Sunday, April 2, 2023

Cape Fear’s first toilet bowl is aflush with history

An 18th Century toilet bowl is now on display at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site. (Photo by Christina Haley.)
An 18th Century toilet bowl is now on display at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site. (Photo by Christina Haley.)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Plunge into history with Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson’s newest exhibit, a colonial-era toilet bowl now on display at the site’s museum.

This circa 1760s artifact is possibly the first archaeological evidence of indoor plumbing in the lower Cape Fear region, according to Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site Manager Jim McKee. It’s the latest addition to the site’s permanent exhibits.

The artifact made it’s way back to the historic site in mid-March and was placed on public display. The 18th Century toilet bowl has been sitting in storage in Raleigh, since it’s since its discovery within the Russellborough ruins at Brunswick Town by Archaeologist Stanley South in the late 1960s.

“It’s the only one we have found,” McKee said. “It’s the earliest evidence we have, that I know of, of indoor plumbing and flush toilet technology in the Cape Fear.”

Brunswick Town toilet
Archaeologists discovered the toilet near the entrance of a tunnel system believed to have carried waste water from the toilet, into the tunnel and out into the marsh. (Photo from May 1966 is courtesy of Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson.)

The toilet and tunnel system were found within the ruins of the colonial home built on a roughly 200-acre property in Russellborough. The property was first purchased in 1751 by John Russell, a retired British Navy Captain in Brunswick Town. However, Russell died before the house was fully constructed.

The Royal Governor Authur Dobbs later purchased the property for five shillings and one pepper corn per year, and moved into site in 1758. The house had several other owners before the town was burned down by British forces in 1776.

“If Captain John Russell didn’t put [the toilet] in, I bet Governor Authur Dobbs did,” McKee said.

The ruins at Russellborough were excavated in the 1960s. The area's first toilet was located among the ruins.
The area’s earliest toilet bowl was located among the ruins of Russellborough. (Photo by Christina Haley.)

Though the more than 200-year-old toilet bowl has been damaged though the ages, the square rim of the toilet is visible on much of the artifact. McKee said you can also see remnants of a hole in the bottom of the toilet bowl where waste would exit, possibly through a lead pipe.

The toilet bowl is made out of a substance called coquina, a concrete-like substance similar to soft limestone made from broken shells. But the prominent colonials who lived in the Russellborough home weren’t sitting on a stone-cold toilet seat. McKee said it’s likely that there was a wooden seat covering the stone bowl with an opening, that would have likely sat in a wooden box in the floor.

“If you were just standing doing your business, then who knows they probably didn’t even bother to flush it, but if you’re doing ‘number two,’ they’d definitely flush it,” he said.

A copy of archaeology notes documenting the flush valve found at Russellborough ruins. (Photo by Christina Haley.)
A copy of archaeology notes documenting the flush valve found at Russellborough ruins. (Photo by Christina Haley.)

Based on current research, McKee believes a tank would have rested above the toilet seat, and filled with water. It’s possible tank water would have been flushed manually with a string. Waste water would have dumped into a pit and then flushed through the tunnel system, which would carry away the waste from the house, down the buff and into the rice fields and marsh.

McKee said archaeologists have discovered about 30 feet of tunnel leading from the ruins of the house toward the current marshland.

Still, little is known about the full construction of the toilet, and research is being conducted to put the pieces together. The toilet bowl is not typical of what would have been used at Brunswick Town during that time period. McKee said chamber pots were more commonly used at the town.

“We’re trying to conjecture exactly what this would have looked like,” McKee said. “Unfortunately, there’s no archaeological report, we just have field notes. So, we’re going through the field notes, we’re going through various articles that South had wrote over the years, trying to get some ideas.”

A shot down the tunnel system that would have carried waste into the marsh.
The tunnel system that would have carried waste into the marsh.

Just a couple artifacts are associated with the toilet bowl, including an iron flush valve that was found at the site and documented by South. It is unknown where that artifact is or if it still exists. McKee suggested it could still be among several uncatalogued artifacts in storage in Raleigh.

As archaeologists continue to study and research how the toilet bowl may have been constructed, and revisit some of the artifacts found around the time the discovery was made in the 1960s, McKee said some archaeologists are interested in taking a closer look at what’s already been discovered to see if there is additional remnants of similar plumbing structures at the site.

“One of the things were looking at with the archaeology, in the present and future, is actually revisiting some of the sites that were excavated and seeing if there could be some reinterpretations done,” McKee said.

Similar features to the ones at the Russellborough ruins have been found on the site. One in particular, at the home of Judge Maurice Moore, which was originally interpreted as a smoke house. Some archaeologists have questioned that interpretation, McKee said, and think it could be evidence of another sewer system at the site, such as a privy house and drain.

“It’s still all conjecture,” he said.

The exhibit is now on display at the historic site’s museum.

See the Russellborough Toilet exhibit at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information about the historic site, visit the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson website or follow the site on Facebook.

Watch Site Manager Jim McKee explain more about the Russellborough Toilet:

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