Plumbing’s Not-So-Good Old Days

We take the conveniences of modern life for granted. It’s hard to realize that there are still people alive that grew up in homes without indoor plumbing or electricity. Some of you reading this probably may have heard such tales from your parents or grandparents.

Indoor plumbing in America didn’t really catch on until the late 19th Century, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that outhouses gave way to indoor toilets and bathrooms in most American homes. Much of it was inspired by a “Bath a Day” campaign by the plumbing industry to promote installation of its products in homes.

Today most of us regard as uncouth the person who doesn’t wash and deodorize every day. Yet as recently as the 1950s many working-class Americans still lived in cold water flats without a bathtub (largely replaced by showers since then). For persons who grew up in humble circumstances, bathing once a week was the norm — traditionally on Saturday night in order to be clean for church services the next day. Daily bathing was simply too inconvenient, more a luxury than a necessity.

But while I’m reminiscing about the not-so-good old days, I’d like to take you even farther back in time – way back to the earliest days of plumbing in America. The following is a description of the earliest plumbers’ lot in life. It comes from an 1890 edition of Domestic Engineering, a now defunct industry trade magazine, reporting an address by Hugh Watt, chairman of the Apprenticeship Committee of the Chicago Master Plumbers’ Association, to Chicago apprentices on Dec. 12, 1889. Watt described to them his experiences as a young apprentice, circa 1842.

“The plumber of the early ’40s had to plod along, groping his way in the dark. Go back with me nearly a half century, when the plumber had to make not only his own pipe and fittings but the material to make them of, taking the raw material, the pig lead, and casting it into sheets, 22 by 7 feet. This was done on a wooden frame, a bed of sand two inches thick, beat down solid, streaked off with a cross bar of hard wood, then polished down with a copper float until it was as smooth as glass.

“The lead was melted in a larger pot holding 2,000 pounds. The youngest apprentice had to start the fire at 3 o’clock in the morning, to have it ready at 6 for the men to go to work, and woe betide the boy if he were late. One boy at each side of the pot of red-hot metal laved it out with large ladles into a sheet-iron pan. When the necessary quantity was in, one boy stirred it up to mix it until it got to the proper temper, then poured it out on the sand, and one man on each side of the frame, the cross bar or streak, as it used to be called, pressed the flowing metal before it, leaving the smooth sheet on the sand, the surplus metal running into a copper pan at the end of the frame and from that into a copper coach, which, drawn up to the pot, was laved into it to prepare for the next sheet. After the sheet was rolled up, the sand had to be all turned over, and the same operation gone through each time.

“Twelve sheets were considered a good day’s work, and so nicely was the thickness gauged that out of the 12 sheets they would not vary 10 pounds in the gross weight of the sheet. We did not make any 2-1/2 pound lead in those days, 5 pounds being the lightest, up to 8 pounds. Rolled lead had been made a few years before that time, but it was hard to get the plumber to believe that it was as good as what he made himself!

“All the improvements of specialties now on the market, such as iron and copper-lined tanks, with siphon valves, leave very little for the poor plumber to do, and do not even give the boy a chance to cup up a service box for the poor, old-discarded pan closet, which served a good purpose in its day and generation. The specialties are with us and are likely to stay; let us make the best of them, improve on them where we can and show to the public that we are keeping abreast of the times in sanitary work.

“Whatever you undertake to do, do it well, never leave it until it is right. Make up your mind to be a first-class workman, and at some future day a master plumber.”

Plumbers think we work hard nowadays. But when you read something like this, it makes me think that the so-called “good old days” are right now!