Plumbing Info

courtesy of Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine, July 1987

Baseball fans take note. Arizona’s Hohokam Park in Mesa, Ariz., may ring a bell as the spring training grounds of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. It is named for the far-flung, extinct Hohokam Indians who played their own brand of ball and worked those same fields centuries before.

They were the master farmers of America’s Southwest, and engineers of great networks of irrigation canals in the Salt River Valley. They first appeared about 350 B.C., building canals of open ditches, gouged out with stone tools and wooden hoes. The canals spanned almost 250 miles, stimulating trade and commerce between communities of hundreds and thousands of people. No one knows why, whether by climatic upheaval, drought or floods, the Hohokams suddenly vanished in 1450 A.D., well before Columbus discovered America or the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

American water pipes originally were made from bored-out logs like this artifact.
American water pipes originally were made from bored-out logs like this artifact.

The Pueblo Grande ruins of this lost culture sit in ironic view of the jet planes taking off at the Phoenix airport. Located on East Washington Street, they provide a specter of dry bank canals 80 feet wide and 20 feet deep. Strange trash mounds offer clues of organic wastes, vegetation and shells. And multi-storied “apartment” buildings attest to a condo style of life. But there is no evidence of any piping, latrines or privies. Native Americans, it is explained, have always shunned communal spots for defecation.

New World settlers would copy the Indians casual discharge of waste and refuse in running water, open fields, shrubs or forests. Like their folks back home in Europe, the colonials would also toss garbage and excrement out the front door and windows onto the streets below. The country’s first garbage disposers would be hogs and scavengers.

It would be more than midway through the 19th century before young America would develop reasonably efficient water and sewage systems, and for the great invention of the water closet to make an appearance. But our forefathers made up nicely for lost time.

Thanks to the plumbing industry, the United States would set standards in health and safety unsurpassed in the world today. At the forefront was the unsung plumber, the skilled craftsman of lead, expert bell hanger, blacksmith, tool maker, tin and sheet-iron worker.

Closet Lore: Over 2,800 years ago, the fabled King Minos of Crete owned the world’s first flushing water closet, complete with a wooden seat. Lost for centuries in the rubble of the palace ruins, the invention did not materialize again until 1594. Then, Sir John Harington built a “prive in perfection” for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth, to use in Richmond Palace, and one for himself at his humbler estate. Once he published his pompous book of terrible puns and off color jokes about the new device in 1596, A New Discourse of a State Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, the ridicule and scorn would hound him for the rest of his days, and he never built another one. (“Ajax” was the slang in those days for a privy or “a jakes.”) To the world’s misfortune, another 200 years would pass before the idea took hold again.

Thus, when the colonists packed for the New World, they probably tucked a chamber pot in among other crockery items and tinware. But to a backwoodsman or a bride of 14, the term “chaise percee” or “commode” often disguised its use. In the early 1800s, a settler’s wife reportedly bought several from the new stock at the local store for kitchen and table use.

The privy or outhouse slowly became accepted, albeit a peril for those walking by. One diarist disgustedly wrote: ‘Privy houses set against ye Strete which spoiling people’s apparill should they happen to be nare when ye filth comes out … Especially in ye Night when people cannot see to shun them.”

From the more humble and ramshackle outhouses of wood emanated more glorious structures. Human nature as it is, some became symbols of distinction as would current bathrooms of the well-to-do. William Byrd’s 1730 outhouse was made of brick and had five holes. Byrd was chief magistrate of the colonial court and thus sat on the largest seat at the center of a raised, semicircular bench. So did Mr. Byrd preside in the family privy.

Dozens of years later a two-story model was built and still stands in Crested Butte, Colo. The upper level was used when heavy snow blocked the first floor. A more typical, single-hole outhouse is found in a replica located in Old Sturbridge, Mass.

How to bring a workable water closet into the house without mess or odor was an invention waiting to be born, however. Some of the country’s leading citizens would try to improvise on the basic knowledge of the times.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, devised an indoor privy at his Monticello home by rigging up a system of pulleys. Servants used the device to haul away chamber pots in his earth closet (a wooden box enclosing a pan of wood ashes below, and a seat with a hole cut out at the top). An architect and inventor as well as statesman, Jefferson also built two octagonal outhouses at his retreat at Poplar Forest in Virginia.

In the early 1840s, the architect and designers of New York City’s Central Park denounced the outhouse as ‘troublesome, unhealthy, indelicate, and ugly.” It was all true. They tried to correct this by designing little Gothic structures combining a summer-house with a view of the garden on one side, and a two-holer on the other. Outside of a few private homes, hotels were the bastions of luxury and comfort – and indoor plumbing. In 1829, the brilliant young architect, 26-year-old Isaiah Rogers, sent ripples of awe throughout the country with his innovative Tremont Hotel in Boston. It was the first hotel to have indoor plumbing and became the prototype of a modern, first – class American hotel.

