A 150-year old outhouse might not seem like a place where historic treasures might be found, but the Aurora Historical Society is betting that the original privy on the property of the Tanner House, doubtless dug in 1857 when the house was built, will hold some artifacts that will be of interest to history lovers.
The theory is that before indoor plumbing and municipal garbage collection, families would throw trash that could not be reused or recycled into their privy pit. Despite annual cleanings, a pit would become unusable after a decade or two and a new one would be dug. Bone, glass, ceramics and even sometimes leather and wood can survive for long periods underground and careful digging will reveal whatever remains.
On June 14, 2014, Mike Renaud of Aurora, who has been digging in old Aurora back yards for 30 years, will commence a dig where he believes he has found traces of a privy that would have been the first one dug for the well-to-do family of 11 people.
This spring Renaud used a steel probe to sample the likeliest spots on the acre-sized urban estate and came up with two locations that, based on the type of soil he found at a 4-foot depth, were probably where outhouses were built. He surmises that the location closest to the house, near where there apparently once was a door in the dining room, would have been the 1857 privy, and a location near the current Archives annex at the back of the property would have been the second privy, dug around 1870. After the 1890s, he says, indoor plumbing became commonplace and the Tanners would have no longer used an outhouse.
Renaud will dig both locations on June 14, if time allows. He will present a talk about his findings at a Sunday lecture next winter.
The public is invited to observe the proceedings, which will begin about 9:00am and continue all day. A team of diggers will relay any objects found to a team of recorders. After the dig day, the objects will be cleaned, studied and cataloged.
“As American culture became more materialistic, starting in the 1870s, the notion of disposability changed,” Renaud says. “We became more okay with buying new things and throwing away old things. That’s why I think we may find fewer objects in the first pit, even though the family was at its largest then and the children were still growing up. And we may find more things in the later pit.”
He also pointed out that what is found in pits can give hints about what was going on in the family at given times. An abundance of medicine bottles, for instance, will point at an illness or death, while many liquor bottles would suggest some hard drinking. However, John Jaros, executive director of the historical society laughs off the notion that there will be any liquor bottles in the Tanner privies. “William Tanner was a very strict teetotaler,” Jaros says.
The Tanner House Museum is located at 305 Cedar Street, Aurora, 60506. Although the house will not be open during the dig, it will be open the next day, June 15, with tours at 1,2 and 3pm, as well as all Wednesdays and Sundays through October 29, with the same tour times. Members are free, adults $5 and seniors and students $3. More information is available at www.aurorahistory.net or on Facebook or by calling 630-897-9029.
SOURCE: Aurora Historical Society