Today’s post is not for the squeamish: The CWA and WPA Sanitary Privy Projects

Lee, R., photographer. (1938) Southeast Missouri Farms Project. Privy erection. Back filling and tamping the earth around sanitary base and mud sill. Southeast Missouri Farms New Madrid County United States Missouri, 1938. May. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

A few days ago, I completed a submission for the Living New Deal project about the state-wide sanitary privies built in Mississippi. Looking at the photographs taken by New Deal Administration photographers, I realized Grandma and Grandpa had one. The clue was that rounded concrete seat and floor, along with the style of the outhouse itself. Both the Civil Works Administration and the Work Progress Administration constructed sanitary privies in all states. In Texas, the CWA began its statewide drive for better public health and disease elimination in fall of 1933. Grandpa worked for the WPA, driving a truck full of workers to various sites in Young County, including for the construction of the school in Murray in 1935.

Lee, R., photographer. (1938) Southeast Missouri Farms Project. Fitting seat and lid on sanitary base of privy. Southeast Missouri Farms New Madrid County United States Missouri, 1938. May. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Their outhouse also had a wooden seat with a lid that closed, unlike most typical outhouses of the era, which featured only a hole (or two) cut into the wooden slats that covered the pit like a bench. Most also had wooden floors. While I grew up with running water and flush toilets, it was 1963 before my mother’s parents had an indoor bathroom, and dad’s parents did not have an indoor toilet until I was a junior in college–imagine explaining to my soon-to-be-husband on the first visit that there was no inside toilet.

Lee, R., photographer. (1938) Privy plant. Cleaning metal forms for sanitary privy base. Southeast Missouri Farms Project. Southeast Missouri Farms New Madrid County United States Missouri, 1938. May. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

The CWA vaults were constructed of lumber, with concrete seats and floor. Later, the WPA improved on the design, adding concrete vaults as they not not deteriorate and require replacement. The concrete vault took 24 hours for the pits to set, after a pit from 6-10 feet was dug. The goal was to place a sanitary pit toilet in every home in the county without underground sewerage disposal. The outhouse itself, and the floors and seats were constructed at regional facilities and transported to the site for installation of the unit, complete with screening for ventilation and fly control and a vented pipe for the vault. Local men were employed in each county for the installation and on-site construction.

Lee, R., photographer. (1938) Southeast Missouri Farms New Madrid County United States Missouri, 1938. May. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Why this was such a pressing public health concern was unsanitary outhouses, with no pit and only an open back, contributed to diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and infestation of hookworms. The open back may have helped with ventilation and cleaning, but it also allowed chickens, hogs, birds, rats, and other vermin along with flies to spread disease. The folks who lived just up the road from my grandparents with their “sanitary privy” had an open back outhouse without a pit. The chickens scratched in it, sometimes while you were using it.

Even harder to believe that some rural homes in the 1950s and 1960s did not have indoor plumbing and toilet facilities, when we moved to Graham in 1963, one house in our neighborhood still used an outhouse and the only running water was a faucet in their front yard.

Mississippi approved a statewide sanitation project totaling $390,115 funded by the WPA. CWA and FERA also funded sanitation projects in Mississippi and elsewhere. The cost of the materials in Mississippi was an average of $16, supplied by the home owner and the cost of installation borne by the federal government. In Texas, it ranged up to $30. Texas’ approach was:

At first an attempt is to be made to persuade the citizenry of Texas to install the proper sanitation methods, but it has been indicated by officials that later, if a person refuses to do away with an improper toilet and install a pit toilet under sanitary regulations, the Texas criminal laws may be invoked and he may be brought into court on a charge of maintaining a nuisance against the health of the people.

Lecture given sanitary survey force which starts Thursday. (Jan 3, 1934). Tyler Morning Telegraph, p. 3.

I cannot help but be reminded of when no smoking laws began to be passed at the people who insisted they had a right to smoke if they wanted. It took a long time (and frankly, one still sees people smoking in a non-smoking area) before the idea took hold that one’s rights to do something ended at the point where it harmed others. Having an open back toilet, without proper protection against disease-spreading vermin, created a public health hazard. I imagine Texas would not take such a stand today

This entry was posted in Family, Mississippi, New Deal Administration, Texas, Works Progress Administration, Young County and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Today’s post is not for the squeamish: The CWA and WPA Sanitary Privy Projects

  1. Betty says:

    I did not know this was a project by the CWA and the WPA. Perhaps my birth year allowed me to miss all this by a couple of years. The greater good eventually won out as far as smoking and privies go; I am hopeful it will this time, too. And the next time – whatever that will be.


    • Suzassippi says:

      It is interesting to me the wide variety of public health and infrastructure projects that were undertaken, many of which still survive, including some of the sanitary privies! Grandma’s stood for many years after no one lived there, but on my last trip out to their place, theirs had been dismantled and even the concrete seat and floor were removed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I never knew the WPA built these or there was anything like them. A big improvement over the old outhouses with one or two holes over the waste. As a child I would visit an aunt and uncle in East Texas and would have to use their outhouse. They had a well with a bucket to draw water. I was always glad to get back to South Texas. Interesting piece!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Suzassippi says:

      Thank you, CC. I drew many a bucket of water from their cisterns, and it was definitely better to use Grandma’s outhouse than Mama and Papa’s! In the warmer months, my mother showered under an outdoor water tank Papa rigged up by the cistern. We took baths in a tin wash tub at Mama’s and we had a tin bathtub at Grandma’s. She would set it in the back yard and let the sun heat the water in the summer time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Several times I visited my best friend’s granddad out in the country. We used the outhouse, because that’s all there was. We also drew water from the well. It was quite an experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. When I was a child (in the 60s) one of the churches we attended still had outhouses.😬


  5. janebye says:

    So interesting! I remember my grandparents and parents talking about outhouses but I never used one till I went on that trip to Chiapas with Pastors for Peace. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Suzassippi says:

      Funny, but Chiapas and Pastors for Peace came up on my recent camping trip! I will fill you in; I channeled you washing dishes. πŸ™‚


      • janebye says:

        LOL Can’t wait to hear the stories! I remember coming home from that trip and saying that I realized how just how middle class I was. I do appreciate a flush toilet and a hot shower. πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

        • Suzassippi says:

          I did as well, but also learned a teensy bit of what it is like to not have those items and how to make do. Reminded me of my grandparents lives…only they did not have a water faucet outside to tote water into the house. Cistern water, if it rained.


  6. Bwahaahaaa, I love this! You might have legal consequences if you do not use a toilet in the sanitary manner. In Texas of all places. And I remember the people who claimed that smoking in an airplane or your face was part of their rights and had nothing to do with public health. And now it is vaccines. How we repeat idiocy and selfishness in the United States….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Suzassippi says:

      You are quite correct, Kodachromeguy! I have been off grid camping in Florida the past two weeks, and believe me, the sanitation and people thinking their “rights” took priority made me think of all of the above. By the way, I talked about your outstanding photography during the trip, and my appreciation for the work you do. I was never so happy to get back across the Mississippi border as I was tonight! πŸ™‚


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