These men would cart off human feces under the cloak of darkness.

Using the restroom is a daily activity that we all do. In today’s world of modern convenience and technology, a restroom is a clean place; a place we go to relax; a place we decorate and take pride in. 

The restroom, loo, or privy was not always the clean welcoming place it is today. Before the time of sewers, flushing toilets, and urinals, the privy was a simple hole dug deep into the ground. People would do their business in them, and because there was no outlet, the holes would fill up ... Yeah, it's as disgusting as it sounds.

Enter the “night soil men” or “gong farmers.” Night soil was the name given to the buildup of human waste in privies, sometimes called earth closets—it was a better way of saying, well .... a huge pile of crap. In the dark of night, these men would come in and remove the excrement so that people would not have to see or smell it the following morning.

They would use long-handled shovels to dig out the waste from the makeshift bathrooms, pile it in carts, and haul it away, all in the dead of night. Each “toilet” needed to be cleaned out about 2 or 3 times a year. The stinky loads of human waste were taken away and given to farms as fertilizer, although much of it ended up dumped in rivers, lakes, ponds, empty fields, and the like.

In New York, it got so bad that city workers often had to dredge the Hudson and East Rivers of the waste so that boats could maneuver around it and dock. In Washington, D.C., the waste was dumped in a field near the White House and is thought to have contributed to the death of President William Henry Harrison in 1841, who died just 31 days into his presidency.

The night soil men worked a thankless job, with hundreds of men across the country taking this on as an occupation. Most were immigrants or Black, and they were not treated well.

Eventually, the spread of disease and the sheer volume of waste forced cities and municipalities to build sewer and water systems. It was a long process and took many years. By the early 1890s, miles and miles of sewers were built under big cities like Brooklyn, Chicago, and New York. By the early 1900s, most areas had functioning public water sources and sewers, and the work of the night soil men became a thing of the past.

A few fun facts about the modern sewage system:

  • The first flushing toilet was designed in 1596, by a godson of Queen Elizbeth I, Sir John Harington. That device required 7.5 gallons of water from a cistern to flush through a two-foot-deep oval bowl that had been waterproofed with resin, wax, and pitch. According to History, up to 20 people would use the toilet between flushes. That device was the predecessor to today's modern flush toilet. 
  • In 1775, English Inventor Alexander Cumming was granted a patent for the first flush toilet. He developed the S-shaped pipe that goes under to bowl to prevent sewer gases from coming back up through the toilet.
  • Sanitary engineer Thomas Crapper revitalized the flushing toilet by developing the ballcock, a device that helps fill the tank and is still used in modern toilets. Often credited with the invention of the toilet due to his name, Crapper was not the inventor of any toilet, nor did he hold any patents for them. He was a plumber, who installed toilets, and his company manufactured one of the first commercial lines of flush toilets. His name was stamped on the toilets, and soon became synonymous with the device, leading to the common belief that he invented the “crapper.”

The evolution of the modern toilet has certainly come a long way from a hole in the ground, and everyone can be thankful for that!

Did you know there was such a long history that went into the modern convince of today's restrooms? Sound off in the comments.