‘History Down the Toilet’ Uncovers Social Inequality

History Down the Toilet

Gender normativity, nativism, and the unequal distribution of wealth in Reconstruction-era America are just a sample of the issues taken up in the latest installment of the Boston College history department’s Making History Public program. Titled History Down the Toilet: Rewriting Boston’s Past with Objects Recovered from Three Nineteenth Century Latrines, the exhibit aims to address the social injustices and misconceptions of deprived lower-and middle-class life in late 19th-century Boston.

The exhibit consists of Victorian era advertisements and photographs of objects excavated from the outhouses of a brick row house near Old North Church, Dorchester’s Industrial School for Girls, and the historic Paul Revere House. The majority of the items featured in the exhibit are attributed to a middle class family who lived in No. 2 Unity Court, the house near Old North Church, and a lower-middle class family who lived in the now landmarked Paul Revere House.

A display titled “Masculinity Manufactured” is centered on the finding of a luxury jar of pomade in the latrine of the Revere House. Despite the occupant family’s lower social stature, the appearance of masculinity was significant enough to elicit higher spending in the area of grooming. Parts of the exhibit touch on the cult of domesticity, displaying ceramic dolls and teacups, which were used to teach proper Victorian manners to young girls, and The American Woman’s Home, the handbook for domesticated middle-class women throughout the United States following its 1869 release by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

A social commentary on the hypocritical and vicious nature of the nativist movement is provided by the display titled “Return to Sender: Take Back Your Tired & Your Poor.” Pictures of smoking pipes and alcohol bottles from the No. 2 Unity Court House and the Paul Revere House are a reminder of the picture nativists painted of immigrants in the 1800s, especially those of Irish and Scottish descent. While an American family occupied Unity Court, the family that lived in the Paul Revere House were first generation Irish and Scottish immigrants. The display informs viewers that a faction of nativists at the time viewed Irish and Scottish people as non-white and therefore inferior to Americans with English ancestry.

The unequal distribution of wealth is alluded to throughout the exhibit. A display discussing living conditions of the time specifies that the top-5 percent of wealthy citizens controlled almost a quarter of the nation’s wealth in the 1800s, a figure that may seem miniscule in modern America. Nonetheless, the less fortunate families that resided in the Paul Revere House and No. 2 Unity Court were able to emulate a life of luxury due to industrialization and mass production, as signified by pictures of ornate buttons, lavish jewelry, and unbroken tea cups found in the latrines.

Despite the concentrated wealth in America, all Bostonians of the time were subject to constant illness and disease. “A Taste of Your Own Patient Medicine” includes images of medicine bottles found in the outhouses at the different locations, indicating the high levels of disease in the heavily settled North End. The display discusses how the removal of waste into the Charles River and Boston Harbor caused clean water to be scarce and often reserved for the wealthy. A photo of the Chestnut Hill pumping station from 1899, still located on the bank of the Chestnut Hill Reservoir today, however, accompanies the display and details how the integration of public water systems was vital progress for Boston’s overall health.

History Down the Toilet: Rewriting Boston’s Past with Objects Recovered from Three Nineteenth Century Latrines not only provides an unconventional approach to analyzing history, but also helps form a better narrative of daily life for average Bostonians in nineteenth century America. The exhibit, which will be featured throughout the third floor of Stokes Hall until January 2018, is thoughtfully curated by BC students and faculty and creates a dialogue about social issues of the past and present on BC’s campus.

Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Editor