Privy to history

The Homewood Museum offers an object lesson in history.

Credit: Mark Smith

Eugene Fauntleroy Cordell—Confederate Army veteran, medical historian, president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Historical Club from 1902 to 1904—co-founded the Home for Widows and Orphans of Physicians in Baltimore with his wife in 1909. It started with a Relief of Widows and Orphans fund by the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland in 1903; in 1909, a board was assembled to start a home. And on January 11, 1912, the board purchased the building at 1615 Bolton Street, a "three-and-a-half-story brick mansion with a frontage of 20 feet and depth of lot 132 feet," Cordell wrote in a letter to the editor in the February 3, 1912, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. "It is in the choicest residence section, off the lines of street cars yet easily accessible to several of them. There is a wide alley in the rear and the surroundings are exceptionally good."

According to the January 1912 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, the home was endorsed by a number of prominent Americans and Baltimoreans, including Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, and William H. Welch, first dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "We desire to receive any doctors' widows or orphans who need help and we will do the best we can for them," Cordell wrote of the home's purpose. "We do not exact any admission or other fees, but shall be glad if applicants will aid us with any funds they may possess or may be able to command."

Little more about the home is readily ascertained. The home's founding was noted in many professional medical journals in 1912, and it appears in various documents in the Maryland State Archives, citing acts that award it funding—$3,000 for the 1916 fiscal year. In June 1913, according to the Medical Record, vol. 82, Randolf Winslow of Baltimore proposed turning operation of the home over to the American Medical Association, since its "scope was already national and the only object in making this offer was to provide for permanence." According to the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation, the structure currently at 1615 Bolton Street was built in 1920. Over roughly six weeks of research in historical documents, letters, and newspapers and periodicals in various digital and physical archives, little more could be determined about the home, and even less about who might have lived there.

Students aren't just learning about history here; they get to sit on it and touch it and hear about it.

Little, that is, if bathroom hearsay doesn't count. On one wall of the privy built just to the north of the mansion that now houses the Homewood Museum is a rather coarse announcement written in pencil: "If you want to get a piece of nice ass you can call at Miss Mowen 1615 Bolton Street Baltimore, Maryland."

The graffito dates from when the mansion served one of two roles. In 1897 it became the home of the Country School for Boys in Baltimore, started by Anne Galbraith Carey, the grandmother of philanthropist William Polk Carey for whom the Carey Business School is named, with help from then Johns Hopkins President Daniel Coit Gilman. The school took up residence in the mansion that Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll of Carrollton had built as a wedding present for his son in 1801. From 1897 through 1910, whenever nature called, students—and, presumably, teachers—would scurry the roughly 200 feet from the northern door to the privy.

The writing is surrounded by other graffiti that appear particularly the purview of young male minds: other recommendations and thoughts on the fairer sex, a few rhymed lines written in what might kindly be called the vernacular, and the sort of anatomical drawings that wouldn't be out of place in the adult section of an independent comic book store. The school moved north to Roland Park in 1910 and assumed the name it has today, Gilman. Johns Hopkins University took up residence on the 140-acre lot that is now called the Homewood campus in 1916; the mansion served as administrative offices.

So depending on when, exactly, the graffito in question was written, it's possible that an adolescent boy's puberty-primed hormones inspired him to sing Miss Mowen's praises. Or maybe it was an undergraduate momentarily engaging in conduct unbecoming of a Johns Hopkins student.

Had the above 708 words been turned in as a paper in Catherine Rogers Arthur's Introduction to Material Culture class as is, they would be hit with a pretty harsh grade. Not quite long enough to fill five double-spaced pages, they neither adequately nor accurately tell a story of one example of the privy's graffiti. And it's definitely too long yet insufficient for a 150-word wall text that would accompany its inclusion in a museum exhibition.

"When you're limited to a roughly 150-word label you've got to get at this pretty fast," Arthur, the director and curator of the Homewood Museum, tells the 11 students in her fall 2012 class. "This is why you have to do the paper, because until you write it as five pages, you really don't know enough about it to be able to write a meaningful short label. I've tried it that way, and what people give me for a 150-word label is not worthy of the wall."

Arthur stands in the guesthouse showroom of Stiles T. Colwill's interior design practice, which is located on his family's farm northwest of Baltimore. Her students sit in a living room outfitted with enough furniture, paintings, prints, maps, rugs, ceramics, and books to give a museum an instantly enviable collection of early American art and design.

Arthur has brought the students to hear Colwill talk about selected prints in his collection; each student will choose one to research. Since 2006 the Museums and Society minor in the Department of the History of Art has offered Arthur's Material Culture class. The matriculating students, usually about 12, spend the fall semester researching some aspect of early life in Maryland, the time in which Homewood mansion's original occupant, Charles Carroll Jr. (1774-1832), lived. Working with Arthur, the students become assistant curators, researching and assembling museum exhibitions. The first class created the 2007 show Feathers, Fins, and Fur: The Pet in Early Maryland. Welcome Little Stranger: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Family in Early Maryland followed in 2008. Next to Godliness: Cleanliness in Early Maryland opened in 2009; it featured the privy and other scatological items, but more on that in a moment.

