The Origins of Studying Crap

John G. Bourke wrote a seminal reference text on human waste that's proven valuable today, despite its Victorian shortcomings.
SourceAlvaro Tapia Hidalgo

The Origins of Studying Crap

By Mark Hay


Because squeamishness about poop can be deadly.

By Mark Hay

It started as a lampoon. Members of the Zuñi indigenous community invited a few white U.S. military officers stationed in their New Mexico village to witness a ceremonial performance on Nov. 17, 1881. In the ritual, the Zuñi men dressed up in riffs on priests’ vestments, parodying Catholic services and roasting attendees. Then the farce transitioned into a feast — featuring gallons of human urine that participants quaffed while boasting about outdoing one another in feats of extreme eating. Some even lamented that they couldn’t eat human excrement that evening. The ritual so shocked one officer in attendance, John G. Bourke, that he decided to research similar practices. Ten years later, Bourke published a 500-page catalog of everything he found throughout human history: Scatalogic Rites of All Nations.

John G. Bourke

John G. Bourke

Today, Bourke’s book is a reference text cited by many researchers who study how views on feces and urine vary over time and space, in order to better understand how to discuss and improve sanitation. Yet it failed to stoke similar research when it was first published. Which likely pleased Bourke, who actually wanted to advance Victorian-era values of sterility —to push bodily functions out of sight and mind. That’s why some historians view his book as a missed opportunity. It created an opening, Daniel Gerling of Augustana University argues, “to talk about shit in a serious way.” But instead, it helped build a world in which, as Sarah Jewitt of the University of Nottingham notes, “people don’t really want to talk about shit” — even many academics — despite the importance of doing so. 

By most accounts, Bourke was a clever man, who managed to go from an amateur researcher, pursuing his interests while on active military duty, to president of the American Folklore Society, eulogized by fellow researchers in an academic journal upon his death at age 49, in 1896. But he was also a bigot eager to prove that his own culture’s customs and values were definitively superior to the Native Americans he actively waged war against from 1869 to 1883. 

Our inability to talk about poop frankly and seriously led to us developing one poor sewer system after another.

Daniel Gerling, Augustana University

At the time, Gerling notes, American cities were installing hidden sewage systems, and owning a toilet that magically vanished waste was considered a sign of luxury and class. Bourke aimed to prove that anything but flush-and-forget transcendence was a shameful vestige of humanity’s unenlightened past.

Most of the text is a dispassionate compilation of quotes from earlier sources. But every time he let his own voice into the text, Bourke made his mission clear — including in the first sentence of his preface, which argues that outlining these practices is necessary so that “the progress of humanity upward and onward may be measured.” He even showed that he considered his own text toxic, stamping “Not for General Perusal” on its cover page and, according to Penn State–Harrisburg folklorist Simon J. Bronner, only distributing copies to a limited group of academics — likely those sympathetic to his views.

Zuni Indians

John G. Bourke published a 500-page catalog of everything he found throughout human history, including his time with the indigenous Zuñi people.

Bourke and his book were hardly the only forces pushing back against the open discussion of human waste. Scientific discoveries in the 19th century about its role in spreading disease played a huge part in pushing excrement out of the public sphere, for example, notes Western Sydney University’s Alison M. Moore. But they played a noteworthy role in advancing modern norms. 

The result? “Our inability to talk about poop frankly and seriously led to us developing one poor sewer system after another,” argues Gerling, and to abandon the use of human waste as fertilizer, to the detriment of our ecosystem. It has stopped people from speaking openly about serious bowel issues, even with doctors. And it has stunted our ability to understand cultures that view feces and urine as far less taboo, and to work based on their own values to improve sanitation. 

Ultimately, that squeamishness likely contributes to millions of unnecessary deaths every year, by contaminated drinking water and other means.

But academics have found ways of repurposing Bourke’s work over the years. Sigmund Freud notably found a copy in 1912 and had it reprinted in German the next year, reframing it as a cure to shame around feces — a tool for reconnecting with and embracing our animal selves. (Not every reinterpretation of the book has been positive. In 1993, editor Louis P. Kaplan reduced it to the 165-page Portable Scatalog, a bathroom humor book.) 

Over the past couple of decades, researchers, doctors and pop culture figures have started to push back against the squeamishness Bourke’s work embodied and helped to encode. “There is a lot more research now on sanitation related to behavior,” notes Jewitt, “and how to change it in contexts where poor sanitation presents significant health threats.” Bourke’s work has been able to inform some of that research, if often indirectly as a historical source. “The work has to be approached with caution because of its Victorian assumptions,” notes Bronner. “But it is useful as a catalog.” 

Of course, if Bourke knew that his work had become a touchstone reference work for individuals interested in openly, explicitly and nonjudgmentally exploring a diversity of human views on and approaches to waste, he’d likely shit himself in his grave.