In the Archives: Earth Closets

"... thou shalt dig ... and cover that which cometh from thee"

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.


Description of William Heap's earth closet. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

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.

  1. They do away with all offensive odor.
  2. They prevent contamination of soil, and consequently water, thereby preventing the cause of much sickness and death.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Heap's satisfied Michiganders' hunger for earth closets, which was minimal.

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.


Mystery Artifact

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

Section: Business, Neighborhoods

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  1. By abc
    October 7, 2010 at 8:17 am | permalink

    It is some kind a small printing machine… I thnk.

    Maybe its for printing messages on the sides of marshmallows… just before you put them in your own personal marshmallow toaster.

    Maybe this printing machine was used by spies so they can read the message on the marshmallow and then burn it up so no one else can read it.

  2. By Lisa Bashert
    October 7, 2010 at 8:20 am | permalink

    I think it’s an early typewriter. The wheel looks like an old IBM Selectric wheel!

  3. By abc
    October 7, 2010 at 8:28 am | permalink


    I was thinking more along the lines of labels or specialized printing. Typewriters, even in the 1800′s, had keys that look a lot like the keyboard I am using right now. Although my fingers are not strong enough to have typed this on manual typewriter.

  4. October 7, 2010 at 9:01 am | permalink

    ABC: Upon receipt and decoding of the Mallowgram, agents are instructed to promptly toast and eat said confection, or make a s’more.

    It’s a great idea. Who would suspect an innocuous bag of marshmallows in one’s luggage at the airport?

  5. October 7, 2010 at 9:02 am | permalink

    Lisa: Interesting guess…I don’t see any keys though. Hmmm…

  6. October 7, 2010 at 10:25 am | permalink

    Great article on earth closets. Modern Composting toilets in the form of the Clivus Multrum are now sometimes found at highway rest stops. There is one along route 502 east of Sarnia, Ontario and I recall one in Michigan but I can’t recall where it was. I know there is at least one in an Ann Arbor home and someone locally held the Michigan franchise for selling Clivus Multrums during the 1970s and 80s. I had plans for building something similar out of concrete blocks and built two of them on my “hobby” farm in Hillsdale county during the 80s. They worked quite well.

    As for the mystery item, it is clearly some kind of primitive typewriter. A childhood friend had something similar during the 1930s. It worked by dialing the letter desired and then pressing the entire dial down onto the paper. I don’t recall how the ribbon (if any) worked but it was probably something closer to a stamp and ink pad than a typewriter ribbon. In you photo, it shows something to the left of the disk which looks like it might hold a stamp for embossing wax seals on the envelope or letter.

  7. October 7, 2010 at 10:32 am | permalink

    Al Feldt: That’s very interesting about the composting toilets. My understanding is that local law says that you are free to install one in your home IF at least one of your other toilets is actually connected to the municipal sewer system.

    Interesting guess…we shall see.

  8. By abc
    October 7, 2010 at 1:48 pm | permalink

    Could this be a more up-to-date version of the mystery object?


  9. By George Hammond
    October 7, 2010 at 3:20 pm | permalink

    UM did a major renovation of the 100-year old Dana Building a few years ago, and made a strong effort to “green” the building (it is home to the School of Natural Resources and Environment). They included a few composting toilets among the many other innovations.

  10. October 7, 2010 at 3:20 pm | permalink

    That’s an interesting speculation ABC… :)

  11. By Dave
    October 7, 2010 at 3:24 pm | permalink


    The mystery artifact appears to be an early, round (rotary) index typewriter. Produced during the late 19th or early 20th century.

  12. October 7, 2010 at 5:04 pm | permalink

    Dave: Interesting guess…if so it seems as though that would take a long time to type anything. Hmmm..

  13. October 7, 2010 at 5:05 pm | permalink

    George: That’s very interesting; didn’t know that. We have only one that I know of here in Ypsi it’s on the “green bus” that belongs to a couple in town.

  14. By Pete
    October 8, 2010 at 8:39 am | permalink

    Thetford Corp. is located west of Ann Arbor and specializes in producing permanent and portable toilets used in RV’s, boating, camping and for other applications. This company is an industry leader and is a significant contributor to our economy. At this time their product line foes not include composting toilets, they are mostly holding tank varieties.

    In time this product area is going to be more significant as a means to reduce resource use. Let’s hope that Michigan can play prominently in that market and avoid the previous pitfalls of Heap.

    Thank you for the article.

  15. By John
    October 9, 2010 at 12:16 pm | permalink

    How about a printing telegraph that translates incoming Morse Code into printed letters? There seems to be a key on the left, perhaps for sending.

  16. By Irma
    October 9, 2010 at 12:40 pm | permalink

    I like the spy idea, so maybe it’s an encoder? Spy chooses an appropriate secret code disk, puts it on the spindle, selects the alphabet letters that spell the message and the encoder disk prints out the secret coded version. Works on paper or flattened marshmallows! Only at Sears!

  17. By Rod Johnson
    October 11, 2010 at 9:23 am | permalink

    I believe the new building at Leslie Science Center also has composting toilets, and there may be a few others around town.

  18. By Cindy Overmyer
    October 12, 2010 at 11:52 am | permalink

    Yes, the restrooms in the Nature House at the Leslie Science Center are composting toilets – 4 stalls in each. The National Park Service has used them at various campgrounds – the North & South Manitou Islands had a couple at one time, but I think they were replaced recently as they didn’t work all that well. The ones at Leslie are great!

    That mystery item looks like an early labelmaker – possibly for laundry?

  19. By Wystan Stevens
    October 20, 2010 at 9:48 pm | permalink

    The late Lawrence “Larry” Scott of Ann Arbor was the local promoter of the Clivus Multrum composting toilet, back in the 1980s. Larry had financial backing from the fabulously wealthy Abby Rockefeller, of New York City. The Ann Arbor News ran a story or two about Larry and the Clivus Multrum.

  20. By Stefan Szumko
    October 22, 2010 at 9:35 am | permalink

    It is true. The composting toilets in the Nature House at the Leslie Science and Nature Center are wonderful (2 seats in the women’s; 1 seat/1 urinal in the men’s). No splash. No mess. No smell (not enough daily traffic?). Just don’t drop your cell phone down the hole (although it can be easily retrieved in the basement, I’m not sure you’d want it by your face afterward). Even the heat from the composting process helps save on energy. Although the slight draft from below is disconcerting at first, the results are worth it.

    By the way, did Heap ever set aside any piano stool samples for posterity?