanks shall be kept clean and inoffensive when not in actual use.

Section 76. No privy vault shall be cleaned, emptied, covered or removed except by a licensed scavenger, and not until such scavenger shall have obtained a permit from the health department. The commissioner of health may prescribe such details for the doing of such scavenger work as the proper enforcement of this chapter shall require.

Section 77. Any person who shall be guilty of doing any scavenger work in the city of Milwaukee without first having obtained a license therefore, as provided for in this chapter, shall be fined not less than ten dollars nor more than fifty dollars for each and every offense.

Section 78. Scavengers who engage in the business of removing the contents of privy vaults, shall cause to be painted on the wagon-box of their wagons in letters and figures, his name, number of license and letter of wagon and carry on each wagon so employed at night , a lighted lamp with plain glass fronts and sides, with the number of the license and letters of the wagon painted with black paint, on the sides and front of each of said lamps, in distinct and legible figures, at least two inches in size, and so placed that said lamps may be distinctly seen, and said numbers and letters easily read. The scavenger shall also carry the permit for work in each instance, for inspection of the police. It shall be the right and duty of such night scavengers so licensed, when requested by any owners, agents or occupant of any privy within the city, to clean and remove the contents of the vault thereof, and to remove and deposit the same at such place or places as shall be designated by the commissioner of health of the city of Milwaukee, or in such place as said scavenger may select; provided, that the same is so disposed of as not to create a nuisance. Any owner, driver or manager of any such night wagon, who shall violate any provisions of this section, shall be fined not less than ten dollars nor more than fifty dollars for each and every offense, and shall have his license revoked.

Section 79. Owners, occupants or agents of privy vaults within the city, desiring to clean and remove the contents thereof themselves, without the aid of night scavengers, shall not be allowed to do so, except upon the written permission of the commissioner of health, and then only in such manner as he in said permit shall direct.

Section 80. Night scavengers shall be allowed to charge and receive for each cubic yard so by them taken and removed a sum not exceeding four dollars ($) for each and every yard so removed. The same charge shall apply to private contracts.

Section 81. Whenever in the opinion of the health commissioner, any privy vault, slop hopper, water closet, urinal, sink or sewer connections shall be offensive or dangerous to public health, and need cleaning, repairing, or renewing, it shall be his duty to notify the owner or agent to clean, repair or renew the same within a period named in said notice; and also to serve a printed copy of sections 71 to 84 inclusive, of chapter 15 of the general ordinances of the city of Milwaukee. Such person, owner or agent so notified and failing to comply with said notice within the time mentioned, shall, on conviction, be fined in a sum not less than $10, nor more than $50, for each and every offense. In case no owner or agent can be found in the city, the commissioner of health shall cause such offensive vault to be cleaned, the expense to be collected as in other cases of removal or abatement of nuisances.

Section 82. Scavengers receiving orders from owners, occupants or agents of premises, within the city for the cleaning of privy vaults thereof, shall apply to the health office for a permit to clean such privy, vault or vaults, within twenty-four hours after receiving such orders, and shall make a return of such permit to the health commissioner, certifying the number of yards which they may have removed from the vault or vaults therein described, also where the same was deposited, within two days after the work shal…