Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ephraim Merriam - A Man And His Privy

Ephraim Merriam house - 2008

You never know what you'll find when you travel with an open mind and a modicum of curiosity. I've made an effort recently to become familiar with Victorian housing styles, the better to sort out Italianate from Second Empire, and pediments from finials. Armed with a superficial familiarity with 19th century house design, I realize that my knowledge is limited entirely to exterior design styles. So what was going on inside these houses? How and when did lighting change over the century? And what about plumbing? Looking back from today, I know that gas preceded electricity for lighting, and kerosene lamps and candles came still earlier. I was less clear on water. The earliest substantial houses in the 1800s would have had their own wells, and by the end of the century would be provided with running water by the city of Boston. I assumed that along the way, they also would have passed from outhouses to modern bathrooms, but how did they get there? Which leads me to the history of domestic plumbing and the development of modern toilets. See, you never know where you're going!

A little online digging led me to the Winterthur Portfolio: A Journal of American Material Culture. Yes, there are people who study such things for a living. In an article titled Domestic Reform and Household Plumbing, 1840-1870, Ms. Maureen Ogle tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the mid-19th century development of indoor plumbing in the United States. Fascinating stuff for those of us interested in the history of technology - I took a college course - and also containing a bonus.

Shown above are the floor plans of a Jamaica Plain house. The house was owned by Ephraim Merriam, designed by Luther Briggs, Jr., and the drawing is dated 1856. Mr Merriam was a grocer in Boston, with a shop at 8 Beach street in 1873. The house was at the corner of Chestnut and Spring Park avenues, as shown in this 1874 JP Historical Society map. The upper drawing shows the well, located in the basement, and the drain lines that ran from the sink and the privy to the cesspool beside the house. This was during the Town of West Roxbury period, and house lots were still fairly large, and while the population was growing, private wells could apparently still deal with the load. Once house lots got smaller and multi-family houses were built, the need for municipal water and sewer systems would be obvious.

Addendum: athough the author of the article says that the house no longer exists, I found it mentioned in the Boston Landmark Commission historical architecture book. Sure enough, there it is on Chestnut avenue. The tower appears to have lost its top section, but the rest follows the pattern of the house quite well.

Sources: The article cited was accessed through the JSTOR archive with my Boston Public Library account. It comes up in a Google search, but is not available online without JSTOR access. Start here and choose JSTOR - you'll need your account number. Other major libraries will have their own access. Mr Merriam is listed at Chestnut avenue in the Brookline, Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury Directory of 1873.

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