Night Soil and Boogie Men – Holy Crap!

One time I was visiting the beautiful, historic Lincoln Park Conservatory in Chicago.  It was off-season (as in no big holiday, no mounds of poinsettias formed into giant Christmas trees or millions of lilies for Easter etc.).  It was a quiet weekday and I had the place more or less to myself.  I was wandering around imagining that in my Victorian life, this was my own greenhouse!

What?!  Don’t act like you’ve never imagined yourself in your own Victorian greenhouse!

Anyway, I ran into a very modern worker quietly pruning and nurturing.  We got to talking.

Designed and planted in the 1870’s and opened to the public in the 1890’s, the building and probably some of the plants are over 100 years old!  This man had worked here nurturing these old gems for quite a long time.  As always, people at work know a LOT.  They are all experts in their fields, but no one ever asks them anything or cares about what they do.  I asked a few questions and got a great education and an insiders tour of the Conservatory.  It was a great day.  But what sticks with me most?

Myrrh.  As in Frankincense and Myrrh.  As in the good that the 3 wise men brought to baby Jesus.

Now, there are all sorts of theories about why the wise men would have brought these particular items to Jesus.  The addition of gold aside, they were goods fit for a king in their tradition.

However, my friend and I weren’t discussing Jesus or the appropriate nature of the gifts of the Magi, or of any of the magical or medicinal uses of myrrh.  We were talking about a very practical use: use in a posy.

According to my friend at the Conservatory, during Victorian times, people would carry little bunches of myrrh to sniff throughout the very smelly days of their lives.  Would it have been the same during the days of Jesus?  Probably.  I don’t believe they had sewers either.

The big change of course in Victorian times would have been industrialization and massive growth in the cities.  All those people condensed in small areas.  All those people and all the animals to cart them and their goods around produced a lot of waste!

At the time, there were no washers and dryers.  It wasn’t so easy to do laundry.  How many kettles of water would you need to wash a comforter?  And worse, to  RINSE it?  Women wore dresses made of copious amounts of material, right down to the floor (or the horse-do-sewage-mud that was the street.  Those dresses weren’t easily washed.  There was no dry cleaners at the end of the road.

The houses were heated by open fires and lit by oil lanterns and candles so everything was blacked with soot and reeking of smoke.  How many kettles of water would you need to fill your bathtub or wash your hair?  It was believed that bathing wasn’t good for a person  anyway so most people didn’t have to worry about hauling too many kettles of water.  Since everyone stunk, I suppose, it didn’t much matter.

But with all that, I never much thought about the worst of the smell.  The human waste.  Before flush toilets. where did it go?  Oh yeah, out in the street.  Imagine walking down the street and someone emptied a chamber pot out the window? Gads!

So it was smelly yes, and not so healthy.  I remember reading with horror, in Angela’s Ashes, how the family moved into a two-story house at the bottom of the hill.  The child thought he was the king of the world to live in a two-story house.  At the bottom of the hill was the neighborhood latrine.

Night Soil and Boogie Men

Some houses might have an outhouse out back, but in a city, everyone can’t have a private outhouse.  They had a large public out-house at the end of the street and everyone would come and empty their chamber pots there.  Gasp.

And then came the rain and the rain and the rain and the flood and the latrine flooded over and right into the first floor of the house.  The family had to retreat upstairs but couldn’t vacate the house.  The little boy ended up with typhoid.  I guess it wasn’t so uncommon at the time.

When I hear people talking about how things were simpler and how they would like to go back in time, I always think that whatever my complaints might be about today, I have no desire to travel back to those days.

Which brings me back to posies and nosegays!

A nosegay was exactly what it says: something to keep your nose gas amid the onslaught of daily, smelly life.  Women would carry small bouquets, mixes of fragrant flowers and herbs.  Men would tuck some into their pocket or lapel where they could take a sniff when the world became overwhelming!

My friend at the conservatory explained that myrrh, with it’s healing qualities, was often used in these nosegays.  At any rate, I had a wee bit of myrrh to carry about with me for the day.  This memory was to fortify me when reading this article about night soil!

Yes, cities were teeming with people and all they left behind.  The euphemism was “night soil” and someone had to come and clean that up!  Night soil men came around at night to clean up the waste.  In some places the laws were that they could not come around until after 9 p.m.  I supposed we would all want to be tucked in cozy somewhere with the windows shut before these men would begin their work.

Children were threatened that they had to be in bed by 9 or the boogie men might get them.  There was a lot of work to be done and not enough laborers willing to do it so children out wandering after 9 might be recruited!

For more than you’d ever want to know on night soil, here is the full article!  Posy recommended.

I hope this latest in the ‘change your algorithm has given you something to think about.  We all need a little fertilizer now and then if we are going to get the crops to grow!  I had never heard of night soil men but what heroes they were!  What would the place have been like without them?  Would the cities have survived at all? Or would everyone have succumbed to disease?

I guess when my water bill comes and I see the sewer tax, I should complain less!

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally published on 4/7/2016 and has been revamped and updated as part of moving my blogs]


Patt Timlin is a marketing expert set on sharing her expertise with other online marketers to help them achieve the dream of working online. She is secretly pleased with the surge in content marketing as revenge of the English majors! Entrepreneur, blogger, guide, helper – Patt loves the online world and loves to share it!

Patt is the author of:


Spot4connectionsblog [focus beginners online]

Work At Home Product Guide 

Patt Timlin Online 

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