Progressive privy program proved popular |

Progressive privy program proved popular

Mella Rothwell Harmon, Historic Preservation Specialist

The State Historic Preservation Office is looking for a few good privies, and we are asking for your help.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a number of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were directed at improving the lot of America’s rural poor in order to keep them on the land. This included such programs as rural resettlement, rural electrification, and the Farm Credit Administration. Specific projects to improve irrigation for crops, and watering facilities for cattle and sheep were conducted in Nevada’s rural areas, as were resettlement and rural electrification. Nevada’s farms, ranches, and rural schools had public health problems as well. In 1938, the Works Progress Administration instituted a program to improve sanitation in rural areas, while providing employment to skilled and unskilled workers.

The problem of rural sanitation seems surprising by today’s standards, but at the time, Nevada’s ranch pit privies were found to be poorly located close to wells or other domestic water sources, or in many cases suspended over ditches and streams, creating health hazards. According to a 1938 Nevada State Journal article, 169 Nevada schoolhouses had outside privies and 43 of those had only one privy for the entire school.

The WPA, in conjunction with the U.S. Public Health Service, and sponsored by the State Board of Health, undertook a sanitary privy program known as the Nevada Fly-Proof Privy Program. The new privy design employed a double system of air ventilators that extended into the cement-lined pit to provide constant circulation of fresh air. Built to U.S. Public Health Service specifications, the privies were of a concrete slab and riser type that was constructed in such a way as to be impregnable to flies, rats, and other rodents. In addition, the privies featured seats made of flooring and a regular door lock, replacing the old nail and string, or wooden button type.

The privies were available to all families in Nevada who, because of their remote locations, were unable to hook up to sewage systems. The families bore the cost of materials, about $23, and the unit was constructed by WPA labor. The cost to the federal government for labor and installation was approximately $50 per unit, which included all installation expenses, a shingle roof, paint, digging of the pit, and transportation. The WPA employed three types of workmen for the program, including skilled carpenters, skilled cement finishers, and common laborers. By the end of August 1938, 1,092 of these progressive privies had been built in 11 Nevada counties, employing more than 100 needy workers.

It is not known whether any of these privies exist today, but the Historic Preservation Office wishes to conduct a survey of these remnants of our past. So, if you live in rural Nevada and think you have a pretty spiffy privy on your property, please call 775-684-3447, or e-mail:

Mella Harmon is a historic preservation specialist with the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office, where she serves as coordinator for the National Register of Historic Places program.