A curious reader of this column has asked a potentially embarrassing question: What did pioneers do for restrooms and sanitation problems? Our basic human biological functions may be the single most difficult subject this side of sex or death for humans to discuss intelligently, but this question deserves an answer. Lack of sanitation killed more emigrants than did Indians, guns or accidents. Nobody knew what a germ was or that cholera was transmitted by contaminated water.
A pioneer "rest stop" was, as historian George Watson put it, a veritable garbage dump. Forty-niner William Swain described one campground as "a nasty dirty place." Diaries often noted the effects of human biology, but nobody commented on the cause. Even given the standards of the Victorian society, which virtually all American overlanders shared, it is not surprising that not a single pioneer diary or memoir mentions the subject.
The best expert on the way west, Utah's own Dale L. Morgan, could not determine if this silence was the result of "motives of delicacy, prudery or aversion to the commonplace." The omission was probably due to a combination of all three. Being a historian--and, hence, an intrepid detective--Morgan solved the mystery.
Another Utah historian, Juanita Brooks, also helped answer the question. She found it not in the course of collecting the hundreds of pioneer narratives she gathered in southern Utah during the Great Depression. Instead, she asked her grandmother, Mary Ann Stucki Hafen, who had walked across the plains with the handcart pioneers. She described exactly how Mormon women handled nature's call.
When a train set out, the captain made a rule: women to one side, men to the other. Where flat and barren terrain made privacy seem impossible, women would band together and spread their long, broad skirts to form a screen. As Morgan noted, we can assume non-Mormon overland parties made similar arrangements--and this probably helps explain the distress found in the journals of women left without female companions in an all-male wagon train. Although the ankle-length woolen dresses of pioneer women appear uncomfortable and impracticable, women who have walked the trails today say such attire was ideally suited for wagon travel. Women who wore underwear (a relatively new invention) used an open style that is inelegantly but accurately described as crotchless.
Women dealt with menstruation in a practical and fairly obvious way--they used rags. Rags also served for what we call "toilet paper" a word unknown to pioneers who had never heard of a toilet. Surprisingly, what they called "waste paper" was commercially available in 1850. Sanitary paper came in packets and reams (rolls are a more recent invention). Our ancestors have been using such paper for about 400 years. In fact, the best archive for the Spanish Armada was written on reams of toilet paper issued to the Spanish Navy.
It is unlikely that waste paper was a big seller in outfitting towns along the Missouri River. Overlanders probably used natural products (besides cornhusks) when available, but very few grew along the trail. Most relied on rags, as did contemporary soldiers who often had such rags hanging off belts and bayonets. Washing these rags in streams and waterholes was probably done frequently, with predictable results for sanitation. In The California Trail, George Stewart suggested this silence on basic biology was due to prudery and the assumption that "everybody would know about such matters and would not care to be informed." But, as he noted, Homer didn't explain arrangements in the Greek camp on the Hellespont, either.
Archaeologist Terry Del Bene helped historian Will Bagley get to the bottom of this mystery.