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Hygiene in a Shanty

March 28, 2022

An unidentified logging camp

In the late nineteenth century, boards of health were a relatively new institution that concerned themselves with improving public health and safety. They often addressed issues like waste disposal. Back then, there was not garbage collection, so some people just threw junk in their backyard or nearby field. There were not yet plastics, so practically everything was organic (including wood) and, when left out to rot, would make a stinky putrid mess.

The boards of health also concerned themselves with the disposal of human waste. In the days before sewage treatment plants, a lot of untreated human waste ended up in the waterway, which was also used untreated as a source of drinking water. Health units also advocated against the practice of setting up outhouses over creeks (think of it as the nineteenth century version of a flush toilet).

In 1900, the Mossom Boyd Company had to abandon one of their logging camps near Gooderham after the outbreak of a fever, suspected to be typhoid. In his defence, foreman William Creswell claimed he had long been instructing the men to be more careful with their hygiene, particularly relating to the use of privies, but was not able to prevail. There was no toilet paper, and the men would typically not have a change of clothes.

For washing, shanties often had a barrel of water standing beside a rudimentary sink, with a drain dripping down by the exterior of the building. Though some cleaned themselves on Sunday, many found this inconvenient or unpleasant—unless they took the time to heat water over the fire, it would be cold and the shanties were drafty. They might have asked themselves if it was better to catch cold or be filthy. So most rarely or never washed, aside from perhaps their face and hands. A foreman, George Thompson recalled:

“Quite a number would never change their under-clothes or shirts until the clothes were wore out, and as to washing their feet, such a thing never came to their minds, for the old heads knew their feet would get washed often enough in the spring when the river driving commenced, and wading in the cold water in the rapids often up to their waist, and sometimes their shoulders. This would soon wash all the dirt off them. Lost socks would often be discovered that way in the spring, the dirt on the men’s feet being so thick they would forget having put the socks on months before, and the first wading in the water in the spring would bring the lost socks to light, much to the astonishment of the wearer.”

The men were often infested by lice and it was said that they could be smelled half a mile away—as much for the scent of smoke as sweat (not to mention human filth). Occasionally, Boyd’s foremen disinfected old shanties with carbolic acid, but there was only so much they could do. The men typically slept two to a bunk, under grey woollen blankets that were just as filthy as their occupants.

When the suspected typhoid outbreak began, the local board of health did what they could to mitigate the situation, preparing the following report, which provides a glimpse into the public health ideas of the period.  Mercuric Chloride (HgCl2) is white, crystalline and one of the most toxic forms of mercury, formerly used as a disinfectant, in photography, or as a wood preservative and today as a catalyst in the production of PVC plastics. Carbolic Acid (C6H5OH) was a common antiseptic, also used for embalming. It is carcinogenic, harmful to lungs, livers and kidneys. Paris Green (Cu(C2H3O2)· 3(Cu(AsO2)2) was one of the most common and potent nineteenth century poisons and a vivid blue-green pigment. A common insecticide, its name came from its use as a rat killer in Parisian sewers.

Report of the Glamorgan Board of Health’s Activities at a Boyd Shanty

I am glad to be able to assure you that I now consider your camp and office at Bark Lake thoroughly safe so far as thorough disinfection and cleaning can make the same. The office walls, beds, and floors as well as benches were thoroughly fumigated before Mr. Powers came up. The shanty had been fumigated, swept & scrubbed by our Mr. Brown also. I met Mr. Powers on his way in Tuesday afternoon and returned next day to camp and thoroughly sprayed the sleeping quarters of the men with Mercuric Chloride Solution (1 in 4000). During the leakage of the spray pump the walks between the beds were literally flooded with the solution, a most favourable circumstance as the double floor was thereby completely saturated. Next day whilst this was drying we started at the blankets, which I boiled in the Mercuric Solution (1 in 4000) for about ten minutes. We then took them out draining them well and plunged two or three pairs in a barrel of fresh water for which soap had been added in sufficient quantity to make a weak suds. Mr. Power and Silva then thoroughly washed them and passed them through the wringer whilst I boiled others and we managed to wash over thirty pairs. That evening I left for home, leaving directions as to digging drains &c sufficient to keep them employed until the following Monday. My children during the temporary absence of my wife from the house in the morning of Monday had in some way managed to get hold of box containing Paris Green and after upsetting its contents on the floor had been sucking the box, consequently I could not leave until Tuesday when they were out of danger. Tuesday we washed out more blankets after trying to spray the men’s quarters with whitewash mixed with Crude Carbolic Acid. We could not get it to work, so on Wednesday we sent the Cook to Irondale for Whitewash brushes and continued washing the blankets, which we finished on Thursday evening at dark. I had thoroughly sprinkled the office walls, scrubbed the beds, floor and office furniture with Mercuric Chloride Solution on Thursday morning whilst Powers & Silva were doing other work, cutting wood &c which did not need my personal oversight. Thursday evening the office had dried sufficiently they whitewashed the office with whitewash mixed with crude carbolic acid under my supervision. Friday the blankets having been all brought in and hung up in the men’s quarters to dry, I thoroughly disinfected the men’s room downstairs in the morning with mercuric chloride solution and in the afternoon did the same with the cook’s apartment including the tables and seats. You can hardly credit the difference this has made in the odour of the camp. The Mercuric seemed to completely kill out all old smell and oppressive air. Whilst I was doing the cooks apartment, Powers and Silva were busily engaged in whitewashing the men’s room downstairs with the Carbolic Acid whitewash and after they were through with it whitewashed parts of the cook’s room.

As fast as the blankets dried they were folded up and carried to the office. The drain from the men’s wash sink was covered with old scoops and its outlet is nearly at the edge of the swamp. The drain from the cooks sink I left open purposely in order that it may be kept thoroughly flushed and disinfected. A trough is attached to the spout leading form this drain in order to carry the slops some distance from the walls. The pit dug by Mr. Creswell’s direction directly under the office wash sink I had filed up and directed that the washslops be emptied into a tub and carried away daily, solution of Sulphate of Iron to be kept in the tub as a disinfectant. By doing these things I hope to prevent severe gas from generating around the walls of shanty and office, which is one of the most insidious and certain means of causing disease or carrying the germs of infectious trouble. The privies have been burnt down and I hope to see new ones when I next visit the camp erected.

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