Photographs for Boston College Magazine by Gary Wayne Gilbert.

The daily life of Boston’s 19th- and early-20th-century poor is depicted in a student-curated exhibition on view during the fall semester in the history department on the third floor of Stokes Hall. The starting point for each display is a single artifact dug by an archaeologist from the site of an urban backyard privy and delivered to the City of Boston’s Archaeology Lab. The show was created by 13 students who last spring took historian Robin Fleming’s course “Making History Public: History Down the Toilet.” The class paid its first visit to the lab, located five miles south of campus at a bend of the Charles River in West Roxbury, on the snowy afternoon of January 31.

In one room of the lab were the intact beams of a 19th-century lime schooner discovered in the mud of the South Boston Seaport last year. Other rooms—humble approximations of the final set for Raiders of the Lost Ark—contained shelf after shelf of cardboard boxes. They housed artifacts recovered at the Big Dig (1991–2007) and other construction sites in numbers that have overwhelmed the lab’s ability to process them. “I don’t even know what is in most of these boxes,” Joe Bagley, City Archaeologist since 2011, told the students. “It’s like having a library of books without the covers.”

Bagley showed the students through a series of rooms where dozens of clear bags were spread out under fluorescent lights on wooden tables. Each bag held one or more artifacts, brushed clean and labeled with a combination of numbers and letters designating where the contents were found. And each room represented a single site, containing the mixed-up assortment of detritus that had survived there: buttons, dolls’ arms, animal bones, egg cups, a jar of French pomade (the Piver brand, “synonymous with . . . refined, original fragrances” since 1774). All had one thing in common: They came out of a privy.

A mid-19th-century tea bowl

A mid-19th-century tea bowl, unearthed from the latrine at 2 Unity Court.

Before the rise of indoor plumbing in the early 20th century, outhouses were a fixture in old Boston neighborhoods. And without regular municipal trash collection, they often became the terminal repository for all kinds of junk. Outhouses make for “an unbelievably good time capsule,” Bagley told the students crammed among the glass display cases and tables.

It would be the students’ assignment, over the course of the semester, to study pieces of trash in order to gain unmediated knowledge of what life was like for Boston’s early residents. “Artifacts shouldn’t just be the stuff that goes with the story you already have,” Bagley told them. “Hopefully it raises questions about what the written record says.”

Encouraged to take objects out of the bags, the students passed around some bizarre finds—among them, remnants of a chamber pot depicting Benjamin Franklin’s tomb, and a cologne bottle in the shape of the Bunker Hill Monument (dedicated in 1843). However, it was the more pedestrian cups and plates, flower pots, and toys that promised a fuller picture of past times, said Fleming. In such items, “You can see the lives of poor people and women and children,” lives that “don’t always show up in official texts.”

Fleming earned a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013 for her analysis of archaeological finds from fourth- and fifth-century Britain, a time of dramatic change in material culture as Roman rule was collapsing and the Middle Ages were beginning. Her techniques and concepts translate as well to 19th-century Boston. “I wanted to give students an opportunity to think about how to write a history of a people if all they had were their stuff,” Fleming said. Since items dropped into outhouses remain relatively undisturbed, they provide the opportunity to see how possessions changed over time. Dating each layer in an excavation, with an old coin, say, or a type of pottery that was only produced in the 1840s, archaeologists can piece together a timeline of material taste and comfort and access to goods, along with trajectories of economic mobility.

The head of a ceramic doll

The head of a ceramic doll, also from 2 Unity Court.

For the course, Fleming and her students focused on two sites in the North End: One was at 2 Unity Court, behind Old North Church. The main building “no longer stands,” said Fleming, “but we know from a newspaper advertising its sale in the 1830s that it was a three-story brick row house with two rooms on each floor, as well as a cellar and an attic.” The first owners were well-to-do. By around 1860, the occupants were middle class, “but barely.” The other privy belonged to a boarding house that was home to poor newcomers to the city between the 1870s and 1890s. “By that time, the whole North End had become a slum for predominantly Irish immigrants,” said Fleming.

After that first trip to the archaeology lab, the students each chose an object from which to launch their research into primary and secondary historical readings, increasingly casting the net more widely to include related artifacts, with the aim of narrating a particular aspect of the residents’ lives. In many cases, the objects complicated traditional accounts of the period. One student looking at toys, for example, found poor children enjoyed many of the same pastimes as their better-off neighbors—with toy guns and marbles for boys and dolls for girls. “We tell ourselves about poor immigrant children who are worked to death in the factories, but they had their own little lives with joy and play,” said Fleming. Similarly, both poor and middle-class privies yielded shells and coral from the Bahamas, thanks to a home-decorating fad that was as popular with the underclass as it was with the more affluent.

Student with artifacts in storage

Maddie Webster sifts through Unity Court materials—the Boston facility contains more than a million artifacts from 39 excavations.

“Looking at these objects you see every aspect of people’s lives,” said Andrea Wisniewski ’18, who focused on a fragment of an ink bottle, putting it together with writing slates, pencils, and other objects to extrapolate information about education in the 1840s and 1850s. The process of material research, she said, made people of the 19th century “more than just footnotes in the census records. The objects make them . . . real.”

Bridget Halstead ’17 focused on dishware, discovering that a middle-class family at Unity Court kept mismatched brown plates rather than the white porcelain popular in the Victorian period, perhaps due to Yankee parsimony, or perhaps because they did little entertaining, with the neighborhood in decline. “I’ve had other history classes that looked at political trends,” Halstead said. This study “at a smaller scale” allowed her to see “that trends aren’t always adopted and people might not always conform to them.”

The students will not be able to put the actual objects on display in Stokes Hall. Those will have to remain in the archaeology lab. But the essence of their research will be distilled by means of posters and photographs, along with screens showing 3D representations that can be manipulated by viewers.

Fleming hopes that her students take their interest in the immediacy of material culture to future work in history. “If their next class is on the Vietnam War, I want them to say, ‘I’d really like to see the soldiers’ mess’,” she said. “There is a huge material world that is much bigger than the textual world, and I hope they will remember to draw from it.”

Michael Blanding is a writer in the Boston area. “History Down the Toilet” is the eighth course in the history department’s “Making History Public” series, a collaboration with University Libraries in which students plan, curate, and design an exhibition drawing on archival materials. Past courses include “The European Mapping Tradition from 1600–1860,” “Revealing America’s History Through Comics,” and “Righting Historical Wrongs at the Turn of the Millennium.”