Potty Talk: Fragile Objects Found in a Privy

By Dani Fazio, MHS Creative Manager

Walking through the Maine Historical Society exhibition, Home: The Longfellow House and the Emergence of Portland, I am surrounded by beautiful objects that have been carefully preserved by MHS for centuries, each telling stories of how the Wadsworth-Longfellow House remained an anchor amidst the city’s unfolding drama. As I near the far end of the museum, I spot something out of place: a display of objects that do not seem to have been carefully preserved—there are cracked pieces of china, a mug with a hole in it, fragments of glass, mismatched buttons, a pipe that appears quite filthy, and an indiscernible object that I learn from the label is part of a man’s shoe.

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What are these orphan objects and what do they have to do with each other or with the Wadsworth-Longfellow House? I read up on the display in the panel that is titled “The Privy.” Wait, isn’t a privy an outhouse?

The Brown Library at MHS was renovated a few years ago, and the adjacent Longfellow Garden had to be dismantled to allow for the crews and machines to access the building project. In 2008, workers who were rebuilding the garden wall noticed objects in the soil—broken glass and ceramics at first. This prompted an archaeological investigation by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission of the space and, according to the exhibition panel, “determined the ceramics had been thrown into a privy that was once used by residents who lived next door at 47 Brown Street.” So, these objects I’m looking at were in a latrine?

Reading on, I am relieved to learn that when Portland established a sewer system the privy was no longer needed and filled with debris—precisely the objects I see before me. These items serve as a humble reminder of how the immigrant and working class residents of the Brown Street apartments and boarding houses experienced urban living in the mid-19th century.

I am also relieved to see that, despite the fragile condition these former castaways were found in, MHS has dedicated itself to carefully preserving the privy artifacts for centuries to come.

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Home: The Longfellow House & the Emergence of Portland is open daily from 10am – 5pm and has an online component on the Maine Memory Network.


Become a PHD in 12 Weeks!

house_tour2Okay, so by PHD we don’t mean Doctor of Philosophy degree. But we do mean something arguably more fun, and certainly more quickly rewarding.

Have you ever wanted to become a docent at the Longfellow House, or at one of the other historic sites in the city? Now’s your chance. Portland’s History Docents Program (PHD) is a collaborative effort by Greater Portland Landmarks, Maine Historical Society, Tate House Museum, Victoria Mansion, Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum, Fifth Maine Regiment Museum, and Evergreen and Eastern Cemeteries to train new volunteer guides.


The cost to participate is $30 for a twelve-week course. Classes are on Thursdays, starting February 7 and ending on May 2, from 9:00am-12:00pm at MHS and feature a number of guest speakers. PHD graduates are asked to commit to a year of volunteer time at one of the eight sponsoring sites. In return, they receive knowledge, experience, and friendships that last a lifetime.

PHD graduates who volunteer with MHS give tours of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House and conduct Old Port Walking Tours; they also have the opportunity to volunteer in other aspects of MHS operations. Deadline for registering is February 5.

To sign up, contact Marjorie Getz, PHD Coordinator, at 207-774-5561 ext. 120, or Bridget McCormick, Education Coordinator at MHS, 207-774-1822 x212 or bmccormick@mainehistory.org.

A Little Piece of Heaven

Summer through fall, when you want to step away from it all during a hectic day in downtown Portland, there’s a beautiful oasis just steps off of Congress Street. If you’ve never wandered into the Longfellow Garden during this time of the year, or in the full bloom of summer, you’re missing an opportunity to stop and smell the lilacs, and a whole lot of other flowering beauties.

Thanks to Maine Historical Society’s own archivist/cataloger Nancy Noble, who also happens to be a talented photographer, we have this photo proof to entice you in.

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If you want to know more about the history and see the evolution of the Longfellow Garden, don’t miss the current photo exhibition, Images of the Longfellow Garden, in the Lecture Hall, running now through June 30. This Friday, June 3–a First Friday Art Walk evening–the Longfellow Garden Club will be presenting information about the Garden, which will be open late for art walk patrons. Come and mingle with friends, enjoy refreshments and music, walk through the garden, and see Maine’s history come to life!

And one last note: The Garden is available for rentals, and so are other facilities on our campus. (WEDDING, anyone??) For more information, click here.

May Basket Full of Treasures in This Month’s e-Connection

May basket made by Sarah Owen of Cape Porpoise, ca. 1980. Owen made these for neighborhood children.

The old-time tradition of leaving treasure-filled baskets on doorknobs or doorsteps on the first of May is the subject of both “Stories from Maine Memory Network” and “From the Collections” in this month’s e-Connection. Among other things, learn how World War I-era Biddeford children earned themselves a party after initially being chased away during their May basket reverie.

Speaking of treasures, the newsletter also announces the first round of Community Mobilization Grants–the new Maine Memory Network (MMN) program made possible by funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Open up e-Connection and discover the nine organizations and communities who made the cut! Then hop on over to our “Living History” blog, which shares MMN project work, and read in detail about their plans.

A lush spot by the Longfellow Garden fountain.

May baskets should include something from the garden, and we’ve got that in spades in this month’s newsletter. On May 19, the annual Olmstead lecture focuses on “The Longfellow Gardens: The Evolution of Two Landmarks.” (Yes, there is another Longfellow Garden, here.)

Plus, the Longfellow House and Garden are now open to the public for the season. (At long last… it seemed like that winter would never end!) Check out the tour details and times and come on in.

We’ve even got a way to get you intimately involved with the Garden–right down into the dirt, in fact. May’s e-Connection features a call for volunteers to weed and prune this spring. Check out the details and the dates, and sign up to become one with the soil.

Rounding out the surprises “in store” for you: A seasonally-apt Portland Sea Dogs book coupon good in the museum shop or online.

So now that we’ve left this virtual basket full goodies on your electronic doorstep… won’t you open it? You’ll be glad you did!