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4. Cloaca Maxima

View of Campus from the south

View of Campus from the south

Other license.

Source: Unknown

Ever since its earliest days, the College of New Jersey emphasized a rigorous classical education as preparation for entering the ministry. The entrance examinations -- routinely conducted by the President -- tested a student's knowledge of Latin and Greek above all else. The Latin requirement survived well into the 20th century.

Little wonder, then, that the students of the 1860s dubbed the new excavation on the campus the "Cloaca Maxima." Named for Rome's famous sewer system, the Cloaca Maxima was, of course, the College privy. An underground structure of brick, granite, and wood, it was tucked between Whig and Clio at the rear of the back campus.

View from southwest, with Whig Hall in background (photo circa 1873)

View from southwest, with Whig Hall in background (photo circa 1873)

Princeton University. Property of the Trustees of Princeton University.

Source: Princeton University Archives, Mudd Library, Grounds & Buildings, Box 27

Unlike its famed antecedent, the Princeton version had private stalls -- 24 of them, in fact, 12 along the back wall, opening to the south, and six on each side.

For the mid-19th century, this elaborate privy was most unusual, but the College faced an unusual set of problems when it came to sanitation. To start, central New Jersey does not drain well and reliable sources of clean drinking water were scarce. These arrangements were therefore necessary to drain the College's waste safely. Then there was a second major problem: student vandalism. Ever since the early days of the College, students had regularly burned down the predecessors to the Cloaca Maxima, sometimes in protest, sometimes as a prank, and sometimes out of boredom.

As President Carnahan told the Trustees in December 1860, "I am sorry that I find it necessary to report to the Board, that the Back-building of the College was set on fire during this session and entirely consumed."

Although December 1861 found the country as a whole embroiled in Civil War, the Trustees addressed the weighty matter of backbuildings. As John Maclean Jr., Class of 1816, reported on behalf of the building committee for the Cloaca Maxima:

"After considering the subject with no little care, [we] concluded to erect a building upon the site of the one which had been burned down and to build in such a manner that it could not be burnt again; and also so that it should not be a prominent object on the college grounds. It is believed that the building is the best one of its kind ever erected on the College grounds, and there is good reason to hope that no attempt will be made to destroy it."

Maclean's hopes about the durability of the Cloaca Maxima were well-founded. Burning down an essentially underground structure made of granite and brick, with the only wood being the doors, proved too great a challenge even for Princeton students. It remained in active use for at least a decade.

But if the new Cloaca Maxima met the test of permanence, it did not materially improve the College's squalid sanitary conditions. Consider this contemporary account of student life in 1870s.

"There were no sanitary facilities in any of [the dormitories]. The bedroom slops were taken out by hand and emptied into small cesspools near by; while water had to be carried up in the same toilsome and primitive way. Outdoor privies were used and misused, and everything about these sanitary arrangements was decidedly offensive and unsatisfactory."

No record exists of the decision to dismantle the Cloaca Maxima. Perhaps it came down during the general movement to improve the sanitary facilities of the College in the early 1880s. After cholera swept the College, killing several students and hospitalizing 40 others, water closets soon began to appear in most of the College's buildings.