The Question of Potties

In which we learn way too much about 1870s bathroom habits

insecure-writers-support-group-badgeThis an Insecure Writer’s Support Group monthly post. To sign up for the group and start posting, go here.

The question for this month: What is the weirdest/coolest thing you ever had to research for your story?

I’m so glad you asked this, IWSG. And the answer is; I have researched toilets.

Why? Aside from the fact that I must be insane, I’m writing a historical romance and my main character leaves the small town of Dayton Nevada in 1876 for the bustling metropolis of Sacramento California. I’m 90% sure they had all outhouses in rural Nevada (not even the most ardent academic has posted an article on the toilet habits of rural Nevadans in the 1870s) but I needed to find out what he would have found in the big city.

From my own reading I would have gone with having water closets be common in Sacramento, so I’m glad I did some research on this. Apparently water closets hit their heyday in the 1770s. I would have been roughly 100 years out of date. By the 1870s flush toilets had been patented and were in wide use in England (one of the main manufacturers was, I kid you not, Thomas Crapper) and they’d spread to the U.S.

They were all over major urban areas, because city planners had figured out this thing called “dying from filth leaking into the drinking water” by the 1870s. The idea of separating excrement from drinking water was catching on, but implementing it with new sewer systems took a lot of time and money. Since it was a relatively young city, Sacramento had planned with sewers in mind.

Is this relevant to the plot? Until my beta readers say no, it is. Main Character heads for Sacramento, and is presented with a working toilet for the first time in his life.  He’s the poor kid trying to make his fortune in the big city. This new toilet thing is something he didn’t know and his struggle illustrates it, as well as giving readers a reason to empathize with him. His one true love spends the first part of the book looking down on him for what he doesn’t know, creating conflict + more empathy for our MC. Poor country kid trying to win rich city girl is a trope that is tested and tried. So yes, toilets figure in my plot and I wanted it to be as accurate as I can get it.

Some links I’ve been using, in case you are also writing something Victorian era:

19th a blog about all things 1800s.

Writer’s Dreamtools-quick and dirty summary of the 1870s including major events, politicians, what was popular in entertainment and music, major scientific discoveries, etc.

To get the flow of hundred year old conversations, news and activities I’ve gotten a lot of use out of old newspapers. Incorporated some of the actual events and reporting into my story. I use the Sacramento paper archives (1851-1970) but there are plenty of archives for most major cities. In general they’re free to read and well worth the research.


photo courtesy: by Jessica Ruscello



5 thoughts on “The Question of Potties

  1. As someone who has written a historical novel set in 1859, I love this topic. I saw a picture of a 19 century luxury bathroom and was quite surprised at close it was to what we consider modern. One of my characters is trying to bring running water into his house to the disgust of his father who is just fine with the slaves bringing him water.

    Liked by 1 person

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