On a summer day in 1873, a cart stood on 6th Avenue in New York City filled to the brink with raw human waste. The cart was uncovered—its contents exposed to the air and to the passers-by who retched and gagged as they scurried away. Excrement dipped off the sides of the cart, and the sidewalks and gutters were smeared with the stuff. The stench was so strong that it could be smelled from more than a block away. It was another day in pre-sewer America.
Before municipal sewer systems, excreta piled up in the privies of people’s homes—essentially a deep hole in the ground. But these poop storage units did not have unlimited capacity.
When the privies were eventually filled, that’s when the night soil men were called in.
“Night soil” was the name euphemistically given to human waste because it was removed from privies under the cloak of darkness so that polite society would be spared from confronting its own feces as the men carted the crap away, leaving a trail of stench in their wake. Each year in cities across the country, thousands of carts brimming with excrement rattled through the night streets. This was an antiquated solution to a modern problem: America’s cities were full of crap.
As cities grew larger and denser in the 19th century, the paltry urban infrastructure could not handle the sheer tonnage of human waste its residents were producing. New York was the dirtiest city of them all. In 1844 it was estimated that Manhattanites alone produced nearly 800,000 cubic feet of excrement—that’s enough poop to fill the trunks of about 53,000 mid-sized cars.