I recieved your favor of the 16th. by the last post, whereby I observe you are engaged on the N. Western cornice of the house. I would much rather have the 2d. and 3d. air-closets finished before any thing else; because it will be very disagreeable working in them after even one of them begins to be in use. I shall be at Monticello within a fortnight from this time.
To James Oldham, April 24, 1802
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders, like everyone else, must consider life’s most basic needs!
James Oldham was a joiner, one skilled in making things from wood, employed at Monticello from 1801-04. Twenty five years after Jefferson started construction, his mansion was still a work-in-progress. Oldham reported he was working on an architectural molding (cornice). Jefferson responded that he wanted the additional toilets (air-closets) done first.
His plan included three interior toilets, a private one off his bedroom, already in existence, and two others accessible from the first and second floors. At the very least, the toilets had pots under the seat which a slave would have emptied daily. Waste may have gone to the basement level to be emptied from there. Some of Jefferson’s earlier plans included piping water from a higher elevation into the house for some type of flushing system, but there is no indication that function was completed. His air-closets included skylights for illumination and ventilation shafts to carry away odors. Most evidence of the toilets and their operation disappeared decades ago with Monticello’s early restoration and the addition of a heating and cooling system.
It appears all three toilets would use the same ventilation system. Since Jefferson was in Washington City, his toilet was not in use. Oldham would encounter no odor problems installing the others. Jefferson told his joiner he would be home in two weeks. In other words, get them done before I return, and working conditions will be much more favorable for you.
For more than you ever wanted to know about Monticello’s air-closets and privies, read this.