This year the student curators are working on Portrait of a City: Views of Early Baltimore, which opens December 4. It's an effort to put together prints, paintings, and fiber works that might suggest what Baltimore looked like when Charles Carroll Jr. was alive. Hence this visit to Colwill's gorgeous showroom. He doesn't merely have a private collection of works suited to the subject matter. Colwill, the former director of the Maryland Historical Society, was one of the consultants who helped turn the Homewood mansion into a museum. Students aren't just learning about history here; they get to sit on it and touch it and hear about it.

The people who lived at the time are as recognizably flawed as we are today. They needed to eat. They had pets. They loved each other. They had kids. They drank too much.

Mounting an exhibition is one of the subtle ways Arthur encourages her students to understand history as an active process that requires both rigorous research and creative storytelling. "How do you get the essence of [your chosen] print in a way that is going to be meaningful to the visitor and viewer?" Arthur asks the class. "Let this stuff float through your head, and while you're here today, see which images you keep being drawn back to because that's an important clue."

In the process, Arthur's approach to exhibition design in the class allows students to consider that history doesn't have to be long ago and somewhere else. There are stories to be told about that building sitting over there right next to the Milton S. Eisenhower Library. "I really like the historic house museum setting because in that sort of model, the building is your primary collections object," Arthur says during an interview at the Homewood Museum. "Because a house is a place for people to live, it lets you talk and think about and research all these aspects of daily life, the timelessness of the human condition, and then cool antique objects and the craftsmanship standpoint of it. How did they do that? How did they make it? Why does it look that way? And what can we learn about how we live now from how they lived then?"

It helps that the stories that come out of researching Homewood are sometimes funny. Colwill told the class that the archaeology excavation around the mansion in the 1980s uncovered a site riddled with thousands of pieces of broken glass. It was a small heap not too far from a side window that opens to an office off the master bedchamber. The glass pieces were determined to be wine bottle shards from the time, and given the weight of an empty wine bottle, the pile's location was consistently about a good toss from the window. And Charles Carroll Jr. was a famous alcoholic. "It became very clear that Mr. Carroll was in that room half passed out and he'd finish [a bottle of wine] and just fling the bottle out the window," Colwill says.

That's the kind of casual entry point when thinking about the history of the not-that-long-ago: The people who lived at the time are as recognizably flawed as we are today. The technology that they used was different, and the surroundings looked different, but on a basic level they had the same wants and desires. They needed to eat. They had pets. They loved each other. They had kids. They drank too much.

And, well, they eliminated waste. The city of Baltimore was late to plan and build a citywide sewage system, a type of municipal infrastructure that started to emerge in the United Kingdom and United States in the mid-to-late 19th century. It wasn't until after the Great Fire of 1904 that Baltimore began construction on the system that serves the city today. These large-scale city works came about because of the population booms in urban centers in the 19th century, when issues of sanitation and public health became intertwined and the traditional manner of handling waste—emptying outhouses/privies into streets and nearby waterways or having their contents collected by night soil men—proved untenable. According to the 1940 U.S. census, 45 percent of the population lacked complete indoor plumbing facilities. By the 2000 census, that percentage had dropped to less than 1 percent, and the indoor plumbing question wasn't asked on the 2010 census. As commonplace as the tub/shower and toilet being located in the same room may be to us now, that living arrangement is of very recent vintage. In fact, to many of our 19th-century forebears, the proximity of the place where you get clean and the place where you do the other would not compute.

In the case of Charles Carroll Jr. and his family, they were quite well-off, and their external privy would have been a luxury at the time. In fact, it's actually two privies—one chamber for men and one for women and children. There's a curious geometry to its location: The Homewood mansion is 128 feet wide, and the mansion and privy fall on the arc of a circle with a radius of 128 feet. It's a 10-by-13 rectangular building done in the mansion's stately Federal-style architecture: red bricks, white window trim and doors, a slate roof. Inside are hardwood floors, gray wood paneling, and a domed plaster ceiling that is currently reinforced by temporary support. Imagine a luxuriant state building's domed entryway scaled down to the size of an efficiency apartment's kitchen. Now, build a seating area against one wall that is topped with a wooden plank featuring a series of oval cutouts.

The Homewood Museum recently restored the privy's roof and external structure. Funding and work are still needed for the ventilation, to slow down the deterioration of the wood paneling and plaster dome, but even to somebody accustomed to porcelain toilets that whisk everything out of sight, these 1801 facilities are pretty posh.

Even so, nearly 200 feet is a long enough jaunt in the middle of the night to discourage anybody from wanting to make the journey out the door, down the steps, and across the grounds simply to tend to a biological function. Fortunately, the time period afforded other options—such as a circa 1815 pewter bedpan bearing the marks of Baltimore pewterer Samuel Kilbourn. It's a deep, circular pan with a handle, and knowing what it is makes its function pretty clear. Without that knowledge, well, its use could be open to interpretation.

