Pestilence and Privies: Original Outhouses of the University
    by Emily Richards, Undergraduate Research Assistant (Architecture, 3rd year)

In the early decades of University life, maintaining the functionality and cleanliness of buildings proved a continual challenge to faculty and staff. In no case was this more apparent than with the University’s outhouses, called privies by most. These spaces, hardly the glorified or carefully planned temples of the Lawn Pavilions or Rotunda, were often neglected or used as accessories in foul pranks. While Jefferson went to great lengths to detail the construction of his formal public spaces, he was intentionally vague in his placement and management of outbuildings such as privies, which he considered private spaces to be tailored by individual residents.[1]
The expense of maintaining the privies belonged to the Professors and Hotel Keepers who occupied them, but the role of cleaning them fell to the Proctor.[2] Rest assured this was no easy job, as the privies were generally in a filthy state. In an 1849 review of the state of Grounds, the faculty report graphically and even sarcastically on their condition:
"The privies used for the accommodation of the students were found to be in as good condition as the proverbially careless habits of the persons using them and the extremely faulty construction of the buildings rendered possible. They are cleaned daily, lime being thrown liberally into the boxes and sprinkled on the floors, but as the sleepers of the floor rut directly upon the ground, a necessary consequence is that animal effluvia have been generated abundantly in the very small space between the floor and the soil and that there are no means of removing them and ventilating the undersurface of the floor."
Lime, used as a universal cleaning product at the early University, was clearly proving insufficient in its ability to sanitize and mask odors around the outbuildings. To deal with these conditions, the faculty suggested raising the privies about two feet off the ground to improve ventilation.[3]
Those poor drainage systems were often blamed for bad health conditions around Grounds. In November of 1825, a bout of fever and illness traveled around Major Spotswood’s hotel, and the faculty presumed it was because the nearby drains were “choked with vegetable and animal substance.”[4] Through the first several decades of operation, the Board of Visitors agreed that the “public water closets…[were] endangering the health of the students.”[5]
At other times privies needed to be moved or rebuilt from scratch, and occasionally, a more disastrous fate might befall an outhouse. In December of 1829, for example, someone set fire to two University privies, one near Mr. Rose’s Hotel and the other near the Anatomical Theater. For several days the Chairman and many University officers were charged with tracking down the culprits, and a week later, new privies were requested from the Proctor.[6]
The use of outdoor privies faded slowly over the second half of the nineteenth century, perhaps reflecting a general change in the use of garden and outdoor spaces following the Civil War. Although a pavilion resident requested the first indoor restroom in 1876, similar requests as late as the 1890s suggest institutional practices regarding outhouses were slow to develop at the University.[7]

[1] Lydia Mattice Brandt, “The University of Virginia’s Gardens and Yards in the 19th Century,” 3.

[2] Board of Visitors Minutes; June 25, 1851.

[3] Minutes of the Faculty, Volume 6, Part 7; June 16, 1849.

[4] Minutes of the Faculty, Volumes 1-2, Part 1; November 6, 1825.

[5] Board of Visitors Minutes; June 25-26, 1855.

[6] Minutes of the Faculty, Volumes 1-2, Part 3B; December 2, 1829.

[7] Board of Visitors Minutes; June 29, 1876.
Cite This Entry
Richards, Emily. "Pestilence and Privies: Original Outhouses of the University." JUEL, June 18, 2015.
 First published: June 18, 2015 | Last modified: