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Peeking into Moravian WASH Systems

Recently our Founder was in North Carolina and was able to visit the Old Salem Museum & Gardens, a historic Moravian site. There, she learned about the sanitary culture of the Moravians in the 18th and 19th centuries. To continue Toilet Tourism, below is a summary of her findings.

Entering the old Moravian town (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Who Are Moravians?

The Moravians are one of the first Protestant churches in the world. Their lineage starts in the 15th-century Czech Republic (then Bohemia). Departing from Catholic dogmas, their religious creed focuses on simplicity, happiness, community, and doing acts of service. In addition, they believe in spiritual rebirth and celebrating music.

They suffered a lot of persecution and fled elsewhere, including Germany, where the Moravian Church was officially founded. They came to the US in the early 1700s, starting in Georgia and Pennsylvania before growing in the rest of Colonial America, being largely German-speaking communities. The first Moravian settlement in North Carolina was in Winston-Salem (then Wachovia), where this museum is!

The Moravian Church believes that education is essential, regardless of gender or social status. This means that when most women and people of color enslaved by Europeans were illiterate, they ensured that females, Native Americans, and African Americans learned in their educational facilities.

A Balance of Cleanliness & Reuse

Like everyone else, Moravians needed to take care of bodily functions. Households and public living spaces had outhouses they called “the necessary.” These were single-stall dry toilets – essentially a bench with a hole over a waste bin – with simple ventilation to keep the smell from becoming overwhelming. These systems look and worked like other privies found in the New World, like what we’ve already seen at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. In the 18th century, they’d use corncobs and other organic matter lying around for cleanup.

Photos (left to right): A dry outhouse at Old Salem, the back door for the night soil men to use (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Under the toilet, the waste bin was easily removable regularly by night soil men. Night soil men took the waste out from under the outhouse and would move the fecal sludge to a field where they’d apply it as fertilizer. When asked, the museum attendants mentioned that they could not determine if the night soil men in the Moravian community were Moravian men or enslaved people. It’s also unclear if or how much they were paid for their regular services.

Photos (left to right): A bed with a chamber pot, a sick room bed with a vomit bucket (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Moravians also had chamber pots under each of their beds, for easy use at night and on particularly cold periods. So who was responsible for emptying the chamber pots into the outhouse? The youngest in the family. Hopefully, the chamber pot contents wouldn’t freeze before they emptied it– otherwise, they’d have to break up the ice chunks of human waste before discarding it in the outhouse.

The Moravians have also valued cleanliness and hygiene since before it was a popular practice. They also had a specific room called the Sick Room, where they put a chamber pot AND vomit bucket under each bed, just in case.

A list of the Boys' House Rules (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

They have also been avid documentarians and wrote down rules they followed – much of it was about keeping things neat and clean. At the Old Salem site, there’s a list of rules at the Boy’s House that young boys would have to follow, such as:

“Attention should be given to necessary cleanliness”

“The toilets must be kept clean & the regular necessary cleaning may be arranged among the brothers”

“It is declared that it is indecent that any brothers pass urine in front of the house during the night”

“The brothers should empty their slops on the dung, NOWHERE else”

“Brothers should bathe at a safe and decent place, and do so quietly, orderly, and decently”

Even with these rules, they still found a way to use the regularly collected urine. In the Boys’ House, they would use the ample urine supplies to set natural dyes into their fabrics and wash linen. This was a practice in communities beyond the Moravians; they also documented it well.

Dying linen with urine (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Pioneering Water Systems

The Moravians were also the first communities to develop municipal piped water systems. The first piped water system in the US was in the Moravian town of Bethlehem, PA, in 1754. Old Salem constructed theirs in 1778, around the same time other towns in the new country were picking up the idea for piped systems, particularly for fighting against fires. These systems still required most households to fetch water daily, but it was much easier to get to than trekking through treacherous footpaths to creeks.

Photos (left to right): Old Salem's old piped water system, an original water log used for piping water before clay systems were put in (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

These systems originally used cored-out log pipes fitted together and slightly tilted so that the system could work with gravity to put water into the kitchens in community buildings. In 1791, George Washington even visited Old Salem and remarked how impressed he was with their sophisticated water system.

Thanks to the many attendants at Old Salem who patiently answered our endless toilet questions and talked about the settlement longer than necessary for us to write this blog!


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