As the 1800s went on, New York was bursting at the seams with new residents. By 1850, the city had a population of a little over 500,000. By 1890, the number was 1.5 million.
That’s a lot of bodies—and a lot of bodily waste. Though flush toilets existed in the late 19th century, they were generally installed in the houses of the rich.
Going to the bathroom for tenement dwellers meant using an outhouse (until the Tenement House Act of 1901 mandated private indoor toilets). Needless to say, waste piled up.
Enter the night soil cartmen. These men made a living after dark, entering tenement districts and removing the “night soil”—a creative euphemism for excrement—from outdoor privies.
The guy who actually picked up the waste (using a cart probably similar to this garbage cart above) apparently worked for a company, which was awarded a city contract take care of unsanitary things like dead animals, trash, and tons of human waste.
Where did they take the night soil? “In New York, the reeking loads were sometimes carted off to country farms to be used as fertilizer,” states a piece from Atlas Obscura.
“But more often they were hauled through the night to a designated pier and dumped into the Hudson or East Rivers (and sometimes mistakenly onto the private boats below), creating a stinking, festering shoreline. The waste would settle into the slips and city workers would periodically have to dredge the excrement so that boats could actually dock.”
The job must have been deeply unpleasant, but it was an important one. Trucking away the night soil certainly helped cut back on disease and made poor neighborhoods packed with people slightly more habitable.
Like the blacksmith and streetcar conductor, the night soil cartman disappeared after the turn of the century in New York and other U.S. cities. Think about his job this Labor Day. Working in a cube farm won’t sound like such a bad thing after all!
[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: NYPL; third image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle; fourth photo: MCNY collections/Robert L. Bracklow, 93.91.281]