The four-story structure boasted eight water closets on the ground floor, located at the rear of the central court. The court was connected by glazed corridors to the bedroom wings, dining room and rotunda.

The bathrooms in the basement were fitted with cold running water which also went to the kitchen and laundry. The bathtubs were copper or tin and probably had a little side-arm gas furnace attached at one end. Perhaps shaped like a shoe as the French and English models, the water in the tub would flow and circulate backwards until the entire bath was heated to satisfaction.

Since the 1790s, the Northeast had bath houses, but not until this period several decades later would city hotels or new dwellings have baths as well. This simply was not feasible without a suitable water and waste supply system.

In the Tremont, water was drawn from a metal storage tank set on top of the roof, the recently-invented steam pump raising the water on high. A simple water carriage system removed the excretal water to the sewerage system. As with other individual buildings of the time, each had its own source of water and removal.

Five years later in New York City, Rogers surpassed his achievements of the Tremont Hotel.

He built the Astor House with six stories, featuring 17 rooms on the upper floors with water closets and bathrooms to serve 300 guest rooms. The Astor and the Tremont were the first modern buildings built with extensive plumbing. (In contrast, the Statler Hotel in Buffalo caused a sensation in 1908 by offering ‘A room with a bath for a dollar and a half.’)

Rogers the architect was in very good company. His former employer was Solomon Willard, who had developed the first widely-used American system of central heating.

In the 1830s, at least one private house, a James River mansion, had a wood-fired hot air heating system. Heat wafted up to the first floor via handsome brass registers. Ladies of New York City’s High Society wasted no time in flocking to the parlor after dinner to stand over its registers for warmth.

Central heating, however, was generally confined to the public rooms and hallways. Guest rooms were still heated during this period by parlor stoves and fireplaces. This lack of heat throughout the home retarded the development of bathrooms.

Our Dirty Forerunners: It was said that no house in Quincy, Mass., had a bathroom before 1820. When the temperature of a bedroom dips below the freezing point, there is no satisfaction in bathing.

Most Colonial bathing consisted of occasional dips in ponds or streams. Typical was a quote from Elizabeth Drinker, the wife of a highly-placed Philadelphia Quaker. She had a shower (probably a bucket arrangement) put up in her backyard for therapeutic use in 1799. She said, ‘I bore it better than I expected, not having been wett all over at once, for 28 years past.”

A copper lined closet, with oak high tank and seat.
A copper lined closet, with oak high tank and seat.

When bathing did become the rage, it evolved over quack hygiene rather than cleanliness. Then there emerged a blend of latrine and spa just like in Merrie Old England.

In shaping the customs of fashionable Britain, one historian commented that dueling probably killed fewer people than the spas springing up in various parts of the country. If the mineral waters tasted or smelled foul enough, people believed they could cure anything that ailed them. In the latter 1770s, Colonials would soak and sip in fashion as their counterparts at Bath or Spa, England, imitating the good society of the Old Country.

Warm Springs, Pa., in 1775 drew people from all over, taking in the waters. Some lived in cabins, all cooking at a common fire. Gentile boarding houses and pumps were built, and dancing rooms added to the pleasantries. The adjacent mosquito-rich swamps were drained, and the church was enlarged to keep pious visitors happy.

A Dr. Benjamin Rush had the bad luck to have a well with horrible-tasting water in his back yard. The whole town flocked to it to cure all kinds of ailments. When the over-pumped well went dry, the people learned too late that the well connected to the doctor’s privy.

Many thought bathing was a health hazard. In 1835, the Common Council of Philadelphia almost banned wintertime bathing (the ordinance failed by two votes). Ten years later, Boston forbade bathing except on specific medical advice.

Poor water supply contributed to this attitude. The bathtub had to be filled and emptied with a hand pump and pail. It was too onerous a chore.

But by 1845, the installation of sanitary sewers began to pay off with an outlet for waste water, indoor plumbing and working water closets were getting closer to fruition. Unfortunately, bad plumbing and the stench from open sewer connections made some new homes uninhabitable.

Early in the 19th century, the stack was vented through the roof, but no one knew how to properly size the pipe. Usually the size was understated. Many vent pipes were so small they would clog up with frost during the winter. Not long after, a crown vent was added, i.e., the connection was made at the top of the vent.

