On a summer day in 1873, a cart stood on 6th Avenue in New York City filled to the brink with raw human waste. The cart was uncovered—its contents exposed to the air and to the passers-by who retched and gagged as they scurried away. Excrement dipped off the sides of the cart, and the sidewalks and gutters were smeared with the stuff. The stench was so strong that it could be smelled from more than a block away. It was another day in pre-sewer America.
Before municipal sewer systems, excreta piled up in the privies of people’s homes—essentially a deep hole in the ground. But these poop storage units did not have unlimited capacity.
When the privies were eventually filled, that’s when the night soil men were called in.