Timeline of the Rich History of Modern Indoor Plumbing
It is safe to say that plumbing has evolved into an integral aspect of our daily lives. After all, the average person spends 73 hours per year and 5,767 hours in a lifetime on the toilet. The plumbing in your home serves the essential purpose of delivering clean water and eliminating wastewater. A good plumbing system is even able to deliver clean and drinkable water. Plumbing brings comfort, safety, and beauty into our homes.
The water in your kitchens and bathrooms serve basic purposes as well as give you access to comforting meals and baths. When we use a system so often, it is only natural to wonder about its origins. Plumbing has become so commonplace in our lives that we take it for granted, but the truth is that there was once a time when having a plumbing system was a luxury instead of the norm.
The history of plumbing as a whole dates all the way back to Ancient Egypt. Ancient Egypt is known for its many achievements, particularly in the field of construction, and plumbing is no exception. As early as 2500 B.C., the Egyptians developed copper pipes through which they built advanced bathrooms with irrigation and sewage inside the pyramids. Plumbing was so important to their culture that archaeologists have even discovered bathrooms in some tombs, which makes sense seeing as they viewed death as the passing of life from one stage to another. Even those in the afterlife need to use the toilet every now and then.
Through the years, the world of plumbing evolved greatly, from complex constructions in the Roman Empire to Sir John Harrington designing the first flushing toilet for his grandmother Queen Elizabeth I. It is also known that King Louis XIV ordered the construction of a cast-iron main plumbing line that carried water 15 miles to the palace and surrounding land in France.
Sir John Harrington’s invention, though it was intended for royal use, was actually the blueprint for the way we use toilets today. The device was a 2-foot-deep oval bowl waterproofed with pitch, resin, and wax. It was fed water through a cistern upstairs, which is simply a tank used to store water. It is said that a single flush required as much as 7.5 gallons of water. This is a big jump from today’s most modern toilets, which use as little as 1.6 gallons. Seeing as the average person flushes five times a day, this advancement in technology makes quite a big difference in water use.
In terms of modern plumbing as we know it and its lineage to the United States, we can most closely trace the modern toilet back to Scottish inventor Alexander Cummings. He is also known as a watchmaker, clockmaker, inventor of the first accurate Barograph, and inventor of the microtome. Cummings is credited with creating the patent to the design of the flushing toilet in 1775, although the original design can be traced back to Sir John Harrington for the use of his grandmother.
Cumming’s design utilized an S-shaped pipe below the bowl that used water to make a seal, preventing sewer gas from entering through the toilet. This was an important innovation in terms of convenience and ease of use. However, there was a big problem with these toilets, which was that when the seals leaked, bacteria-filled sewer gases could still get into homes. This is a problem because when sewer gases diffuse into household air, they can displace oxygen and suffocate residents. It circulates a material we now know to be hydrogen sulfide, which is dangerous even at low levels. In fact, 800 ppm (parts per million) of hydrogen sulfide is considered a lethal concentration for 50% of humans for 5 minutes’ exposure. Concentrations above 1000 ppm can cause immediate collapse with loss of breathing after a single breath.
All of this considered, it seemed to be that the convenience, ease, and safety of toilets still came with its potential risks and needed some further tweaking. Engineer and inventor Joseph Bramah made a big impact in this area by developing a patent for a working water closet. This device replaced the side valve with a hinged flap sealing the bottom of the bowl. Bramah obtained the patent for this innovation in 1778, and this same design continued to be produced well into the 19th century. Bramah is also known for his invention of the hydraulic press, which is a device used for forging, clinching, moulding, blanking, punching, deep drawing, and metal forming operations.
The next plumbing aficionado who made a wave in the world is best known for his rumored namesake. Thomas Crapper launched his company in 1861 and was awarded nine patents for plumbing innovations throughout his career, including the flushing water closet and the floating ballcock, which regulates the water level in the tank. This mechanism is still in use today, but it is usually referred to as a toilet fill valve. It was Crapper who manufactured one of the first widely successful lines of flush toilets in London in the late-19th century. Although there is some debate over whether or not the original use of the common colloquialism came from his name, we like to believe he helped popularize the term.
When Did Indoor Plumbing Become Standard?
Until the 1840s, indoor plumbing was primarily found in the homes of the rich. In terms of its popularity in the U.S., it was notable that in 1829, the Tremont Hotel of Boston was the first hotel of its kind to offer the guests indoor plumbing. Isaiah Rogers built eight water closets throughout the hotel. It was not until four years later, in 1833, that the White House was plumbed with running water on the main floor. Plumbing upstairs was not introduced until President Franklin Pierce took office.
In terms of a comprehensive sewer system, the city of Chicago, just a short drive from our hometown of Griffith, Indiana, was a pioneer in development. It was during the 1850s that public awareness about the association between dirty sewage and illnesses increased. The rapid growth of Chicago had come as a shock to the world as well. By 1850, the population had grown to 28,000, more than six times its size in a matter of ten years. By 1860, Chicago had become the ninth largest city in the U.S., with 112,000 inhabitants.
The rapid population growth called for a more developed way of operating the plumbing system. In 1849, an outbreak of cholera in the city killed 678 people, which was 2.9% of the city’s population. An additional outbreak in 1854 killed 1,424 people. As history goes, there is some debate over whether or not dirty sewage systems lead to the deaths.
Regardless, in 1855, thanks to the efforts of the Board of Sewerage Commissioners planning a coordinating system, Chicago was positioned to become the first large American city with a comprehensive sewer system. In 1889, the Sanitary District of Chicago was created and tasked with supervising the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
In 1904, the plumbing company John C. Flood was founded in Washington, D.C. The company grew to provide indoor plumbing to Northern Virginia and Maryland and helped make many modern advancements commonplace in those areas.
By the mid-1930s, lawmakers and medical professionals in the United States recognized that sanitary plumbing was essential for public health. In response, the U.S. created hygienic guidelines and plumbing codes to help streamline the hygienic system installation process throughout the country. In the 1940s, due to restrictions on iron, steel, and copper, American manufacturers introduced cast iron and plastics to the world of plumbing, which are the materials we most often find in toilets today. Our toilets have certainly come a long way throughout the years, and we have these plumbing systems and their brilliant inventors to thank for the health and convenience we now enjoy.
At Meyer’s Companies, Inc., we are strong believers in the importance of plumbing for health, safety, and convenience, and our reliable team is here to provide the plumbing services you need to keep things running. Call us at (219) 240-0610 or contact us online for repairs, installations, and more.