In 1874, there was a tremendous breakthrough when an unknown plumber solved the problem of venting. He suggested balancing the air pressure in the system with the outside atmospheric pressure to prevent the siphonage or blowout of a water seal in the traps. He installed 1/2″ pipe at the traps and extended the pipe outside. It worked for a little while, but then the vent clogged and the stench returned. Through trial and error, the plumbers learned to increase the size of the pipe.

Boring Business: Early settlers knew nothing of lead or iron pipe – they knew only to build with wood, the country’s bounty.

Water pipes were made of bored-out logs, preferably felled from hemlock or elm trees. The trees would be cut into seven-to-nine-foot lengths, their trunks around 9-10″ thick.

Wooden pipe laid below ground created several problems however, especially in larger settlements or towns. Uneven ground below the joists would cause sags in the log where water would stagnate, infest with insects, and generally leave a woody taste.

The borers themselves were colorful characters who usually traveled in pairs from town to town bringing news and gossip of the area as they went about their job. With a five-foot steel auger between them, a handle at one end, they would fix the log by eye, size it up with a point of the ax, and drill or bore out the center. Ramming one end to make a conical shape, they would jam the logs together in a series, using a bituminous-like pitch or tar to caulk the joists. Sometimes they would split the log and hollow it out, put it together, connect the logs with iron hoops, or get the blacksmith to caulk the logs with lead.

They would set up a gravity water system, starting from a spring or stream on high ground, allowing water to flow downhill to the house or farm. It would cut a path back of the house, through the barn, and flow into a catch basin.

In 1652, Boston incorporated the country’s first waterworks, formed to provide water for firefighting and domestic use. As fire was a common hazard in those days of wood-framed houses and stores, and chimney fires always a risk, it was imperative that a ready supply be on hand.

The line supplying water to Boston’s wharves and other buildings ran from Jamaica Pond to the Faneuil Hall area, the meeting place for the Massachusetts rebels who held their Boston Tea Party in the nearby harbor on Dec.16, 1773. Just recently a section of a wooden water main was removed from that same vicinity. The log measured 22 feet long, the bore a 4″ I.D. for the lower half of the tree, and 2-1/2″ in the upper. Common with early wood pipe, the tree’s natural forks branched out in wyes and tees.

In 1795, the Jamaica Pond Aqueduct Corp. followed through with 15 miles more of 3″ and 5″ wooden water pipe of bored logs, again using hemlock trees for construction. Since open wells provided easy access to contamination from nearby privies, the new supply of fresh water contributed to a lower death rate.

Crude by almost anyone’s standards, these new pipelines were nonetheless invaluable to firefighters. They would punch a hole into the wooden pipe along the edge of the street, insert a smaller pipe, pre-sized to fit the newly bored hole and harness the hose of their fire wagon, a two man pumper. The fire out, they would plug up the hole again with a pre-cut conical stopper on the end of a long pole, insert it into the hole, and bang it shut. This was the “fireplug”, the wooden pole left sticking out of the ground marking the plug, ready to be pulled out for the next chimney fire.

Wooden pipes were common until the early 1800s when the increased pressure required to pump water into rapidly expanding streets began to split the pipes A change was made to iron.

Waterworks Come Of Age:
In 1804, Philadelphia earned the distinction as the first city in the world to adopt cast iron pipe for its water mains. It was also the first city in America to build large scale waterworks as it drew upon the ample supply of the Schuykill River. A friendly neighbor, Philadelphia sold its cast-off wooden pipe to Burlington, N.J., where it remained in use until 1887, when larger mains were required.

Those were the days when the science of medicine was in its infancy, and misguided notions of causes of disease ruled the day. Philadelphia was motivated to clean up its city and draw upon a new supply of water in the mistaken belief that yellow fever was caused by the city’s polluted wells rather than the bite of the mosquito. Yellow fever hit Philadelphia in 1793 with an impact like the Great Plagues of London.

Efficient waterworks depends on pumps. Prior to steam power in the 1800s, water wheels harnessed river flow to raise the water. On the frontier and on farms, windmills and simple hydraulic pumps provided the most efficient means of pumping water for the entire farmyard. A storage tank large enough to hold two or three days’ supply of water would be mounted on the upper floor of the barn, water then piped to individual locations

By the latter 1800s, windmills would still be, in full force — their new and better workings keeping the farmers son from the lure of the big city. Who could resist this 1893 sale pitch from Aermotor Company:

“Many a farmer’s boy has been content to remain home through the great assistance rendered him by the Geared Aermotor. This tireless worker not only pumps water, but turns the grindstone, saws the wood, shells corn, chums, and a dozen other things that are most disagreeable to the boy, and that would tend to discourage him and make him discontented.”

