The Sanitary Privy (07/03/2020)

To celebrate the 4th of July and our American heritage, this Footnote launches a month-long series of postings that look at the federal government and some of the policies and agencies created by the federal government that have impacted rural American (and directly or indirectly agricultural and extension education). This Footnote will focus on the WPA Sanitary Privy building program.

In 1911, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson wrote, “Nothing is more important to the farmer than good health. Good health can not be preserved if the sanitary conditions of the farm are bad.” This is found in the introduction to the USDA Farmers Bulletin 463 – The Sanitary Privy.

Various publications in the early 1900s had pictures of unsanitary privies along with descriptions and warnings about the adverse health issues associated with using such unsanitary facilities.

Figure 1 The Sanitary Privy. Public Health Reports, V. 25, No. 17. 1910.

Figure 2. The Sanitary Privy. The University of North Dakota Departmental Bulletins. Vol. II, No. 1. (1916).

Numerous diseases were associated with unsanitary privies. The opening sentence in a 1943 journal article “The Sanitary Privy and Its Relation to Public Health” reads:

In the early part of the 20th century it was discovered that the prevention or control of typhoid fever, diarrhea, dysentery, hookworm, and other enteric diseases was dependent upon the sanitary disposal of human excreta.

Further in the article, it was reported that “Sanitation and infestation surveys made in 11 southern states confirmed the presence of hookworm disease in every one of the 700 counties investigated and indicated that soil pollution was the chief factor in the spread of this disease (Tisdale and Atkins, 1943, p. 1319)”.

Unsanitary privies were a major health issue in the south and across the nation in the early days of agricultural education and extension. A 1910 Extension Bulletin from Clemson Agricultural College titled Rural School Improvement featured the image below along with plans and recommendations for improving sanitation in rural schools.

Figure 3. This image was featured in numerous government publications.
Sometimes with or without the text.

Vocational Agriculture and Privies

In a presentation to the National Society for Vocational Education in 1920 regarding Farm Shop Work, E. W. Lehmann of the University of Missouri (1920, p. 54) indicated that farm shop work instruction should be “…applied to problems on the farm.” One example he gave was remodeling a privy. From some of the images we have seen, it appears the farm privy needed a major overhaul instead of just a remodeling.

Struck conducted a study of Farm Shop Work in Pennsylvania in 1920. His goal was to identify the types of repairs and construction work that should be taught to vocational agriculture students, Under the category “General” building a privy was ranked eleventh among wood construction projects in which farmers engage (building a wire fence, farm gate and board fence was ranked first, second, and third).

In Alabama, in the late 1940s, veterans enrolled in the Lamar County Institutional On-the-farm Training program were required to build either an indoor toilet or a sanitary privy as part of their instructional program. By 1950, 421 sanitary privies (and 30 bathrooms) had been installed. The agriculture teacher stated (Smith, 1950, p. 153), “This program …is expected to decidedly improve the health of present and future generations, since Lamar County has a high hookworm infestation.”

Improvement projects as a type of SAE have been recognized ever since the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917. Over time agricultural educators have defined improvement projects in a variety of ways. Hammonds and Binkley (1961, p. 40) stated “An improvement project may be in almost anything that needs improving on the home farm.” Deyoe (1943) provided 22 categories of improvement projects including “Install Modern Conveniences in the Home. ” He specifically mentions septic tank and bathroom.

It is entirely plausible that students have built outhouses as part of their SAE program. A copy of the Supervised Practice Report for 1930 for agriculture students in Cary High School (NC) shows that James Franklin (age 16) had 100 chicks,1 acre of cotton and also installed terraces, maintained a lawn, and “Toilet.” I don’t know if “Toilet” means installed an indoor toilet or rebuilt the outhouse. There are no details.

The WPA Depression Era Privy Program

The Great Depression started in 1929 and lasted through most of the 1930s. The stock market crash of 1929 followed by the dust bowl in the west decimated agriculture killing people, livestock, and crops.  There are numerous similarities between the economic impact of the Covid-19 virus today and the economy during the depression. Many companies (and half of the banks) failed and unemployment was high during the depression (15 million Americans were unemployed).

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected as president in 1932 (and inaugurated in 1933) he started an ambitious program to return the country to normalcy. This recovery program was called The New Deal. Numerous pieces of farm legislation were passed and will be the subject of future Footnotes.

One of the New Deal programs was the Works Progress Administration (WPA, it was renamed Works Projects Administration in 1939)). It was created by executive order. Between 1935 and 1943 8.5 million people were put to work on WPA projects. In addition to putting people back to work, the program was also designed to improve the infrastructure of America.

