Earth Closets, Swinging Urinals, and Other Bizarre Cincinnati Potties

Cincinnati didn’t exactly welcome indoor plumbing with open arms in the late 1800s.

You might imagine that the genius who finally introduced flushable indoor toilets to Cincinnati was proclaimed a hero and is likely memorialized with a statue somewhere. You would be wrong.

The swing urinal was intended for installation in a bedroom, beneath a washstand where it could remain out of sight until the need arose. It was flushed by a push-button valve.

J.L. Mott Iron Works Catalog (1884), digitized by New York Public Library

The basic concept of an indoor-located flush toilet was understood and, in fact, manufactured since the 1830s or so. Cincinnati ignored this invention for decades, however, and some authorities even lobbied against domestic potties. Here is an editorial from The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [July 15, 1873]:

“We do not hesitate to say that in the state of plumbing, in the average house in this city, connection with a sewer would be disastrous. It will be seen that our improvers not only demand a connection with sewers in front of our houses, but require soil pipes to pass through the houses—conditions condemned by every respectable medical authority on earth, and that would make Cincinnati one of the most unhealthy instead of one of the healthiest cities in the world.”

The antithetical Cincinnati Enquirer [July 16, 1873] propounded quite the opposite view:

“When we charged that the Commercial favored the privy vaults, it denied it. Now it does ‘not hesitate to say’ that sewers are a nuisance. It believes in stowing the filth of the city on private premises. It will not even consent that privy vaults shall be cleaned. The night carts it abominates. Therefore, we must, if we would have a healthy city, have overflowing nastiness in the rear of every house in the city.”

Recall that this was a time when the germ theory of disease was only gradually catching on. Until microbes caught the blame, educated people sincerely believed that disease was spread by foul smells. Malaria, for instance, derives from the Italian for “bad air.” The Commercial [August 17, 1873] reported that major European cities prohibited draining water closets into sewers.

“[It’s a serious question] whether the filth and soil from water-closets being allowed to go into the sewers and thus pass through a great portion of the town, emitting noxious smells to escape from the openings of the sewers, is not more detrimental to the health of the inhabitants than where it runs into the cesspools upon the premises of the occupants; and emptied only when necessary.”

In the matter of sewerage, the staunchly Republican-backed Commercial Tribune and the virulently Democratic-backed Enquirer were, oddly enough, both sort of right on this issue. Flushable toilets, like mobile phones, are useless without a network. And in 1873, Cincinnati’s sanitary network was a shambles.

To operate effectively, an indoor flush toilet needs to be designed so it flows in only one direction. Neither waste nor odor, in other words, should flow back to the house. That had mostly—but not entirely—been solved by manufacturers.

Additionally, there must be a source of water to flush with, and that was hit-or-miss in Cincinnati. Reliable water was marginally available downtown but not on the hilltops. Likewise, there must be somewhere for the flushed waste to go, and Cincinnati’s sewer system was a patchwork of disasters. Finally, once flushed, the “nastiness” must disappear. In Cincinnati, the sewers, especially in the East End, shunted highly polluted wastewater perilously close to intakes for the city’s waterworks.

For most of the 19th Century, Gibson Plumbing was the go-to vendor for toilet fixtures in Cincinnati.

Williams City Directory (1875), digitized by Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

In the absence of a functioning toilet system, some Cincinnatians adopted half-measures. They put the toilet in the house, flushed it when possible with water pumped from a cistern, and dumped the effluent into the backyard privy vault. On April 2, 1845, sign painter Hamilton Harbaugh advertised his house for sale on the north side of Third Street, four doors east of John Street, containing an interior bathroom and water closet. At that date, Harbaugh’s interior toilet could only have dumped into a backyard privy. There was no sewer nearby.

Cincinnati plumbers offered a bewildering array of toilet receptacles to be installed in the home, including according to an advertisement [The Enquirer, July 24, 1856] for plumber Perry J. Moore:

“Iron sinks, for kitchens, with stench-trap and strainer
Patent Self-acting Water-closets
Patent Valve-pan Water-closets
Swing and Chair Urinals for ladies’ sleeping apartments. An entirely new article.”

As primitive as these folks may have been, the reality is that even today there are few houses equipped with a Swing Urinal for ladies’ sleeping apartments. Here it must be noted that the urinal in question did not swing during use, but was installed on a rotating pipe to swing out of sight for modesty’s sake.

As late as 1874, water closets (flush toilets) attracted competition from “earth closets,” what we today would call a composting toilet. An advertisement [Cincinnati Gazette, June 13, 1874] was positively breathless:

“The greatest blessing of the 19th Century. Fast superseding the water closet. Can be used in any sleeping room without offense.”

Earth closets required a constant source of dry and sifted dirt for effective operation. Maintenance, according to the manuals that survive, resembled the operation of a cat’s litter box. Additionally, earth closets apparently could not accommodate urine or toilet paper. They never did “supersede” the water closet.

On the matter of bathroom paper products, an 1859 advertisement for “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper for the Water Closet” raises yet another obvious question about vintage toilets, whether located inside or outside. Namely, how did our forebears attend to, shall we say, the excretory orifice after the deed is done? It appears that Joseph Gayetty of New York was a lone purveyor of bathroom paper in 1859. No similar products are advertised until toilet paper—under that name—became available around 1890. What sufficed in the meantime confounds the imagination, although Gayetty’s advertising warned against the use of toxic inked paper in the nether regions, presumably a reference to newspaper or book pages.

Apparently, mentioning paper products employed in the water closet, privy, or “necessary” was a breach of etiquette. Still, business being business, The Cincinnati Post [April 21, 1887] reports:

“The tissue and toilet paper makers of the United States have advanced prices ten to fifteen per cent.”

For the record, researching topics such as this requires an awareness of archaic terminology. For example, the phrase “indoor plumbing” seems not to have been used in Cincinnati until the mid-1930s.

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