While the Work Projects Administration is known for a wide variety of public architecture, one of their more prolific programs was a health-related campaign to provide sanitary privies, particularly in rural areas. This program ultimately resulted in 2.3 million WPA-built privies in the nation; nearly 32,000 of those were in Colorado. While other New Deal programs supplied some 600,000 sanitary privies across the nation, the WPA concrete vault sanitary privies provided a substantial change in sanitation infrastructure for rural American communities, creating a significant increase in the quality of public health. These simple buildings are readily recognizable due to their standardized plans.
In the early twentieth century, scientific advances made it possible for health professionals to identify the ways in which poor sanitation led to various illnesses. In particular, the sanitary disposal of human waste reduced the incidence of “typhoid fever, diarrhea, dysentery, hookworm, and other enteric diseases.”1 The Rockefeller Foundation made public health infrastructure one of its primary initiatives; its Rockefeller Sanitary Commission initiated a groundbreaking hookworm study (1909-1915) and assisted the U.S. Public Health Service in implementing sewer systems and septic tanks in urban areas, and sanitary privies in rural areas. The Rockefeller Sanitary Commission determined that earthen privy pits needed to be at least six feet in depth to prevent hookworms from making their way to the surface. Earthen pits did not necessarily prevent the spread of other parasites and germs, but pit privies with deeper holes did marginally improve health conditions. The U.S. Public Health Service began to partner with state health departments to expand public education and infrastructure for sanitation systems as a result. In 1933, the U.S. Public Health Service published plans for various types of sanitary privies, including a sanitary privy that incorporated a poured concrete vault.
State health departments had distributed plans for sanitary privies during World War I and in the 1920s, but the Great Depression made construction of sanitary vault privies a financial impossibility for most Americans, particularly in rural areas. When the Civil Works Administration (CWA) formed in December 1933, the U.S. Public Health Service partnered with that agency to distribute sanitary vault privies using their recently published designs. The U.S. Public Health Service provided technical oversight of projects, CWA provided the labor, and property owners provided the raw materials. The CWA privies implemented several of the 1933 U.S. Public Health Service privy designs, and the agencies quickly learned that the sanitary privy designs with wood vaults and floors were difficult to keep clean and quickly deteriorated, making the poured concrete versions the preferable model.