Archaeology of the Melpomene Neighborhood at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: Excavation of a Privy at 1304 Howard/LaSalle
Stop 9 of 11 on the Melpomene Street Blues Tour
In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, many of the people who lived in the Melpomene neighborhood of Central City rented their residences with some addresses seeing rapid turnover. Even though people filled features like privy shafts rapidly (so that the date of the filling episode can be dated to within a few years), the neighborhood’s high resident turnover can make connecting archaeological assemblages to specific families tricky. This is the case at 1304 Howard Street in Square 350, the block historically bounded by Erato, LaSalle (or Howard), Thalia, and South Liberty Streets. In 2013, archaeologists excavated a large wood-lined privy shaft near what would have been the rear property line of the address. While most of the material within it dated to the end of the nineteenth century, it was probably filled in the early 1900s, perhaps as late as 1910.
The U.S Census enumerated a laborer named Leo LeBlanc living there in 1900 with his wife and two children; a year later, the City Directory lists them as still there, along with a laborer named Paul Manuel. The directories list at least three other residents at the address between 1902 and 1909. When the census came again in 1910, a large and complex household of renters were enumerated at the address, including William Smith, a laborer identified as Black, and his wife Virginia, a washerwoman, identified as Mulatto; another woman named Mattie Hawkins, and her teenage sons, both laborers (at a wharf and a lumber yard), all identified as Mulatto; and a lodger named Lem Diggins, also a laborer at a lumber yard. One can speculate about the connections that brought this household together: perhaps Hawkins was part of Virginia’s extended family, while one can also guess that Diggins worked with her son at the lumber yard. Such networks of extended family and friends were vital for sustaining Black families in the era. By 1912, the occupants of the address shifted again.
Who then was responsible for the artifacts within the wood-lined privy at 1304 Howard Street? It contained a rich assemblage of materials: large quantities of ceramic tablewares, in a variety of forms (plates, saucers, cups, bowls, and serving vessels), vessels for hygiene like wash basins and chamber pots, bottles from medicines, perfumes, soda and mineral waters, bitters and schnapps, perfumes, foods, and alcoholic beverages, glass tablewares, lamp parts, tools, cutlery, and numerous small personal items, like buttons, smoking pipe fragments, hair combs, and items of jewelry. Occasional highly distinctive items may give hints about the identity of the occupants, like the images featured below.