Dundalk native Angie Hoffman asked me recently to elaborate on an issue that I touched on in my column about the Grange. I realized right away that what Ms. Hoffman wanted was the sordid tale of the Great Night Soil Debate of 1895, a dirty story about drinking, carousing, sacrilege and sewage. And, given the material, I was happy to oblige. Let’s get started.
At one time, humans were nomadic. This was largely because they lacked plumbing. After a group of hunter/gatherers lived in a particular spot for some amount of time, they started to agree that their home was not the refreshingly healthy place it once was. But agriculture and the villages, towns and fortifications it made necessary soon led humans to come up with more long-term waste solutions.
Eventually, the Romans achieved a level of waste management and sewerage that made their commodes the envy of the ancient world. So barbarians invaded and destroyed Rome to get their hands on this intimately critical technology.Unfortunately, the barbarians failed to bring any civil engineers with them to maintain the system, and the whole thing, if you will pardon the expression, went down the toilet.
What followed was, from a sanitation point of view, 1,500 years of darkness. Europe eventually dragged itself out of the muck and built cities again, but it had lost the art of the Roman sewer. Folks in towns had to get rid of their waste as best they could. So while writers of the era described in glowing terms the cathedrals, palaces and bustling industry of cities like London and Paris, nobody ever wrote a nice thing about how they smelled.
But human ingenuity is a powerful thing. Farmers who lived near these cities noticed that animal and human dung in their fields made their crops grow better. So guess what became a commodity?
The same was true in the colonies. As farming expanded on the Patapsco Neck, local farmers soon found their sources of animal manure insufficient for fertilizing the crops in increasing demand from nearby, growing Baltimore.
But Baltimore’s exponential growth during the 19th century led to an increased supply of an altogether different substance. So a class of men arose, the honeydippers, who went around the city at night scooping out middens and cesspools and hauling their noxious but nutritious cargo out to the farmers. This substance was euphemistically referred to as “night soil.”
And the hearty farmers of our area, with names like Todd, Merritt, Gorsuch, Lynch, Lambert, Sollers and Sparks, bought the night soil and spread it over their fields with specialized wagons like the one pictured above. Contemporary reports stated that, surprisingly, the place stunk to high heaven.
But the crops grew well. Local farmers prospered. As their basic needs were met, they increasingly looked around to see what else needed improving.
These were God-fearing folk. When they noticed that local taverns had become centers for drinking and wanton revelry, they were shocked. When they learned that people drank, danced and gambled in these establishments on Sunday, they were outraged. So, according to an 1894 article in the Maryland Journal, they complained to local magistrates, accusing the tavern keepers of corruption of morals, disturbing the peace, illegal sale of undutied liquors, promotion of juvenile delinquency, blasphemy and sacrilege.
From the tavern keepers’ perspective, thems was fightin’ words. A Maryland Journal article from later the same year implies that some sort of punitive action was taken against the tavern owners. They fired back by complaining to the State Board of Health that the continued use of night soil as a fertilizer endangered human health.
That’s when the night soil hit the fan. This was an attack on the farmers’ livelihood. On May 20, 1895, board president Dr. James Steuart listened to the testimony of local farmers at a packed meeting at the Grange Hall, according to a Baltimore Sun article. Thomas Todd presided over the assembly while Alva Merritt took the minutes. Farmers Shunk, Stengel, Merritt, Rhodes, Lambert and Sparks testified about the good state of health in the community. Dr. E. Jonas Williams agreed.
Dr. Steuart concluded that there was no evidence that night soil spread sickness in the community. Furthermore, he stated that the wharf where city barges dumped the night soil was no stinkier than the back yards of city residences. As a result, the ban was lifted, and farmers returned to spreading what they often referred to as “black soup” over their fields until modern plumbing and health codes stopped the practice in the 20th century.
Makes you sort of miss the good old days, doesn’t it?
First printed 2003