That's one of the exercises Arthur runs through with her students at the beginning of the class. She'll bring out an object from the Homewood collection and ask the students to look at it and try to think about what it was used for. The bedpan is one of her perennial favorite examples. One year a student made a reasoned argument that it was a different sort of pan. The scratches on its underside? Those would come from its being moved over a burner on a stove. The curved lip at the top of the pan? That keeps liquids from splattering out. Surely this was something used to, say, make breakfast.

"And I cannot keep it glued together, and they start laughing because I'm laughing," Arthur recalls. "I said, 'It's not for cooking. It's sort of after that part.'"

"A lot of things that we're trying to do, some of the clearest guidelines on how to do it are 100, 200 years old."
Spike Gjerde

Sometimes how the Carrolls lived then nicely dovetails with how we're trying to live now. Last year the class curated Federal Foodies: From Farm to Table in Early Baltimore. "It had a kind of relevance to current thinking about sustainability," Arthur says. "What they were trying to do here with Homewood as a farm was to make it semi-self-sustaining, at least self-sustaining with other Carroll family properties." In their research, Arthur and the students came across newspaper clippings and advertisements that addressed food supplies and cooking. They shared those clippings with Spike Gjerde, the owner and chef behind Baltimore's farm-to-table restaurant Woodberry Kitchen, who catered the exhibition's opening.

"A lot of things that we're trying to do, some of the clearest guidelines on how to do it are 100, 200 years old," Gjerde says. "We don't give [early Americans] enough credit for how sophisticated their approach to food was. [Arthur] showed newspapers that advertised, essentially, for CSAs [community-supported agriculture] in the 1800s. Somebody was actually offering to grow on a subscription basis fresh produce for you and your family."

It's not just the culinary arts that are looking back to how we once lived. As it turns out, the large-scale centralized sewage systems of Western urban cities are not practical or economically feasible in the developing world. What's needed is a more self-contained and easily constructed system that doesn't need to be connected to a large public water supply and decontamination system.

What's needed, in other words, is a new kind of privy. In October 2011 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced its Reinventing the Toilet campaign to deal with the estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide who don't have a safe, sanitary way to deal with human waste. It stipulated a few constraints: The new toilet needed to work without electricity, a septic system, or running water. It shouldn't discharge pollutants and, ideally, should convert waste into energy. And it should cost about 5 cents per day to operate. In August a design team from the California Institute of Technology was awarded a $400,000 grant for its design, which harnesses solar energy to transform waste into hydrogen gas that can be used in fuel cells, water that can be used for irrigation, and organic matter that can be used as fertilizer.

In some parts of the world, though, an old-fashioned privy will do. Pit latrines, privies in public health jargon, are the preferred method of curbing the practice of people finding any old place to eliminate in rural areas the world over. "We still have an estimated 1.1 billion people engaged in open-air defecation," says Jay Graham, SPH '07 (PhD), a former Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future fellow and an assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services. His work focuses on water supply, sanitation, and hygiene in sub-Saharan Africa and Bangladesh. He recently completed an analysis of 34 sub-Saharan countries in an effort to determine which ones may be able to meet a goal of ending open-air defecation by 2015. Currently Angola is the lone country that he studied on track to do so.

"Most [open-air defecation] is in South Asia, but even in Niger you have over 80 percent of the population engaging in [the practice], which is linked to diarrheal disease. We have an estimated 1.7 million under the age of 5 dying each year from diarrheal diseases. So without sanitation you have this fecally contaminated environment that helps to contribute to these diseases."

Combating that behavior is a strategy called Community-Led Total Sanitation, which involves rallying a local population to understand how much human waste is seeping into their water supplies. One method involves taking a hair, dipping it into feces, dropping it into a glass of clean water, and offering people a drink of it. "You can't really see the hair, and once it's been dipped in the water, the water still looks very clean," Graham says. "And at some point a light bulb goes off and they go, 'We are eating each other's shit and we have to stop this.' Then as a community they decide they want to become open air-defecation free. And then they build pit latrines, basically. This is a big movement, and it's the only thing that's really giving us hope in the sanitation sector because we're seeing large numbers of people begin to value sanitation after this process. So we're making progress in rural areas—we're beating population growth."

Such are the cycles of technological innovation: Sometimes what's old becomes new again. Eugene Fauntleroy Cordell understood that. In a 1904 address to the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland titled "The Importance of the Study of the History of Medicine," he observed that "since history is ever repeating itself, it is manifestly the part of wisdom to make it the object of our closest study, that we may profit by its lessons, both of success and of failure; for what others have done or have failed to do should point the way to their successors, whether in search of individual, social, or national guidance."

He learned that lesson from experience. His 1903 book Medical Annals of Maryland, 1799-1899, a history of early Maryland medicine, runs nearly 900 pages. For specific thoughts on female anatomy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, it may be entertaining to consult a different text.

Bret McCabe, A&S '94, is the magazine's senior writer.