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Moule's Patent Earth-Closets
It is now nearly four years since the dry earth system of sewage - the invention of the Rev. Henry Moule, of Fordington, in England - was introduced into this country under the auspices of the Earth-Closet Company of Hartford...
During the whole of this time, the system has steadily and surely won its way to the favor of the people. All question as to its entire efficacy has long since ceased and the only remaining obstacles to its universal adoption are the fancied one of the difficulty of providing earth, and the very serious one of the indifference of common people to the dangers and the annoyances of the common privy which still stands as an emblem of our inherent barbarism.
...The quantity of earth required for a year's supply is trifling, and even this may be replaced, in whole or in part, by the coal ashes which constitute an almost universal annoyance in the household. Compared with the mere labor of going to a privy at a distance from the house, the labor of providing earth is nothing; and the fact that the product of the closet constitutes the
best, the most powerful, and the most cleanly of all manures, will, wherever the value of manure is at all appreciated, more than compensate for the little trouble that is required. The writer has now used the Moule system for over three years, and with four closets in constant use - three in the house and one in an adjacent street - he has never the least occasion for the preparation of earth. The ashes of the house fires furnish, without cost, all the material that is required for perfect disinfection.
The Manufacturer and Builder, New York, 1872

Earth closets

Moule's patent earth closets, dry closets 

Large bucket under wooden seat with hole, metal hopper above and behind Born in 1801 and a hero, in a small way, of the 21st century green eco-movement, the Rev. Henry Moule patented an earth closet toilet system in 1860. His motives were to save his poor Victorian parishioners from cholera by devising a sanitary but simple set-up, suitable for homes where indoor piped water was an impossible dream. Today his design, now re-named a composting toilet, could save us from water shortages and expensive plumbing, while enriching our vegetable gardens. The big drawback is that someone has to haul earth around: first filling up the hopper which releases a dollop of earth or ash at the right time, and then emptying the bucket into a potato trench.

Moule has few rivals for the title of inventor of the earth closet. While some people think that Thomas Jefferson's privy system at Monticello used ashes or earth, this seems difficult to prove. Moule's closet is usually described as the first of its kind, although David J. Everleigh's Story of Domestic Sanitation says that he was "not the first to patent a dry closet" and his success came from his "energy and business acumen".

Apart from the new patent inventions, there were crude forerunners available to gentlemen in upper-class English houses. Constance Peel mentions this, though she was too discreet to go into much detail:

The modern earth-closet was not known until 1860, when the Rev. Henry Moule took out a patent, but in the [earlier 19th century] a rough sort of earth-closet was used and occasionally such might be found in a small room, or even in a large unventilated cupboard adjacent to the dining-room, billiard-room, gun-room or, as it was called, the hunting parlour. Here too were kept the articles which gentlemen who drank deep and long might be expected to require.
Mrs CS Peel, Home and Habits, in GM Young's Early Victorian England, 1934

This website usually likes to know how things seemed from the viewpoint of someone with real experience of daily housekeeping. Catherine Beecher, who went into a long, enthusiastic discussion of earth closets in her American Woman's Home (1869), only hinted at the advantages for those doing the household chores, saying it "relieves the most disagreeable item in domestic labor". Presumably all the housewives or servants who had ever had to empty a chamber pot in an outside privy would agree with her, even if they had to carry buckets of earth out to the garden instead. Of course, many earth closets were built in an outside hut in the first place:

One winding path led to the earth closet in its bower of nut-trees half-way down the garden...
Flora Thompson describing the 1890s in Candleford Green , 1945

From the words on the hopper - MOULE'S EARTH SYSTEM J. W. GIRDLESTONE'S PATENT - the design in the photo seems to be from the mid-1860s or later, after JW Girdlestone became engineer to Moule's Earth Closet Company in London.

15 August 2007

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