But metropolitan cities require more than windmills or simple hydraulic pumps to generate a water supply for an entire population, especially for those in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. The population of Chicago, for example, soared from 350 people in 1835 to over 60,000 by mid-century. In 1869, the city unveiled a new engineering feat that made newspaper headlines around the world.

An early 20th century outhouse with a fanciful design.
An early 20th century outhouse with a fanciful design.

The Chicago Waterpower supplied the city with water via a twin-tunnel system which extended two miles out into Lake Michigan. Offshore, the clear lake water entered an underwater shaft leading to the tunnel below the lake bed, the intake shaft protected by a wooden crib.

The first tunnel, completed in 1869, contained a massive three foot-wide, 138-foot-tall standpipe which equalized pressure in the mains throughout the city’s water system. The building was miraculously spared in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and still stands as a monument to the city’s past.

Coal-fired, steam-driven engines drew water from the tunnel beneath the lake. They provided 15 million gallons per day into the city’s water mains. When the pumping station was modernized in 1906 and new engines installed, the standpipe was removed. The station today contains six powerful engines which pump 72.5 million gallons on an average day.

Sewers, PLEASE: Although Chicago is credited with having the first comprehensive sewerage project in the country (designed by E. S. Chesbrough in 1885), the already teeming city of New York provided the general model for the development of water supply and sewage disposal systems across the country.

Water was always at a premium in Manhattan, from day one of its purchase from the Indians in 1626. A bucket of water had to be hand-drawn and carried from springs or wells. Those too far away relied on peddlers who made rounds selling water by the bucket, off water carts or barrels. Later, water would be rationed at street pumps or hydrants which would operate frequently during the day.

Waste and garbage thrown onto the streets created abominable conditions, though people were merely following centuries old customs. They were compounded by privy stations set against buildings whose “cleanup” presented even more problems. As early as 1700, concerned officials passed an ordinance prohibiting scavengers from dumping “tubs of filth” in the streets.

But driving wells and digging cisterns to collect water were still the primary means of procuring water throughout most settlements. However, water was not a popular beverage during those early days. A little girl from Barbados boarding with her grandmother in 1714 while the eight-year-old attended school in Boston, complained to her father that grandmother was making her drink water. Dad wrote back and insisted that she get beer or wine as befitting her station.

This distaste for water probably harkened back to the medieval notion that water caused the chills, plague and all sorts of ailments. The more likely reason was that the privy and the local well were too close together and spawned cholera and typhoid instead of good taste and purity.

In the early 1700s, New York, as did Boston, had constructed a wooden pipe system under the roads, and sold water at street pumps or hydrants. It would take New York another 25 years to lay underground sewers for storm water as well.

Another 50 years passed before New York constructed a truly viable public waterworks system. In this plan, well water was pumped to an above-ground reservoir and distributed via water mains of cast iron. The main carried the water to fire hydrants along the narrow streets. But five years later, the system broke down in the chaos of the great New York fire of 1835, which destroyed 530 buildings. The water supply could not cope with the demand of the firefighters.

In response to the needs of its firefighters and to provide potable water for the already teeming population, the city revamped its designs and developed a more sound, pressurized system.

Completed in 1842, the Croton Aqueduct System transported water from a huge reservoir in Croton, 40 miles north of the city, to a secondary reservoir on 42nd Street, and to another in Central Park. They fed into a network of underground mains. Now it was possible to supply buildings with running water. However, except for a simple water carriage operation, there was no provision for waste water.

Engineer Julius W. Adams provided the framework upon which modern sewerage is based. In 1857, Adams was commissioned to sewer the city of Brooklyn, which then covered 20 square miles. There was no data available in proportioning sewers for the needs of the people. Yet, working from scratch, Adams developed guidelines and designs that made modern sanitary engineering possible. More importantly, he published the results. By the end of the century, how-to textbooks would be available for towns and cities to use all across the country.

The pieces to the puzzle of good plumbing had finally come together; proper venting, waterworks and sewers brought the closet indoors to stay. American potters duplicated the successes of their English predecessors, and then some. Finally, the mass production line brought down the cost of production of fixtures, fittings and valves, making them affordable and available from the rich on down. With the final correlation between disease and water borne bacteria the impetus to plumbing was complete.

The Closet Evolves: The development of the water closet in the United States parallels the experience of England where the modern closet was invented. But until the development of a one piece toilet with no metal parts, the closet would continue to be a source of contamination and a health hazard.

Like in England, the conical-shaped hopper was invented first. It set into a lead trap that was placed under the floor. Flushed by a valve directly connected to the bowl, it readily became a source of contamination.

Next came the pan closet, consisting of an upper earthenware basin and a shallow copper pan containing 3-5″ of water as a seal at its base. It could be tipped to discharge the contents into a lower, large cast-iron receptacle connected to the drainage system. The metal pan operated on hinges, activated by a lever.

