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The Temples of Cloacina

Today, behind Nassau Hall just beyond Cannon Green, visitors to the Princeton University campus will see stairs between two large tiger sculptures installed in 1969. This sharp incline had different scenery prior to the twentieth century, however. Students sometimes called it “South Campus,” “The Temples of Cloacina,” or “Cloaca Maxima.” Less euphemistically or poetically, it served a most basic purpose, which students studying ancient Rome will have already guessed from the last two names: this was where the College of New Jersey (Princeton) sent its sewage.

Photo by Denise Applewhite, 2015. Courtesy Princeton University Office of Communications.

We know this today partly through the frankness of Edward Shippen of the Class of 1845. His memoir, Some Notes about Princeton, the original of which is held here at Mudd Library, records both appealing and unsavory aspects of college life in the 1840s. As J. Jefferson Looney has written, “No one else comments so tellingly on the sheer squalor of undergraduate life at Princeton.” “South Campus” was not a neat row of outhouses. Shippen describes “a moat” that surrounded Nassau Hall, which “remained the receptacle of all sorts of offal from the rooms above.” (Students lived in Nassau Hall at the time, as well as attending classes there.) The outhouses themselves (the “Temples of Cloacina”) “were the roughest of rough affairs—of hemlock boards—their distance rendering them difficult of access in bad weather or at night.” Another problem was that “the walks were muddy and not lighted at night…Many who were more conscientious avoided going there at night, [or in bad weather] to the injury of their health.” In 1878, the Princetonian warned its readers that sewage contaminated the water pumps near Nassau Hall, so they should try to find water elsewhere: “We cannot too heartily deprecate the system of sewage here.” It was here that James Collins Johnson, an escaped fugitive slave and Nassau Hall’s janitor, got the lifelong nickname “Jimmy Stink” from students when one of them asked him to retrieve his watch from the dirty water.

Students expressed their irritation with the unsanitary situation in various ways, including throwing garbage in the latrines and routinely setting them on fire. Shippen wrote, “When they became unbearable—which was very soon—there was a fire some dark night and after a time the carpenters knocked up others. ….” James Buchanan Henry and Christian Henry Sharff, both of the Class of 1853, corroborate Shippen’s claims in their guidebook College as It Is:

It has been customary for years past to burn down the middle back-campus about once a Session. These sheds are a disgrace to the Institution, and ought to meet with a similar fate every month, until the Faculty put up buildings that are at least accordant with common decency. In President [Samuel Stanhope] Smith’s time the students used to blow them down with gun-powder.

This entry in Thomas Mifflin Hall’s (Class of 1853) diary for September 18, 1851 casually mentions setting the privies on fire after detailing a routine day of having “fizzled” in Rhetoric class and beating a friend at checkers: “[William] Meredith [Class of 1853] and I set the Middle South campus on fire this evening.” Student Correspondence and Writing Collection (AC334), Box 10. Another example comes from Charles C. Jones, Jr., Class of 1852, who abruptly ended a letter to his parents in October 1851 because he had been called away to look at the burning outhouses (“the boys having set certain little unmentionables on fire” in “the rear of North College [Nassau Hall]” (quoted in Meyers, A Georgian at Princeton)).
Though water closets had been installed in Nassau Hall at some point in the mid-19th century, students who lived in the East and West Colleges still resentfully relied on the hated outdoor privies. In 1860, the Board of Trustees sought to remedy the arson problem after College of New Jersey (Princeton) president John Maclean reported that the students had yet again burned down the College outhouses. The Trustees had apparently run out of patience for the constant fires. In 1861, the committee appointed to handle the issue said that a new structure had been built “in such a manner that it could not be burnt again,” and would instead “be a permanent object on the College grounds.” “It is believed that the building is the best one of the kind ever erected on the College grounds, and there is good reason to hope that no attempt will be made to destroy it.”

“Cloaca Maxima,” ca. 1869. Stereograph found in the Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box AD65.

Despite the “permanence” of this version of the “Temples of Cloacina,” the attempt to improve campus facilities does not seem to have gone according to plan. Students hated them and said they were a health hazard. The Nassau Literary Magazine complained in November 1876 that the “vast amount of money” the Trustees had spent on the outhouses had not actually helped. “They each and every one are deficient in proper sanitary arrangements.” The problem, the Lit explained, was that these buildings contaminated the water supply by draining into cesspools too near the wells. “We have a right and respectfully assert it not to be put in jeopardy of bodily health while attending to the needs of the mind.”

“South Campus,” ca. 1869. Stereograph found in the Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box AD65.

The Princetonian noted as late as February 1883: “The wretched outhouse that has stood so long upon the campus was burned recently. [But] There was excuse for this destruction of property.” Fortunately for all, such facilities were no longer needed as much; in 1877 Princeton became home to the first dormitory in the United States to be constructed with indoor plumbing, Witherspoon Hall, and presumably the students living in Nassau Hall made use of the existing water closets. Disposal of sewage, however, remained primitive, with pipes running to a field south of campus to dump untreated waste water into the ground. Students continued to complain about the contaminated water supply due to this unsanitary method of disposing of waste. In 1914, Princeton University installed a treatment plant that cleaned its sewage before dumping the treated water into Lake Carnegie. It was the beginning of the end of a very messy era in the history of the institution.



Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Daily Princetonian

Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)

Looney, J. Jefferson. “‘An Awfully Poor Place’: Edward Shippen’s Memoir of the College of New Jersey in the 1840s.” Princeton University Library Chronicle 59, No. 1 (Autumn 1997): 9-14.

Looney, J. Jefferson, ed. College as It Is: Or, The Collegian’s Manual in 1853, by James Buchanan Henry and Christian Henry Scharff. Princeton: Princeton University Libraries, 1996.

Myers, Robert Manson. A Georgian at Princeton. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Nassau Literary Magazine

Shippen, Edward. Some Notes about Princeton. (Original held in Mudd Library)

Student Correspondence and Writing Collection (AC334)

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