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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Monday, September 18, 2023

Taking a Scrap of History

Earlier this month Independence National Historical Park shared the photo above on Facebook.

That posting stated:
This scrap of newspaper was excavated from a privy at the National Constitution Center site where it had likely been used as toilet paper. That's right - this piece of paper likely wiped a bottom in ye old outhouse sometime following November 5, 1790, the day it was published. Sometimes the most fascinating objects are those that capture the most private moments of the past.
The clipping might also have come from the 8 Nov and 12 Nov 1790 Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser. Before and after those days, wine merchant Benjamin W. Morris’s advertisement differed slightly.


Anonymous said...

Was recycling newspaper as toilet paper commonly done (e.g. was old newspapers stashed in outhouses a common 18th century practice)?

Pamela Athearn Filbert said...

I almost gave this article a miss, but am glad that I didn't. I believe this wine merchant was likely Benjamin Wistar Morris, later founder of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, and father of Samuel Wells Morris, a Congressman from Pennsylvania. His namesake grandson, The Rt. Rev. Benjamin Wistar Morris, became the second missionary bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon (on whose board of trustees I currently happen to serve), and great-grandson of Benjamin Wistar Morris III, a prominent architect whose works include the Union League Club in New York City, the first "sky scraper" in the state of Oregon, and interiors of the Queen Mary.

J. L. Bell said...

This print from the British Museum shows a small shelf holding loose papers or rags in an English outhouse. (The joke is that this stereotypical Scotsman doesn’t know how an outhouse works.) That’s evidence that British readers were familiar with that practice. But, like today, there’s not a lot of detailed public discussion of how people wipe themselves.