The washdown closet followed the principle of pan closets. The water was flushed by a direct line from a storage tank in the attic. Pull the handle in the closet, and it opened a valve at the top of the chamber. It was connected by a copper wire. The water flowed until the handle was released. It scored a complete flush as the water struck against a piece of sheet lead inside the bowl and caused a spray in all directions.

Unlike earlier models, a short hopper closet followed that was set on a tray, and the trap was placed above the floor. Originally made of stoneware, it was practically impervious. But later on, fireclay closets would be passed off to unwary customers.

The first American patent for a plunger closet is attributed to William Campbell and James T. Henry in 1857. It resembled the twin-basin water closets deplored by the great English engineer, S.S. Hellyer. The mechanism was unsanitary, as was the trapless closet of George Jennings.

John Randall Mann, an American, developed a siphonic closet in 1870. Three pipes delivered water into the basin; one fed the flushing rim around the basin’s edge, one discharged about a half gallon rapidly into the basin and started the siphonic action, and the third provided the after flush.

William Smith developed a jet siphon closet in 1876. It was carried still further by the famous American sanitary engineer Col. George E. Waring, Jr., into larger and more complicated pieces of sanitary ware.

Thomas Kennedy, another American, patented a siphonic closet which required only two delivery pipes, one to flush the rim, the other to start the siphon. William Howell improved it in 1890, when he eliminated the lower trap without detriment to the action.

Ten years later, Robert Frame and Charles Neff of Newport R.I., produced the prototype of America’s siphonic washdown closet, although it sometimes failed to develop the necessary action and the contents overflowed. Another decade passed before a redesigned bowl by Fred Adee would spur the production of the siphonic closet in America.

In the early 19th century, U.S. production of the closet was inferior to the English, and most closets were imported. By 1873, 43 British firms, including Twyford, Doulton, and Shanks were exporting high-quality closets to the U.S.

A luxury bathroom of the 1890s would feature wood-encased fixtures in Victorian splendor.
A luxury bathroom of the 1890s would feature wood-encased fixtures in Victorian splendor.

By century’s end, U.S. manufacturers caught up with the Europeans, and American products began to swamp this market. The American sanitary industry was said to have been born when pottery maker and decorator Thomas Maddock teamed up with his friend William Leigh. The timing was none to soon, because importing English materials was a very costly endeavor.

It was tough to convince fellow Americans to buy American products, however, so Maddock carefully stamped each closet with a lion and a unicorn, and the following inscription: “Best Stafford Earthenware made for the American market.”

Harington had suggested a basin of brick, stone or lead dressed with pitch, resin or wax. Since then, stoneware, earthenware, fireclay and vitreous enameled porcelain led the way. Salt glazing was an early breakthrough; the process covered the materials with an impervious glaze which offered new resistance to stain and liquid.

Decorations were confined first to the bowl’s interior because the wooden surround precluded any outside design-no one would see it. When the washout and the washdown models were now exposed in their entirety, the water closet became not only a functional product but an artistic one as well. The outside bowl could be embossed or colored for esthetic choice.

Pedestal models proved most popular, highlighted with elaborate patterns and fanciful names. Popular examples were the English Lion and the Dolphin models. The Dolphin curled up into letter S, the bowl in the shape of a fluted shell. (Carvings of dolphins had separated the seats used by the Roman soldiers in the privy at Timgad, an ancient Roman city in what is now Algeria.) A Dolphin water closet of Edward Johns & Co. won a Golden Award for design at the Great Philadelphia Exhibition in 1876. (The company today, Armitage Shanks, has reproduced the original “Dolphin Suite”, complete with mahogany toilet seat, vanity doors and polished brass taps and fittings.)

Underglaze patterns became popular, too, as well as hand-painted patterns of birds, flowers and fruit. Usually applied after the glazing, particularly with fireclay and similar materials, these underglaze decorations were less permanent. Gilding was the most expensive decoration: a specially-prepared gold, ground down with alloys and flux, compounded with turpentine and oil base, was applied by brush on an already embossed pattern.

Without extensive piping and adequate sewer and supply systems, however, the “modern” water closet would have gone the way of Harington’s old relics. Early American plumbers, unschooled in the impressive engineering feats of their old Roman forerunners, would have to learn on their own how to build and construct comparable supply and waste systems. The method was still trial-and-error.

Bathrooms Come Of Age: For the well-to-do, an unused bedroom converted into the novel bathroom. The practice probably foreshadowed the trend of present-day “empty-nesters” to make unused bedrooms into fitness and relaxation centers. By the mid-1850s, however, finer new homes were being designed with separate bathrooms.

