Walkabout: Let’s Talk About Bathrooms, Part 2

Illustration: Amazon.com


    Illustration: Amazon.com

    Read Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 of this story.

    The history of the bathroom is actually pretty interesting. So much of what we take as a matter of course in la salle de bains is actually pretty recent, only about 150 years old, yet civilization has been experimenting with various parts of the bathroom since ancient antiquity.

    Part One of our Bathroom talk is here. All of the great civilizations of the world had some form of plumbing, and loved a good bath. All of these civilizations had also figured out systems of disposing of human wastes, whether by collecting it for disposal, or creating some kind of facility where nature took care of disposal. It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that it dawned on people that those activities should be in the same room. The bathroom was born.

    Before around 1850, the three parts of the bathroom were in very separate rooms. If one needed to wash up, splash some water on the face and hands, or sponge clean oneself, you only needed a basin and a container of water, preferably heated.

    If you were middle-class or wealthy, you had a wash basin or washstand in the bedroom. Otherwise, it was probably the family basin in the kitchen. When you wanted to take a bath, a portable tub was carried out in front of the fire, water was heated, and you took a bath.

    The rich may have had the luxury of a tub in one’s chambers, but for most people, that infrequent bath took place in the kitchen by the hearth, and the whole family used the same water, which was dumped by hand afterward.

    Chamber pots under the bed, and/or an outdoor privy took care of bodily functions. The sanitation habits of Western civilizations really were as bad as tales tell, and often, chamber pots really were just dumped out the windows in cities, where pigs roamed eating trash and waste from the muddy streets.

    It’s a wonder anyone is here today. Incidentally, the slang term “loo” for the toilet is a corruption of the French “Gardez l’eau,” or “watch the water”, a shout given by a homeowner right before throwing a potful out into the street.

    Anyway, by the time the first houses began to be built in Brooklyn and Manhattan, in the late 1600’s, this was all the norm. Dutch farmhouses did not have bathrooms. Neither did the first clapboard or brick row houses that started to shape Brooklyn Heights and Greenwich Village.

    All of these houses had privies out back, at best, some of the wealthier people enjoyed an indoor privy that emptied into a cistern that would have to be cleaned out periodically, or they managed to place one over a stream that took care of the problem.

    By the mid-1800’s, the connection between waste and health had finally been made, and the great municipalities of the world: London, Paris, New York, began to build elaborate sewer systems to flush the wastes from the city. Into the rivers and bays, of course, but that’s another story for another time.

    With knowledge comes technology, and it was the great technological advances of the industrial age that both supplied the problem: too many people and too much waste in a relatively small space, with the solution: modern plumbing and the flush toilet.

    The first flush toilet was actually invented by Queen Elizabeth I’s godson, John Harrington, way back in 1596. It was seen as a great novelty, but it didn’t catch on. One can just imagine the Queen and a bunch of courtiers standing around flushing and watching what happens, like 5 year olds. Or my cat. But there was no system of pipes or pressurized water, so not all that much happened.

    In 1775, the first patent for the flush toilet was awarded to British inventor Alexander Cumming. He and another inventor, Samuel Prosser, in 1777, made great strides in figuring out the modern toilet. But there still wasn’t anyway to really hook it up to a water source, or a wastepipe system.

    By this time, another slang word for the toilet had been coined: the water closet, so called because early indoor privies, really fine furniture pieces made of wood, were often put under the stairs, in a closet.

    The first flush toilets in the US were in hotels. In 1829, the Tremont Hotel in Boston was the first hotel to have indoor plumbing, with eight water closets built by architect Isaiah Rogers.

    They were on the ground floor of the hotel, and were powered by a water storage system on the roof, gravity fed to flush the toilets into a sewer system. It was simple, but it worked. There was still the problem of the backflow of sewer gases and methane to take care of. This would take a few more years, but the idea of the modern toilet was almost here.

    In 1834, Rogers surpassed himself by designing the Astor House, in Manhattan, a large six story building (no elevators yet) with seventeen bathrooms on the top floors which served 300 guests. In addition to water closets, baths with running water were also available.

    These bathtubs had little gas furnaces and tanks attached to the side, or above, which would heat the water. Both the W.C. and the bath drained into the sewer system, and were filled by huge water tanks on the roof. Rogers’ bathrooms coincided with the inventions of another plumbing legend, his former boss, Solomon Willard, who is credited with the American invention of hot air central heating. The two features would come together fifty years later in the late Victorian bathroom.

    Finally, someone figured out how to deliver pressurized water that had sufficient power to flush wastes into a system of pipes that lead outside of the house, to the sewer. Englishman Thomas Crapper usually gets the credit for this, but he did not invent the modern toilet.

    Thomas Twyford actually holds that honor. In 1885 he invented a valveless toilet made out of vitreous china. Previous models had been made of wood and metal. Thomas Crapper owned a plumbing supply company, and he bought a patent for a “Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer”, and began making toilets. The rest is history. As we know, the slang phrase, “in the crapper”, and “crap”, comes from his name.

    It was brought to the United States by American soldiers after World War I, after seeing Crapper’s name all over toilets in the UK. If Thomas Twyford had stamped his name all over every other toilet in England, we might be saying “in the twyford.” Doesn’t have the same ring.

    None of this would have been possible had engineers and inventors not come up with modern plumbing. Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Japanese and East Indian cultures had all managed to come up with plumbing systems, but much of the knowledge of those inventions was lost in the Dark and Middle Ages. Not even the Renaissance and the Age of Reason had been able to suss out plumbing in Europe, or later America, to any great degree.

    The first pipes in America were wood. They were bored out elm or hemlock tree trunks, joined together with pitch. The first piped water in Boston was a system of wooden pipes leading from Jamaica Pond to Boston Harbor. Wooden pipes were used until the early 1800’s, when cast iron pipe was developed.

    Even today, on occasion, remains of the wooden pipes are still dug up in city excavations. Philadelphia was the first American city to develop and use a system of cast iron pipes, drawing power from windmills to force water through the system.

    New York City, also had an early wooden pipe system, and switched to cast iron in the early 1800’s. After the disastrous fire of 1835, which showed the inadequacies of the system, NY developed the huge mains of the Croton Aqueduct System, developed in 1834 to pump water into the city and to smaller reservoirs at 42nd Street and at Central Park, from the reservoir at Croton, NY.

    In 1857, engineer Julius Adams revamped Brooklyn’s water system, creating the first modern city sewage system, and in the process, developing formulas for determining sewage needs for a growing city. He made modern sanitary engineering possible.

    He also printed his findings, providing the blueprint for towns and cities across the country. While this was going on, a group of men in the growing profession of engineer/plumbers were figuring out the correct way to vent sewer gases up out of homes. They figured out standards in waste pipes and drains. Through trial and error, they figured out angles, size of pipes needed and other details for plumbing the modern city home. Fittings, valves, and fixtures were figured out.

    Manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic worked out the details of the toilet; its shape, size and materials. Vitreous china became the preferred material, perfect for both cleanliness and possibilities of pleasing design. They also worked out details in sinks and bathtubs and the fixtures that would deliver the water. Everything was finally coming together for the indoor bathroom, and by the height of the High Victorian Age, it was all in place. Let the spending and the decorating begin!

    Next time: the Victorian bathroom, and beyond.

    Thomas Crapper

    Early tub with attached hot water tank (Sorry, lo-rez). Photo: Peacockpaviliondesign

    Very early bathroom suite, found in Natchez, Mississippi hotel, pre-1850’s. Photo: historyblog.org

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