Someone has to ask the important questions.
On a recent visit to George Washington’s home of Mount Vernon, I was struck by one particular building – the “necessary,” AKA privy, outbuilding, outhouse, or latrine.
It was actually a replica of Washington’s original necessary house, an educated attempt to recreate the structure where America’s #1 went #2.
What struck me about it was that there were three holes.
No stalls. No partitions. Just three open holes, right next to each other.
I generally think of 18th century folks with their layers and their wigs as more repressed and private than us, but maybe I’m wrong – maybe when it came to this basic, natural act they were more relaxed.
Somehow I had a problem imagining this applying to George Washington. He was considered formal and standoffish for his time, not exactly the guy you’d picture as your restroom copilot.
When I saw Twitter was celebrating #AskACurator Day and The George Washington Library was participating, I took the opportunity to ask an expert.
So according to The George Washington Library, the presence of multiple holes is historically accurate…but no one knows if Washington held cabinet meetings in there.
(If you’re asking yourself, why is this important? Does it really matter? then I’m sorry we can’t be friends.)
I let this very important mystery go unexplored for a while. Then I ran across the research of writer and University of Maryland professor Michael Olmert. It turns out he literally wrote the book on this: Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies: Outbuildings and the Architecture of Daily Life in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic. His thorough research brought me much closer to the bottom of this.
In addition to fascinating details about the history of dealing with human waste (or “night soil” as it’s euphemistically called), Olmert’s book specifically addressed my curiosity about multiple holes:
So “multiseat latrines” have been around since ancient times, but what about in George Washington’s time? Of the thousands of surviving letters from the founders and hundreds of portraits of them in various poses, there is no smoking gun detailing potty parties. It just wasn’t something you wrote home about.
“To modern sensibilities, it takes some imagination to understand how more than one person (or more than one sex) could comfortably use a single necessary at the same time. But ancient examples of communal latrines abound. Roman villas and forts had vast arrays of multiseat latrines. In Dugga, Roman North Africa, the latrine at the baths of the Cyclops had twelve seats arranged around three sides of a rectangular enclosure.”
If we look to Europe, there are two pieces of artwork from the 18th century Olmert lists as providing valuable insight into multi-hole privies, and how those holes should and should not be used.
One of the best sources for 18th century toilet interior design is the 1745 satirical cartoon Sawney in the Boghouse. Sawney, a stereotype of a Scotstman, is unfamiliar with modern toilets and sits with his legs in the holes while urinating down the front.
This racist toilet humor gives us our best glimpse into how these old lavatories might have been adorned, complete with a box of tissue and illustrated stories on the wall. Plenty of reading material, a nice picture of a horse — this is what people did before smartphones.
When I shared this three-hole mystery on the Plodding Facebook page a while back, some people suggested the holes were intended for parents with small children. That makes sense, but I couldn’t imagine that being the only explanation. Olmert describes a 1764 painting from the Von Echstedt estate in Varmland, Sweden that shows how these multiple holes might have been used by couples. This painting on a privy wall:
“shows an elegantly dressed man and woman using a three-holer at the same time. (The empty hole is visible between the two sitters.) Outside, on either side of the privy, his manservant and her maid wait patiently. They each hold out a small sheet of paper.”
It reminds me of the 1991 Saturday Night Live parody commercial for the Love Toilet.
If elegantly dressed European men took their ladies to the loo, does that mean George Washington did too? To find out, I reached out to the source – Michael Olmert. I emailed him my questions and he kindly indulged my curiosity, probably because I am a polite, professional adult who restrained myself from addressing him as the Professor of the Privy.
“I’m as certain as I can be that George Washington would have used multi-holed privies. Everyone of his class had estates with such privies. He was no different.
What’s clear is that notions of privacy were far different from ours. For instance, a great many homes in the 18th century had no hall that led to separate bedrooms, which meant that family members and guests had to walk through adjoining bedrooms to get to their own bed. Similarly, travelers staying in taverns, inns, and ordinaries regularly had people sharing beds. Which means they also shared chamberpots! It was a different world.”
A different world, indeed. (This adds a new detail to the story of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin sharing a bed. Considering this shared chamberpot, I think I’d want the window open too.)
Notions of privacy were different then, and I wonder what future generations will think of our bathrooms with the bathtubs in such close proximity to the toilet. Will they imagine a man, soaking in his tub to experience a moment of quiet isolation away from the sounds of Sofia the First, only to have his wife come in to sit on the toilet and unburden her bowels and her feelings to her captive audience? For example.
Some Virginians took as much pride in the construction of their necessaries as Washington took in the construction of Mount Vernon. Olmert chronicled Virginia privies with multiple holes for adults and children, stairways leading to them, even fireplaces inside to keep you warm. These structures were meant to be shown off and shared, even by the father of his country.
There is another facet of the necessary house that would have been of keen interest to Washington. He was one of the most successful and cutting-edge farmers of his day, and – bear with me, here – the man loved manure.
When he was looking for a farm manager, he said he wanted “above all, Midas like, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards gold.” He also had his slaves “rake and scrape up all the trash, of every sort and kind about the houses…and throw it (all I mean that will make dung) into the stercorary” or dung repository.
In addition to animal dung, “night soil” was sometimes used for manure, and it should be noted that each seat of the necessary at Mount Vernon has removable wooden drawers made for easy emptying. More fertilizer = more bountiful crops = more profit.
The best answer I can come up with to the question “Did George Washington poop with friends?” is: Only if he wanted to. The most likely scenario to me is that he may have shared this common occurrence not with his friends but with his family, or at least Martha.
I go back and forth between thinking George and Martha sitting side by side in the necessary is romantic and remembering that everyone back then had constant dysentery. At one point, George Washington was so affected by the condition that he had to put a pillow beneath him on his horse.
And there is something comforting in the thought that maybe, some two hundred-odd years ago in that three-holed necessary at Mount Vernon, George Washington didn’t have to suffer alone.