Sewer being excavated under Cedar Street in Saint Paul


Sanitation legislation in the United States began in mid-19th century cities where crowded conditions encouraged the spread of disease. At this time, sickness was explained by the ancient miasmatic theory of disease, which held that disease resulted from physiological interactions of climate and personal constitution. Of particular concern were malarial diseases caused by "bad airs" or marsh miasm. Inhalation of miasmatic airs that derived from damp areas was seen as a primary cause of disease. The danger was most acute in mid-day when heat dissolved the poisons and at night when the damp airs became cooled and condensed. Sewer and land drainage projects had already been carried out in England with positive health benefits that were directly attributed to the drying out of the miasm-producing environment and the removal of decomposing waste, and American sanitarians sought to follow the English example.

In urban areas swamps, stagnant waters- which were often a destination for local garbage- sluggish drains and ditches, newly excavated cellars and recently graded land were all seen as sources of miasmatic airs and thus, insalubrity.

In the 1880s, germ theory began to refute the miasma tradition by explaining disease as a result of transmission of contagious germs. Those public health officials who read of and believed in germs began to focus their attention on slowing the spread of disease by stopping contamination of food and water. Disease became conceptually linked to microbes that thrived in poor sanitary and unclean living conditions, and health reform through public works became a social and political concern.

St. Paul established a Board of Health in 1854, but the engineering problems related to creating a sewer system were not seriously addressed until the 1870s. By that time, make-shift unrecorded ditches and drains ran throughout the downtown area and the city was pitted with privy vaults and wells. In general, most sewers constructed before the 1880s were inadequate: they either did not properly flush or they were subject to cave-ins.

The first St. Paul public health ordinance, passed in 1880, was highly detailed with 26 sections of provisions in regard to proper connections to public sewers. Especially in the building boom of the 1880s, city officials realized that the construction of a sanitary infrastructure could not keep pace with the spread of both city development and disease. The early sanitary infrastructure did not encourage use. Sewers remained limited to a small area, running water was not available to flush toilets, and poor connections froze in winter- so most residents had resisted making connections. A plentiful water supply was needed for toilet flushing, but though the waterworks in St. Paul were constructed in 1869, by 1880, the 41,473 inhabitants of the city had only 1,850 hook-ups. In 1885 the city began keeping records of all sewer building and hook-ups, and a map was made showing the existing sewers, their type of construction and their date of construction: pre or post 1885.

Because of the lag in the introduction of a working sanitation infrastructure to the residential neighborhoods of St. Paul, the city-- unable to require sewer hook-up and faced with the spread of infectious diseases-- began passing ordinances detailing the legal requirements of privy construction, and the collection and disposal of night soil by scavengers three years after the optimistically comprehensive ordinance regarding sewer connections. Much of the content of the ordinances sought to eliminate "nuisances": those features of the urban landscape that were "emitting smells and odors prejudicial to the public health."

The first of these ordinances, passed in 1887, is a comprehensive public health document "Prescribing Rules and Regulations for the Health Department of the City of Saint Paul" (SPCP 1887: 415- 422). This ordinance had sections regarding physicians, the reporting of diseases, interment of bodies, quarantine, vaccinations and "nuisances." The bulk of the ordinance was written in regard to these nuisances, privies, garbage piles, stables and such, that were seen as agents in the spread of disease.

Sections 42 and 43 of the ordinance specifically treated the placement and construction of privies, cesspools and other features of the urban landscape that were "emitting smells and odors prejudicial to the public health.". It is interesting that odors in the air, and not polluted water, continued to be perceived as a primary problem to be solved. The ordinance required that "every water closet, privy vault or cesspool shall be properly connected to a public sewer when practicable." But it was apparently not practicable in most cases, as the majority of the ordinance's sections relating to sanitation described requirements for privy construction. New privy construction was allowed in lots adjoining sewer lines as long as the privies were water-tight or connected to a sewer. The 1887 health ordinance stated that a privy would be declared a nuisance if it was within 20' of a "street, dwelling, shop, or well unless the same shall be furnished with a substantial vault six feet deep and made water tight, so that the contents cannot escape therefrom, and sufficiently secured and enclosed." In addition, the contents of privies were required to be at least two feet below ground surface, and those privies "emitting smells or odor prejudicial to the public health" or not conforming to the building provisions were declared nuisances to be abated by the Department of Health.

Section 50 of Ordinance 809 states:
When not connected to any sewer, all water closets, privy vaults or cesspools shall be walled up or cemented on sides and bottom in such a way that they will be impervious to water. Said bottom shall be at least six feet below the level and they shall be provided with proper ventilating pipes and covers subject to the approval of the Building Inspector; and no water closet, privy vault or cesspool shall be so constructed within twenty feet of any house residence or building without a permit from the owner. . . or within twenty feet of the line of any public street. . . water closets, privy vaults, cesspools or private drains already built or constructed that do not conform with [these] provisions. . . are hereby declared a nuisance.
This ordinance also required privy vaults to be kept clean by removing contents according to Health Department requirements or with a license. In the search of sewer permits within the Central Corridor project area, no permits for privy connections to sewers were found, and it is unlikely that many would have been made as it would have been difficult to flush them. No provisions were made in this ordinance for the abandonment of privy vaults.

The 1887 ordinance also briefly noted that scavengers employed to remove "substances, which for any cause has become offensive, or has to be removed, [shall] convey the same in close, tight covered boxes, so as to prevent the scattering or dropping therefrom any such substances while in motion, or passing along any streets. . . or permit the emission of smells therefrom" (Ordinance 809, sec 71). No mention was made as to what was done with night soil in the ordinances, but at one point the city adopted the New Orleans method of sanitation, which involved the emptying of the contents of privy vaults and cesspools into the Mississippi or converting it to fertilizer in an outlying area.

As people were used to creating their own individual sanitation systems as they saw fit and without the interference of the city government, it is unclear whether this flurry of requirements had much influence on the lives of most residents. Many did resist making expensive hook-ups to a suspect system, and sanitation ordinances were frequently broken. Non-conforming privies were declared nuisances to be abated by the Department of Health, but except in severe cases it is unlikely that many were actually condemned.

Newspapers did record problems as in this 1886 notice: "The attention of the health officer has been called to a noisome nuisance in the rear of the Syndicate block, but that official hasn't discovered the foul hole yet.".

Gradually, dependable sewers and water mains were expanded throughout the city and connector confidence increased. Permits searched for the Central Corridor project indicate that most homes were connected by 1910. But, regulations regarding the removal of night soil continued into 1949, indicating that privies may have stayed in active use well into the 20th century.