Figure 4. WPA workers on a street project.

During the life of the WPA program about 4,000 new school buildings were constructed along with 130 new hospitals and 150 airfields. The workers planted some 24 million trees, renovated 280,000 miles of roads and laid 9,000 miles of storm and sanitary sewers. The River Walk in San Antonio was a WPA project as was the football stadium at LSU.

WPA Federal Project Number One was unique in that it employed artists, musicians, actors, and writers to capture and document the events of the depression. Some of the most memorable images of the great depression came from this group of people. Motivational posters were created, and murals were painted on buildings. Monuments were sculpted and actors and musicians performed to keep up the spirits of the citizens.

But perhaps the greatest boon for rural America was the building of over 2 million sanitary privies. Not only did this put rural people to work, but it also improved the health of the farmers and their families. In the 1930s one-third of all Americans used an outhouse, often a very unsanitary one.

Figure 5. A WPA poster promoting sanitary privies.
It was probably drawn by one of the out-of-work WPA artists.

The privies were built in a centralized located and then transported to the farm. The concrete floors were poured at the central location. The wooden structure (4 ‘ x 5’) to go on top of the concrete pad was also built at a centralized facility. Both were then transported by truck to a farm where a WPA crew dug the pit (6 feet deep if the soil allowed) and lined it with lumber or concrete. The concrete pad was placed over the pit and then the wooden structure was installed. The frame had an overhanging shed roof and a door that swung out. The WPA privy typically had a square pot set at an angle protruding from a back corner. The WPA privy also had a lid on top of the pot and a screened ventilation shaft.

Figure 6. The privy bases were cast in a centralized location.

Figure 7. The privy frames were built in a centralized location.

Figure 8. The frames and bases were transported to the farms.

During the WPA era the privy or outhouse (whichever you prefer) picked up some additional nicknames. These WPA outhouses were sometimes identified as the Roosevelt, the Eleanor, or the White House. If you were highly educated and needed to go visit the outhouse in the presence of company, you would simply say “I am going to visit Ms. Perkins.” President Roosevelt had a female Secretary of Labor – Francis Perkins. She was responsible for the WPA programs.

The WPA was also involved in building school canneries and helped construct FFA camps (Fravel, 2004).

Concluding Remarks

During the life of the WPA sanitary privy program 2,309,239 privies were built. These privies were responsible for major decreases in hookworm and other diseases. The WPA program was a blessing for rural America.

However, we should not become too complacent. Even though it has been a while since I was teaching high school agriculture in the Appalachia mountain region, I had students who still used outhouses. In 2014 the Washington Post reported that 1.6 million Americans didn’t have indoor plumbing. Twelve percent of the population of Alaska use outhouses. We can find concentrations of outhouses today in certain parts of the Appalachian region, along the Rio Grande River in Texas, in parts of Southwest Alabama, and on reservations for Native Americans in the western states.

Just as agriculture teachers and extension agents were actively involved in promoting the construction and use of sanitary privies decades ago, we should be aware that we might still need to be doing that today.

If you drive to the National FFA Convention and travel through Beckley, WV you might want to stop at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine. In addition to touring an underground mine, you also get to visit the Coal Camp. Here you will find a WPA outhouse with WPA and 1939 in the concrete (see below).

Figure 9. The WPA outhouse at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine. Note the concrete floor and the square pot in the corner with a lid and T-ventilation shaft.

Figure 10. The inscription in the floor of the above privy.


Deyoe, G. P. (1943). Supervise Farming in Vocational Agriculture. Danville, IL: The Interstate.

Fravel, P. M. (2004). A History of Agricultural Education in South Carolina With an Emphasis on the Public School Program. Doctoral Dissertation. Virginia Tech.

Hammonds, C. and Binkley, H. (1961). Farming Programs for Students in Vocational Agriculture. Danville, IL: The Interstate.

Lehmann, E. W. (1920). Farm Shop Work. National Society for Vocational Education, Bulletin No. 32.

Smith, Hunter (1950, January). Accomplishments in Veterans Program. The Agricultural Education Magazine. Vol. 22. No. 7.

Struck, F. T. (1920). Farm Shop Work in Pennsylvania; A study of Repair and Construction Work as Carried Out by Farmers, and as Practiced in the Vocational Agriculture Schools of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania State College Rural Life Department.

Tisdale, E. S. & Atkins, C. H. (1943, November). The Sanitary Privy and Its Relation to Public Health. American Journal of Public Health.