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  • Patricia Samford, Ph.D.

Whittington Privy - A Case Study for the Importance of Context

Before the advent of local trash pick-up, backyard privies were used as handy receptacles for household trash. Because of this practice, they are exceptional sources of data on daily life in the past. Archeologists use soil color and texture to guide their excavation, instead of just digging indiscriminately for complete plates and bottles. Doing so would destroy valuable information about how and when the layers were deposited. A mid-19th century privy, excavated by archeologists in 1989 at the Ruth Saloon site (18BC79) in advance of the construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, provides an excellent example of what can be learned from controlled excavation and recording of privies (see Front Cover).

The privy at the Ruth Saloon site (so named for Babe Ruth’s father, who operated a saloon there in the early 20th century) was a substantial structure, with a 9 x 6 ft. brick foundation and a brick lined privy pit that extended several feet below the ground surface. The first (or uppermost) soil layer encountered by archeologists consisted of two feet of clean clay, used to cap the odorous fill when the privy was abandoned. This clay cap overlay brick and mortar rubble associated with the destruction of the overlying privy structure.

A half foot thick layer of organic soil containing large quantities of household trash filled the bottom of the privy. Field notes estimated that 20% of the layer was soil; the other 80% consisted of broken and discarded artifacts. In addition to food remains, table glass, and personal items like buttons and spoons, this layer primarily contained broken ceramics. Over 500 distinct ceramic vessels, most of them English-made plates, cups, saucers, and teapots (16 in total!) had been discarded at the bottom of the privy. Most of the cups and saucers were exuberantly decorated with printed or painted decorations, mending into complete or nearly complete vessels.

Such concentrations of household items in privy fills may be associated with changes in property ownership. The death of an owner or a move are transitions when undesired possessions are subject to discard. Such a discard episode often results in privy assemblages containing large numbers of complete or re-constructable ceramic and glass vessels.

In the case of the 18BC79 privy, it appears that Frances Whittington’s household owned the ceramics found there. Whittington was in residence on this West Conway Street property in the 1820s and 1830s—dates matching the manufacture for most of the recovered pottery. Can a change in household explain the dense concentration of ceramics found in the privy? What do documents reveal about the family and do they shed light on why over 500 ceramics were discarded simultaneously?

In 1810, 13-year-old Frances Nelms Turner (1797-1859) married Thomas Whittington, a 25-year old Virginia farmer. Following the War of 1812, the Whittington family moved to Baltimore. Thomas died in 1826, leaving his widow in debt. The 1830 census records Frances Whittington and three young females aged 15 to 19 living in a two-story brick dwelling at 406 West Conway Street, the property where the privy was located. After daughter Mary (1814-1878) married lumber merchant John Simpers George in 1832, Frances Whittington rented the house to her son-in-law. By 1840, the entire George family, including several children and widow Frances, had moved to a farm in Baltimore County.

The family move appeared to have been prompted by a fire that occurred between 1832 and 1840 at the Conway Street house. A thick layer of soot covered most of the table glass from the privy and some of the ceramics also showed evidence of fire damage. This fire was almost certainly the reason such large quantities of household goods were discarded, during clean up after the fire and the ensuing move to the farm.

Artifacts from the privy also provided clues to family demographics. In addition to children’s leather shoes, the Whittington privy contained marbles, toy china tableware, parts of a painted doll’s cradle and a small wooden paddle used in a game played with a ball. The George family contained two young daughters and two sons in the late 1830s.

Animal bones usually make up a portion of any assemblage recovered from privies. Most of these bones represented discarded kitchen waste from meal preparation. Three hundred and seventeen bone fragments from eleven species, both domestic and wild, were found in the Whittington privy. Species identification showed that pork and beef, followed by chicken and mutton, were the most commonly consumed meats in the Whittington household. The absence of skulls and foot bones show the household purchased meat from local butchers or one of the city’s markets rather than keeping and butchering animals on their urban lot. The Whittington privy also contained the bones of a black rat (Rattus rattus). Rats were a common nuisance in urban areas, eating garbage that accumulated in yards and on the streets.

The wet conditions of the lower privy fill also preserved seeds and nuts, revealing the family enjoyed a range of foods over the course of the year. Nutshells included hickory, black walnut, hazel, English walnut, and almonds; many of these nuts may have been used in baking. Seeds recovered from the privy indicate that the family also ate prunes, peaches, apricots, cherries, watermelon, persimmons, corn, squash, and blackhaw, a small fall-ripening fruit similar to dates or prunes. While no pollen studies were done on the soils from the privy, such studies yield further data on diet, particularly for plants that don’t leave easily recoverable seeds. Parasite studies allow inferences to be made about disease and health conditions, especially evidence of intestinal parasites like hookworm, whipworm, and roundworm.

Because of the careful and scientific excavation of the Ruth Saloon privy, the story of the mid-19th-century Whittington and George families were revealed. Archeology is destructive, so it is done slowly and meticulously by design. Should any site or feature be excavated haphazardly with only an interest in retrieving materials, the context of these stories would be forever destroyed.

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