Editor’s note: Michigan’s economy in 2010 is in the crapper. So the theme of jobs growth and economic development is a part of political campaigns statewide – from city council contests on up to the gubernatorial race. Yet no candidate has identified indoor non-flushable toilets as a growth industry in Michigan – perhaps with good reason. We tried that before and it didn’t work out. Local history author Laura Bien deftly treats this delicate topic with her trademark deadpan prose.
In the late 19th century two University of Michigan professors of medicine and an Ypsilanti doctor championed a new sanitation technology. Despite their efforts spanning nearly 20 years, the earth closet turned out to be arguably the least enthusiastically adopted invention in Michigan history.
It was an era of primitive indoor toilets connected to odoriferous privy vaults – if you were lucky. Even elegant urban houses had backyard outhouses – such as Ann Arbor’s historic Kempf House.
Patented in England in 1873 by Henry Moule, the earth closet resembled a wooden box with a rear metal hopper. The hopper was filled with clean dry dirt. After using this commode, the user turned a small handle that dropped a small portion of dirt into the pail, covering its contents and rendering them allegedly odor-free. In time, the pail was removed and emptied, often on one’s garden. Lower-tech earth closets without a hopper had a nearby bucket of dirt on the floor.
It was a 19th-century composting toilet.
University of Michigan professor of medicine (and future medical school dean) Alonzo Palmer published “Dry Earth as a Means of Disposal of Excreta” in the September 1870 edition of the Michigan University Medical Journal.
The paper’s first sentence read, “In Nutrition, considered in the largest sense – in the maintenance of the body – in the selection and appropriation of proper nutrient particles and the rejection of others, and in the renewal of tissues so constantly occurring, rejected and worn out materials in a state ready to undergo decomposition are constantly being expelled from the body by its various emunctories [excretory organs].”
Palmer went on to list cases of typhoid and enteric fever around the country and abroad. He discussed their link to unsanitary privies, cess-pools, and contaminated drinking water.
He opined that the earth closet would “afford a comfortable closet on any floor of the house, which may be supplied with earth and cleansed of its deposits, without annoyance or inconvenience … a portable commode, in any dressing room, bedroom or closet, the care of which is no more disagreeable than that of a stove.”
“The remedy,” he said, “consists in mingling with dry and porous earth immediately all excreta. In so doing its particles are brought so in contact with the substance of the earth as to effect chemical changes, rendering the matters inoffensive and innoxious, preparing them for entering vegetable organisms as a part of their proper nutrient pabulum.”
Palmer invoked Biblical authority. “This is no newly discovered principle or modern practice. It was enjoined by Moses as an important hygienic measure, when [in] Deuteronomy 23:12 and 13 a paddle was directed to be provided for each weapon, to be used [as a shovel for waste burial].”
He warned of the folly – even danger – of wasting valuable excreta. “[Ancient Rome’s] Cloaca Maxima [a sewer, whose patron goddess was Cloacina] … carrying the waste of that great city into the Mediterranean, by the impoverishment of the soil, has been regarded as among the chief causes of the fall of the Empire.”
Palmer’s talk was an outgrowth of the era’s heightened awareness of the value of sanitation. Ten years later, Michigan would hold its first statewide Sanitary Convention. It became an annual event held in cities around the state.
At the July 1, 1885 state Sanitary Convention, held in Ypsilanti that year, Ypsilanti doctor Ruth French opened the proceedings with her talk on the “Management of Earth Closets.”
“Perhaps to some the subject of this paper may seem very unimportant,” she began, “but to those who are interested in the health and general welfare of the people, it has been from the earliest times a matter of sufficient importance to demand legislation.” Like Palmer, she made reference to Moses.
French enumerated the advantages of earth closets.
- They do away with all offensive odor.
- They prevent contamination of soil, and consequently water, thereby preventing the cause of much sickness and death.
- They can be placed under the same roof as the house, so as to be easily accessible for women, children and invalids, in stormy and cold weather.
- In cases of typhoid, cholera, and other diseases, propagated through the evacuations, by first disinfecting with copperas, then treating with dry earth, there is no possible opportunity for harm to come from them if kept in a dry place, for a short time.
Possibly inspired in part by the Sanitary Convention’s publicity of the subject, in the same year William Heap and two colleagues established Michigan’s first (and last) earth closet factory. Heap’s Muskegon firm manufactured earth closets and piano stools. The company advertised its earth closets until at least 1891, but ceased making them before the new century. Heap shifted to making flush toilets, later giving the business to his son.
Other Michiganders were tinkering with the devices. At least four earth-closet-related patents were filed by inventors in Lansing, Grand Rapids, Carson City, and Centreville between 1871 and 1895.
In an April 1, 1887 edition of the semi-monthly magazine “The Sanitary Era,” University of Michigan professor and later medical school dean Victor Vaughan addressed the issue. “A dry-earth closet properly kept is free from all noxious gases, and there is no possibility of the drinking water being contaminated by it,” he wrote.
But it seems likely that the volume of dirt required year-round and the work of keeping the pail clean was regarded by average Michiganders as just too much trouble. Despite the three local doctors’ efforts and those of others, the device’s end came soon.
Four years after Vaughan’s article, Ypsilanti began installing its first municipal sewer system, with Ann Arbor following suit in 1893. In the cities, the old unsanitary privy vaults were emptied, filled with fresh soil, and sealed shut. Flush toilets with water traps eliminated the old problem of sewer gas in the home. Disease rates fell.
And the earth closet became history.
Thanks to Muskegon’s Lakeshore Museum Center for their research assistance.
This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.
Last week’s item was the hardest Mystery Artifact to date. Guesses ranged all over the map.
But one person nailed it.
John said, “Okay – I’m amending my guess … to a marshmallow toaster. What a mess to clean when it flames!”
He’s exactly right. This is an indoor electric marshmallow toaster. Here’s a picture and another picture and a bit more history about this promotional item distributed by the Campfire marshmallow company. Great guess, John!
Neither the marshmallow toaster nor any type of earth closet was for sale in the 1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog, though semi-modern porcelain toilet bowls and three styles of portable chair-type commodes were available, as was this week’s Mystery Artifact. Take your best guess and good luck!
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an idea for a column? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.