Binghamton Intermodal Archaeological Site
The left side of this photo shows a cistern, which held water for washing, that was built into the rear wall of a home. To the right is the foundation of a privy or outhouse shaft located behind one of the more modest houses on Canal and Prospect.
Backstory and Context
The Binghamton Intermodal Archaeological Site is generally defined by the city block bounded by Chenango, Lewis, and Henry Streets and Prospect Avenue. The history of this block was influenced by changes within Binghamton. In the early 19th century, the block was located to the northwest of the core of the developing settlement of Binghamton, which focused on the intersection of Court Street and the Chenango River. There was little development of the block and it is not shown on the first detailed map of Binghamton in 1825.
The location of the Chenango Canal, completed in 1837 one block to the west, drew this block into the fabric of industrial development within Binghamton. The western side of the block along Canal Street (now Prospect Avenue) became the site of the Weed and Ayers Grist Mill and was also the site of the Weed candle factory. The eastern side of the block along Chenango Street was a residential area but census data suggest it was not the elite enclave it would later become.
All of this changed in 1857 after a fire destroyed the industrial properties along Canal Street. James Munsell acquired much of the former industrial area and developed housing on it. The houses Munsell built along the alleyway of Canal Street were smaller dwellings on average city lots aimed at the middle class. Munsell was one of the elite residents who began to make their homes along the Chenango Street side of the block during the 1860s. This change to a solidly residential area coincided with the construction of Binghamton’s railroad station on the corner of Lewis and Chenango Street one block to the north. Chenango Street, always a major road from the north, became the most prominent entryway into Binghamton. Existing homes along Chenango Street were updated and new homes built during the 1860s. All were on large lots and many were valued at $15,000.00 to $24,000 in New York State Census data. They were elaborate mansions built to impress, and placed to be seen by all who used the major artery of Chenango Street. These mansions gradually transitioned from the homes of the wealthy to working class apartment houses during the late 19th and early 20th century and were replaced during the 20th century by commercial development and parking lots.
Archaeological investigations located a rich array of buildings and trash left behind by the 19th-century families who lived on this block. One of the most interesting features was a privy or outhouse behind one of the middle-class houses on Canal Street. The fieldstone shaft or vault of the privy was filled with trash, including broken dishes, bottles, and animal bones.
In the 19th century, trash service was not available and people could dispose of it by scattering it in their yards, piling it in discrete dumps on their properties, digging pits to place it in, or throwing it down deep shaft features, such as privies or wells. This was usually done when these features were no longer in use. Research indicated that the family connected to this privy discarded their daily trash in here while they were actively using it. Most other trash disposal options required either leaving trash exposed in the yard or having an open trash pit, both of which were unattractive and could be messy. This family was willing to use up valuable privy space to keep trash out of their yard and present their property as neat and tidy. Cleanliness was often linked to morality and financial success in the 19th century. Families with clean properties were more likely to be seen as moral, ambitious, and deserving of wealth and success. It is also possible that the middle-class residents along Canal Street felt some pressure to “keep up appearances” since their rear yards were visible from the mansions of their wealthy neighbors along Chenango Street.