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Worthy Woman’s Site (23SL2316)



Figure 1While developing the historic context for the neighborhoods impacted by the New Mississippi River Bridge project in St. Louis, one of the unique properties encountered was the Worthy Woman’s Aid and Hospital. Operating during the mid-1870s through the 1880s, the Aid was initially located on Howard Street, between N. 10th and N. 11th streets, although it did relocate several times over the years. Set among a row of similar residences, the Worthy Woman’s Aid was a 19th-century woman’s shelter, similar in purpose to the nearby Women’s Guardian Home. It was a privately funded charitable organization that attempted to care for “unfortunate” women and their young children. The Aid is one of approximately 50 distinct properties that make up the Worthy Woman’s Site; the remaining properties are a mixture of residential (i.e. single and multiple family homes, and tenements), commercial (i.e. saloons and grocers), and industrial (i.e. a broom and a furniture factory) properties. The site was tested in February 2010 and was determined to be largely intact and historically significant. Because the site falls within the new I-70 interchange, and will be adversely affected by the highway project, mitigation in the form of archaeological data recovery was recommended.

A detailed examination of deeds, maps, probate records and city directories indicates that the earliest substantial occupation of the site area was during the late 1840s. The first houses on the block were built by John F. Tolle, Robert S. Graham, and William von Trosdorf (who sold his property to Henry Ische in 1851). This part of the city had been recently annexed in 1841, but was developing rapidly. The surrounding industries, including the lumber yards and saw mills, furniture factories, wagon factories, and iron foundries, soon led to a boom in population. The Tolle, Graham, and Ische families remained on this block as the neighborhood first grew, and then suffered an economic decline during the last quarter of the 19th century.

Excavation of site 23SL2316 was conducted primarily in March and May, 2010. Excavation focused on the Worthy Woman’s Aid, and the residences of various individuals including Tolle, Ische, Graham, and Sebastian Hoffman. During the excavation, 77 features were identified; these include building foundations, wooden posts, privies, Figure 2water closets, cisterns, wells, walkways, and sewer trenches. In addition to mapping and photographing all of these features, a representative sample of features (3 cisterns, 1 water closet, 1 privy, 9 converted privies, and a sewer trench segment) was excavated.

Two features potentially associated with the Ische family were excavated: a converted water closet (Figure 1) and a cistern. The cistern is unique in that it is the only “barrel cistern” that has been encountered on this project. The cistern—which is simply a large receptacle used to collect rain water for household use—was made by burying a large wooden barrel, approximately 190 cm in diameter, near the rear of the house. A pipe would then have connected the house’s roof gutter directly to the cistern. The second feature was originally constructed as a privy (i.e. outhouse). In 1884, Henry Ische hired a contractor to convert his privy into a water closet (i.e. an outhouse with flowing water) and connect it to the newly-constructed city sewer system. The contractor built an elaborate structure of brick, mortar, and wood inside the old privy vault. Unfortunately, a substantial void was left below the structure; after a period of time, the immense weight of the brick caused the interior structure to collapse and drop almost 2 feet. Whether or not it was in use at the time is uncertain.

Excavation behind the Worthy Woman’s Aid focused on a single feature: a large converted water closet. Measuring approximately 1.5 m in diameter and 3.1 m deep, the privy vault was modified in 1884 with the addition of sewer pipes and a mortar “floor” located 1.4 m above the base of the vault. Below this floor, the lower zones contain deposits from the late-1870s and early-1880s, the precise time at which the Aid occupied the property. The types of artifacts recovered are a reflection of the women and children that lived there: porcelain dolls and “Frozen Charlottes”, marbles, gaming pieces, poker chips, syringes, and medicines to treat “female diseases”.

Artifact analysis is currently underway, and a technical report will be made available when completed .

worthy woman site artifacts

Figure 3. Artifacts recovered from Feature 649-42, the privy vault behind the Worthy Woman’s Aid and Hospital: (left) toys including marbles, dolls, and tea cups; (center) a small tea pot (black basalt); and (right) an assortment of poker chips and lotto game pieces.

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