Benjamin Franklin is said to have imported the first bathtub to America. Brought over from France in the 18th century, this early creation was made of sheet copper shaped like a shoe, and hand-filled by bucket. A more common model would be in the shape of a mummy’s tomb, all wood and six feet long.

An earth closet used indoors used fresh earth or ashes on the bottom of the wood structure to absorb odors.
An earth closet used indoors used fresh earth or ashes on the bottom of the wood structure to absorb odors.

The popularity of tub-bathing grew as the country flourished and expanded. For example, only 200 people resided in Tucson, Ariz., in 1865. By 1871, however, the town would boast 3,000 people, a newspaper, a brewery, two doctors, several saloons and one bathtub.

But the country’s first bathtub with fittings was commissioned by a Mr. Thompson of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1842. He envied the invention of Britain’s Lord John Russell and had the same tub duplicated for himself. The tub was encased in mahogany and lined with sheet lead. It measured 7’x 4′, and weighed nearly one ton.

The fittings connected to two pipes running from the attic tank. One pipe carried cold water, the other was a hot water pipe that coiled down the chimney. The water heated as it passed through the coil.

Grander bathtubs a century later were encased in paneled or embossed wood. Big, brass fixtures were bold and showy in Victorian splendor. George Vanderbilt’s bathroom of 1855 boasted a porcelain tub, and featured exposed pipe for all to see, the fittings reduced to a neat arrangement. Those with money tried to emulate Queen Victoria’s bathroom where, it was said, the controls looked like those for a battleship.

The old Saturday night bath in front of the kitchen fire or potbellied stove was of tin or copper. Lead “gave way” to cast iron, which in turn was the forerunner of the modern enameled iron tub. Now we can add porcelain enameled iron and steel and acrylic, too.

By the turn of the century, a luxury bathroom would be a grand-sized room, outfitted with a 5-foot enameled tub, shower bath and receptor, sitz bath, foot bath, pedestal lavatory and siphon jet closet. Including all the fittings, trim and traps, the cost would come to $542.50. (Heavy tasseled drapes and stained glass windows were extra, of course. Although patterned wallpaper would yield to tile on the walls and the floor, the big area carpet would remain.)

When Johnny came marching home after the wars, builders could not keep up with the demand for housing. A land shortage in the throes of urban development sparked cubbyhole apartments and smaller homes than before. Tract housing would be one answer; downsizing the bathroom in sacrifice for more space was another tradeoff. Pedestal lavs disappeared as vanities with storage cabinets below topped the trend. Today, the reverse is true – bathrooms are bigger, and the fixtures more imposing than ever. And, at least two bathrooms are a must in most new houses.

Today, there are tubs for two and oversized tubs with accompanying oversized faucets, and lavs constructed from all materials including marble and precious stone. Where chrome and nickel plated faucets stood, luxury materials such as gold, malachite, tiger’s eye, onyx and polished granite would take their place. In such a setting, King Midas might well turn green with envy.

The growth of plumbing in America was phenomenal. In one 25-year period, from 1929 to 1954, sales by distributors of plumbing products and heating equipment rose from $498 million to $2.33 billion, a whopping 367% increase.

And manufacturers would cater to the increased demand with myriad choices of materials, colors and styles. Forerunners of great plumbing companies today would make their first appearances in the 1890s: Crane Co., National Tube Works (U.S. Steel), Ahrens & Ott and American Radiator (predecessor companies of American-Standard), and the Kohler Company, to name just a few. The single-handle mixing faucets so commonplace today are actually less than 50 years old. Al Moen is credited with the design for a double-valve faucet with a cam to control the two valves that he made in 1937. He refined the design into a cylinder with a piston action. Continued refinement has led to the replaceable cartridge, push-button diverter, back-to-back installation, swivel spray and pressure balancing valve.

Stainless steel is also a relative newcomer to the surging market of plumbing materials, perhaps exemplified by the growth of Elkay Mfg. Originally incorporated to manufacture pantry sinks of German silver and polished copper, Elkay added a line of d steel scullery sinks in 1921. By the 1950s, the company was spurring lines of sinks and faucets in stainless steel that would become mainstays of the plumbing industry.

Flexible water supplies are fairly recent developments as well. They were pioneered by Robert M. Zell the founder of Brass-Craft Mfg., back in 1939.

But today’s manufacturers are not content to rest on past successes, as research and development produce better pipes, valves, fittings and fixtures. In the 19th century, plumbers used plain or tin lined lead piping for cold-water service, but they also had a choice of tin-lined, galvanized, enameled or rubber-coated wrought iron piping. Copper tubing was added after World War 1, and now plastic under certain conditions.

