J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Bathroom Break

As long as I’m writing about schools in Revolutionary Boston, I must address what’s often the most pressing question for children about to enter a new school: Where do I go to the bathroom?

The town schools had sanitary facilities, as shown by this decision by the selectmen on 28 June 1786:

[Selectman] John Andrews appointed to procure flaps for covering the Necessary at Master [James] Carters School, to allay to some measure the disagreable effluvia arising therefrom.
The necessity of going out to the outhouse might have been one reason why in 1789 the town decided that girls shouldn’t go to school in the winter months.

This brings me to a puzzling passage in a reminiscence of the South Latin School just before the war from Harrison Gray Otis:
The boys had a recess of a few minutes to go out in the yard—eight at a time. No leave was asked in words; but there was a short club of a yard in length which was caught up by some boy, round whom those who wished to go out clustered, and were drilled down to eight. The club was then held up near Master’s nose, who nodded assent, when the eight vanished, club in hand. Upon their return there was a rush to seize the club which was placed by the door, and a new conscription of eight formed, and so toties quoties [as often as].
Nothing I’ve read about Boston’s colonial schoolteachers leads me to think they’d tolerate a “recess” in the way we use the term—which in this case would mean eight boys tearing around after each other in the schoolyard, right under the windows where the two teachers were trying to keep more than one or two hundred other boys focused on their lessons.

The “few minutes,” the strict limit of eight, the “rush to seize the club” when the first group was done—all those details seem to fit if Otis was really talking about boys lining up to go to an eight-holer in the yard. Alas, no one wrote down a lot of details about this aspect of life.

(The photo above, titled “North Bloomfield School outhouse,” comes from seancoon via PhotoBucket.)

1 comment:

Laura Frantz said...

Fascinating post and one not usually addressed. For those of us writers and historians who thrive on this sort of detail, this is greatly appreciated:) I've often wondered, in my research and novel-writing, just what our ancestors did when they had to use the necessary in a public setting, etc.