The Journal of Philadelphia Waterfront Heritage & Archaeology

Current Issue: Volume 1 2016

Peering into the Privies of the Past: An Analysis of Nineteenth-Century Privy Construction Methods and Contents

By George Cress and Daniel Eichinger


The privy is one of the most common features encountered during archaeological excavations in the backyards of houses that once lined the streets of the Kensington and Port Richmond neighborhoods. Throughout Philadelphia’s history, people have used their backyards for many purposes. Although some backyards included kitchens or decorative gardens, such spaces have also been used as work areas where people hung out their clothes to dry and performed tasks that were messy or took up too much space to do indoors. Backyards also provided places to work when it was too hot to labor inside and to keep animals, such as pigs and chickens. From an archaeological perspective, backyards were the sites of basic utilities, such as outhouses (or privies) for human waste, and rain barrels and/or cisterns to store water.