This wooden box encloses a square water closet from early American days.
This wooden box encloses a square water closet from early American days.

It seems that the wonders of the Ancient World and the Old Roman Empire have come full circle. Presently under construction is a grand hotel complex in Scottsdale, Arizona. It is patterned after the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. There will be 10 pools, 28 fountains, 47 waterfalls, a man-made sand beach and a Roman-style aqueduct. Under the watchful eye of the old Hohokam spirits, about 28 basic plumbing systems will be used to make this feat possible.

Of Codes And Men: It was only after the Civil War that the germ theory of disease was proven true, that contagion could be traced to contaminated water supply and unsanitary waste disposal. With waves of cholera, typhus and typhoid fever sweeping the country, the people turned to the resources of government to investigate the causes.

The English Public Health Code of 1848 became a model plumbing code for the world to follow. Twenty years later, the New York Metropolitan Board of Health was formed, the first such health board in the United States. Two years later, its Metropolitan Health Law was considered the most complete health legislation in the world. The nature of ground water was studied, as were drainage, sewage, water supply, waste disposal and location and characteristics of water closets. The plumber, long vilified in early years, saw his status upgraded to that of the Sanitarians

The idea of sanitary plumbing systems within buildings was an American development that soon spread throughout Europe. Over the next two decades and more, plumbing health codes expanded coverage to encompass examination, and licensing.

Trade associations were formed, spearheading plumbing ordinances and laws for regulations and examination. Master plumbers, while they had developed methods of trapping and venting to guard against contamination, had no real knowledge of hydraulic principles. So they installed systems they didn’t understand or know how to design. Standards had to be proposed, and lessons in business management learned.

Appropriately, the National Association of PHCC (formerly the National Association of Master Plumbers), first met in committee in 1883 at the old Astor House, the hotel that provided the impetus to modern plumbing back in 1834. Many new plumbing inventions had appeared and too many plumbers were ill-prepared. Close on their heels would be the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, and the American Society of Sanitary Engineering.

Wholesalers banded together, too starting programs to prod manufacturers into standardizing such things as sink and basin outlets, faucet drilling, trap gauges, etc. The Central Supply Association, for example, was formed in 1894 and soon made contacts with the old Eastern Supply Association, the Plumbers Association of New England and the National Association of Master Plumbers. But it would take another 30 years to accomplish the standardization on which everybody takes for granted today.

An outbreak of amoebic dysentery in Chicago during the 1933 World’s Fair was traced to faulty plumbing in two hotels. Tragic results were 98 deaths and 1,409 official cases. One year later, Major Joel Connolly, Chief Inspector of the Chicago Bureau of Sanitary Engineering, spoke these prophetic words:

“One of the lessons to be drawn from the amoebic dysentery outbreak … is that plumbing demands the very best, painstaking effort that thoroughly qualified, certified plumbers can give in every building, and especially where the systems are complicated and extensive, and where large numbers of people may be affected by contamination of water.”


  1. Jean McElvain

    This is such a great overview of the history of plumbing, and takes so many contributing factors into account – many thanks.

    • John Scarpello

      Hi I have a brass driven ferral i dug up in Philadelphia. On the side of the brass 90. It has #65 imprinted on the side. It goes brass to lead. Journey man plumber wondering what it means.


  2. clint

    When did copper water pipes become standard in the US?

    • plumbergirl

      Hi Clint! According to our research, copper tubing was first introduced in American plumbing after World War I, but didn’t really become the standard until the 1960’s.

  3. J

    Hello! I’d like to say that this website was fantastic for a great overview of the history of indoor plumbing. Thank you so much for this.

    I’m currently researching for a paper, and if at all possible, can you point me to any additional resources for finding more info on indoor plumbing? I’m going to be studying 19th century plumbing and early 20th century plumbing, and I plan to connect indoor plumbing to increased civil planning as the need arises in a rapidly industrializing world. Thank you for your time

  4. Mary D. Gierut

    Hi! My home was built in 1888. I’m doing a test for lead in my water from the City of Chgo Dept of Water Mgmt and they want to know when the present “water service line” was installed. Upon reading your article (amazing info BTW), I’m guessing the service to my home had to be when it was built. But it’s also mentioning copper pipes, but my son said mine was lead. I’ve already taken my water samples and have only a couple of days for them to pick up the samples. Would you be able to help with this or how can I really find out?
    Thank you for any help you can give me and sorry for the length of my message.

