1913 Sanitary Privy Systems: Key to Healthy Kansans
Written by Donna Casement, State Library of Kansas
KGI Online Library Blog-December 3, 2020
“Without doubt, many of the germ diseases may be transmitted by means of water; and some of the diseases are so uniformly transmitted by water that they are known as ‘waterborne’ diseases. Typhoid, dysentery and other intestinal disorders are such diseases, and if they may be carried by water, it is of the greatest importance that every precaution be taken to insure a pure water supply.” (Page 361, “Water Supply, Plumbing, and Sewage Disposal for Country Homes”, Robert W Trullinger, 1913-14, Nineteenth Biennial Report, Kansas State Board of Agriculture)
Bulletin No. 11, November 1913, Kansas State Board of Health
“No water, however pure it may be at its source, can be considered clean if it comes into contact with the seepage from a privy vault or the barnyard manure pile, and no air to breathe if filled with the stench of decaying garbage or offal. Many a man who boasts that his well contains ‘the best water in the neighborhood, clear and sparkling as crystal,’ would be genuinely astounded to learn that this water is grossly polluted by the leaching of his privy or barnyard, yet this condition exists in thousands of the homes in Kansas to-day; and if some illness has not been caused in the home by this water, it is no guarantee that it will not be. (Bulletin No. 10, October 1913, Kansas State Board of Health)
G. E. Condra, Chairman of the Nebraska Committee on Rural Sanitation and Health, wrote an extensive article that was featured in multiple Kansas newspapers concerning the need for rural communities to be mindful of dangerous health situations if they fail to manage their clean water and disposal of waste materials.
“Drinking water on the farm should be guarded with extreme care, for it may become the leading medium through which disease is carried to the body. Attention is paid to the kind of water supplied to farm animals, for a good quality is necessary to produce health and a rapid growth. The leading thing to guard against, in most wells, is organic pollution from slops, garbage, barnyards and privies. To be of use in making well water more sanitary, the privy or cesspool should not be placed too close to the well. Disease is also spread by careless methods of using drinking water, even when it is free from dangerous germs. Germs of the sick are carried to others by drinking in common from buckets, dippers and cups.” (#1-The Nebraska Farm Journal, Topeka, June 1, 1913
An article on water supply, plumbing and sewage disposal for country homes was presented in the 1913-14, Biennial Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture. The article stated that farm water supplies could be divided into three classes, in the order of their liability to pollution. The first category was surface supplies, water obtained from streams, ponds, reservoirs and cisterns. The next two categories were shallow and deep underground supplies obtained from dug, bored, driven or drilled wells and water from springs.
“Surface water supplies should therefore not be used for household purposes, not even for washing milk cans or for laundry purposes, unless no other supply is available. And it may be safely assumed that the person who drinks water from surface supplies, endangers his health if such supplies are not first protected from sources of contamination as far as possible and then purified.” (1913-14, Nineteenth Biennial Report, Kansas State Board of Agriculture)
In an article written for the state board of health, “The Sanitary Privy”, Fred R. Hesser, health department assistant engineer, said the most important aspect of an individual’s home environment is the sanitary disposal of kitchen and human waste. “For the dweller in the average farmhouse, small town or suburban home, probably the most important consideration in the maintenance of healthful living conditions is the disposal or destruction of the toilet and kitchen wastes.
No water, however pure it may be at its source, can be considered clean if it comes in contact with the seepage from a privy vault or the barnyard manure pile, and no air is good to breathe if filled with the stench of decaying garbage or offal. Sooner or later some member or members of a family will contract disease from this water.” (Page 196, Bulletin no. 10, October 1913, Kansas State Board of Health
Within the article, Hesser described the methods of sanitary privy construction. He said there were two unsatisfactory methods of dealing with human waste; the most primitive being direct deposit on the ground and letting nature take its course, and the open cesspool, which is a primary source for many types of contagious diseases. The sanitary privy was a sanitary means of safely dealing with waste and the best possible substitute other than a modern water closet connected to a sewage system.
Hesser described three types of sanitary privy systems. The first system was a dry system, a hole in the ground that would eventually be filled in with soil, sometimes called a Pit Privy. The second system was a wet system that used a receptacle with a water-tight covering to receive the waste and emptied as needed. The third system was the L.R.S. waste receptacle that was recommended by the Department of Agriculture for home sanitary privy systems.
Hesser laid out the requirements for all three systems:
1. The excreta should not come in contact with the ground while moist. Therefore, some water-tight receptacle must be used under the seat.
2. It should be so built that dogs, rats, chickens, ect., can not have access to contents.
3. It must be constructed so flies and other insects can not have access to the excreta.
4. It should be well ventilated, so that foul odors will not make its use objectionable.
The L.R.S. privy was recommended as the best sewage system for single family dwellings. “The L.R.S. privy differs in that a larger water-tight receptacle is placed under the seat, connected by means of a pipe with a smaller receptacle for receiving the liquid effluent, which may be emptied periodically or dosed into a connecting system of under drains. A considerable quantity of the solid matter will rot and liquefy.” (#2-The Galena Weekly Republican, April 9, 1915
Single dwellings also had the option of installing a new type of sewage system described by Kansas State Board of Health engineer, C. A. Haskins. In his report, “A Sewage Disposal Plant for a Single Residence”, Haskins described a new system that separated the solids from the waste and in an anaerobic condition, bacteria would break down the solid wastes.
Bulletin no. 11, November 1913, Kansas State Board of Health
“It has been discovered that the solid matter which settles out of ordinary domestic sewage, when allowed to settle in a tight compartment under ‘anaerobid’ conditions (meaning without light and air), will be attacked by a type of bacteria which flourishes under these conditions, and will be partially liquefied and gasified. The remaining substance, known as sludge, being usually an objectable, finely divided material resembling rich earth, when dried out. To bring about these conditions the septic tank has been devised.”
In 1914, the state health department conducted a rural sanitary survey in Sumner County. The survey was overseen by state board epidemiologist Dr. J.J. Sippy. His team inspected every farm in the county with special examination to water sources and cleanliness of water supply. Sumner County served as a representative rural county in Kansas, and results would then apply generally to all rural counties. The team headed by Dr. Sippy, inspected 2,700 farm houses and 60 wells at school houses in the county.
After analyzing the Sumner County results from the survey, Dr. Sippy stated one fourth of Kansas schools have water that is unfit to drink. “Samples from sixty wells have been analyzed. Sixteen of these-more than one fourth-showed the presence of coli bacilli. The presence of these bacilli means that the water is contaminated with sewage, either human or animal. It is not a pleasant idea that the school children in 27 per cent of our rural schools are drinking water polluted with waste matter from human or animal bodies.”
He went on to say, “But that seems to be the case. Every one of these wells is likely to contain typhoid or other intestinal disease germs. As these schools are scattered widely over Sumner county, and Sumner county is a typical Kansas farming county, it is a fair presumption that the same percentage prevails all over the state. ” (#3-The Monitor-Press, Wellington, September 16, 1914
Today, the majority of Kansans have complete plumbing facilities in their homes. However, an April 23, 2014, Washington Post article by Christopher Ingraham titled, “1.6 Million Americans Don’t Have Indoor Plumbing. Here’s Where They Live”, said nearly 630,000 homes in the United States lacked complete plumbing facilities. The author used statistic from the American Community Survey (ACS) that is included in the long form of the U.S. Bureau of Census decennial survey. The article includes an interactive map that shows the percent of households lacking complete plumbing facilities by states and county.