Heritage, Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 1988 Page: 17
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pioneers emigrating from the Appalachians, probably used the
word "loo," from the Scottish cry "gardy loo" -telling people on
the street to look out for the slops being poured from an upstairs
chamber pot. The word "john" or "johnnie" in reference to an
outhouse was also in common usage. As early as 1735, one of the
regulations issued at Harvard University was "No Freshman shall
go into the Fellows' Johns." One of the largest importers of
sanitary ware or chamber pots into the United States was the
British firm, Armitage, although they used the trade name of
their original owner, the Rev. Edward Johns -hence johnnie.
Other names included privy, sanitary closet, outhouse, backhouse,
library, biffie, donnicker, jake, dooley, and willie.
The first settlers on any frontier initially just used the woods.
Later a board might be placed at a diagonal position across a
fence comer. The size and dimensions of the privy reflected the
status of the owner. They usually had one hole, but there were
some with two or three. The Barton privy at Salado, Texas, was
a "three holer." The Houston's privy at their 1830s home at
Independence, Texas had shuttered ventilators; another later
privy had a stone floor. In the 1831 journal of her travels in
Texas, Mary Austin Holley stayed with the Perrys at their Peach
Point Plantation. She commented that Emily Perry even
"demanded that proper outhouses be put up in the style of the
large southern plantations." The oral history tradition also
suggests that privies were predominantly used by women and
children-men preferring to go behind the barn.
People kept a box of corn cobs, or the shucks, for use as toilet
paper. Chamber pots or slop jars were also extremely common.
The term "slop jar" refers to more than a container for kitchen
slops, since it actually served the same utilitarian purpose as a
chamber pot. The pots were covered and kept under the bed, or
in a special compartment in the "night commode," or bedside
The practice of bathing was
influenced by geography, and
even over short distances, the
weariness per gallon [of water]
suffered in carrying it outweighed
the refreshment per gallon
gained from bathing.
table. The washstand or commode table was a significant part of
the bedroom furnishing of the nineteenth century Texas home.
Generally, as soon as a settler built a house with rooms used only
for sleeping and dressing, "the washstand, equipped with soap,
water, and a covered chamber pot was acquired."
While this worked well for rural areas, the dumping of
chamber pots into open ditches, cesspools, and over-taxed
privies, presented tremendous sanitation problems in the towns.
Ben Franklin called privies "magazines of putrification." By the
early nineteenth century, polluted water and waste disposal had
reached crisis proportions, characterized by a series of recurring
epidemics. The situation in the Texas Republic mirrored the
In 1840 Houston was described as "dirty, filthy, breeding
pestilence in almost every street...dead carcasses lie and fester in
the broiling sun; standing puddles scabbed with green disease
throw their putrescence out." Galveston included a marshy area
in the center of town which ran the entire length of the city and
emitted a horrible stench. People were aware of a connection
between poor sanitation and disease, especially cholera. It was
noted that "no citizen of the town where cistern water was
exclusively used was stricken with the disease." Cisterns were
large wooden barrels that caught run-off from the roof. There
were also ground cisterns which stored water. Houston at the
time of the Republic also had water carriers who sold water from
wooden carts at so much a bucketful or barrel. They brought the
water from springs in the surrounding countryside.
Privies would continue to be a part of the Texas scene, up into
the twentieth century in rural areas, and the cultural perceptions
of cleanliness held by Texas were mirrors of attitudes held by
nineteenth century Americans in general. The White House did
not possess an indoor bathroom until 1851. The innovation,
even though it was in President Millard Filmore's official quarters,
was the subject of much criticism, being considered "a
luxury which could well be done without."
Ellen N. Murry is Curator of Education, Star of the Republic
Museum. Reprinted with permission from Star of the Republic Museum,
Washington on the Brazos.
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 1988, periodical, Spring 1988; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45435/m1/17/: accessed September 24, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.