    • plumbergirl

      It can be incredibly difficult (or impossible in some cases) to tell when a plumbing system was installed without documentation from the home owner, but you could potentially check into city permits and/or home records to see if any permits or construction/plumbing projects were filed with them. If you have lead pipes we would guess that your plumbing hasn’t been updated since at least the 1960s when copper and plastic pipe started being used more often. From around the late 1800s to that time, galvanized iron pipe was the most commonly used pipe for homes. A lot of people confused lead and galvanized pipe because they can be almost the same color. However, lead pipe will be soft – you can easily scratch it – while galvanized is hard. As a sidenote, if you actually have galvanized pipes, there’s little chance you have lead in your water from the piping, anything they find will have come from a faucet or other fixture that was made prior to the new lead laws.

      • Stephen Paraski

        In 1996 detroit Water & Sewerage department did a study and found there were still 800,000 lead service lines in use that were under 3/4″. We still used dry ice to freeze services and installed “Lead Wiped Joints”. I have a section of Tamarack wood that was installed in 1825 in Division Street, between Riopelle and Orleans. We were replacing cast iron mains that had replaced the wood in 1835. This wood was almost 7″ in diameter with a 2″ hole bored through. Former Master Plumber of DWSD.

  5. Carol Champagne

    Thank you so much for your much for your information. I am currently writing a family history and wanted to get everything right. Your information helped tremendously. I appreciate the detailed information and attention to detail. Thank you again.


    thx for tharing yes this

  7. Sam H

    Hi! Wondering who was the first inventor of the indoor plumbing system in the united states and how it affected the 5 themes of history: economics, social, political, human environmental interaction and cultural aspects during this time.

    • Anthony

      Not sure there’s really an acknowledged “first inventor” in the US, as the basics of indoor plumbing had been around since the Roman Empire (and even the Egyptians). The article states that Isaiah Rogers designed the first hotel to have indoor plumbing, in Boston in 1829: – As more hotels and wealthy people adopted the technology, it became more and more popular – eventually, costs came down enough to allow urban middle-class families to have access too. It was a very gradual process. But as something like this shows, it took a while for plumbing to make it to poor and/or rural places: – Even today, there are communities that lack indoor plumbing, mostly in remote areas and neglected tribal lands, but also poor neighborhoods in cities.

      As for affecting the themes of history… that’s a big question. Plumbing and sanitation are vital to a healthy population, which leads to increased economic productivity and different kinds of social interactions, which affects politics. Culturally, just having indoor plumbing was a status symbol, a sign of “success” – these days, it’s how fancy the plumbing system is. Being able to bathe regularly further increased social stratification, as the poor and working class had no choice but to be dirty. More broadly, we westerners tend to view our sit-down toilets as a sign of sophistication and progress, while most of the world still squats over squat-toilets, or outside in the open – this perception seems to be getting more popular globally, though there’s no real basis for it other than cultural preference. Plumbing and sanitation have great impacts on environmental interaction, for good and for bad. Well-designed systems manage waste and keep it from polluting the environment, while some places simply dump massive amounts of waste into rivers and oceans, leading to all kinds of problems. How water is obtained and delivered can also have significant effects. In a time with little-to-no regulation of water and waste, it’s highly likely the human environmental interaction in those days left a lot to be desired, though we aren’t familiar with any particular studies of this. Hope this helps.

      • John Scarpello

        Hi I have a brass driven ferral with the number 65 imprinted on the side of 90 going into main. It goes brass to lead. What does that mean?

  8. Bobby

    I always thought my 1902 bungalow home originally has copper pipes, thanks for letting me know that wasn’t standard until after WWII. Do you know what type of pipes that were used in the early 1900’s? Was it brass, lead, galvanized steel?

    • Anthony

      Hi, Bobby. Chances are the original water piping was either galvanized steel or lead. Cast iron was also widely used, but usually for drain piping.

  9. Ray

    Always love learning about the history of plumbing in the US…having been to areas without it I can say it is for sure something I no longer take for granted….. When we were in Haiti on mission trip and saw the impact of no plumbing services it made us here at really take our jobs of providing the best plumbing services we can on a daily basis.


  10. Julie Wilkinson

    Hi Anthony,
    I found your article to be a gold mine of informatio! However, I am curios about septic tanks and when they came in to use, especially in rural areas, as well as small cities with larger lots, in the northern part of Florida. Any assistance you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

  11. howard fitzner

    thanks you for the history lesson .i have often thought if i could go back to ben franklin’s time knowing what i know about modern plumbing and sanitation but with out the ways to make any of it what good it would have been .to think how many people were effected by lead pipes and never new it

  12. Sarah Smith

    It’s interesting that the American people preferred to import their shower systems until the end of the 19th century. The fact that plumbing hadn’t progressed enough for homes to be built with separate bathrooms until the 1850’s is fascinating as well. This makes me wonder if I need to check my bathroom’s plumbing since we live in an older house.


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