|Technology and Culture: Chapter 18
Flush Toilets and the Invention of the Nineteenth-Century Bathroom
The development of a system of indoor plumbing was typical of the technological
breakthroughs that simplified everyday life in the late nineteenth century. In the 1860s only about 5 percent of American houses
had running water. Most Americans used chamber pots or outhouses that emptied
into slimy, smelly cesspools. Two decades later, indoor plumbing standards
had been established in most major U.S. cities, and wealthier urban Americans used flush toilets connected
to municipal sewer systems.
The driving force for change came from outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, and
yellow fever, diseases spread by polluted water, that periodically terrorized American cities. Building upon the discovery of germs by Louis Pasteur and
Robert Koch, sanitary reformers established stringent metropolitan health
laws, created state boards of health, and mandated the licensing of plumbers
and the inspection of their work. By the turn of the century, George E. Waring, Jr., a prominent sanitary
engineer, could confidently declare that "Plumbing, as we know it, is essentially and almost exclusively an American
The decision to adopt a water-based system for the removal of human wastes depended on a series of inventions. First, municipal
water systems had to be built with reservoirs, pumps, and water towers to
provide water to the pipes that supplied buildings. A sewage system of interconnected
pipes was also necessary to remove and process wastes. Machines to manufacture lead, cast-iron,
and glazed stoneware pipes had to be created, as did a uniform system of
pipe threads and melted lead joints to create a reliable standardized system
for connecting them. Finally, a porcelain toilet with a built-in gas trap was needed because the bacteria in feces produce methane or sewer gas. (A trap is a
U-shaped joint that uses the water at the low part of the U to prevent gas
from seeping back into the bathroom. The gas is then vented through a pipe
in the roof.)
Despite its usefulness, the new technology was adopted only slowly by Americans. In 1890 only
24 percent of American dwellings had running water. As late as 1897, over
90 percent of the families in tenements had no baths and had to wash in hallway
sinks or courtyard hydrants. By 1920, 80 percent of American houses, particularly those in rural areas,
still lacked indoor flush toilets. The reason was simple: indoor plumbing
was expensive and depended on the availability of water and sewer systems.
Adding indoor plumbing increased the price of a new house by 20 percent.
Advertisers did their best to increase demand. They skillfully used the findings
of science to advocate new standards of cleanliness or "hygiene," as it was called, which they associated with upper-class principles of respectability and decorum. Bathing and washing one's hands were touted as symbols of upper-class refinement.
Indoor plumbing not only reinforced higher standards for personal hygiene;
it also enmeshed the homeowner in a web of local and state regulations. As sewage and water systems expanded to cover larger constituencies,
political control moved from local to state and sometimes national arenas.
Once largely independent, the homeowner now had to deal with water and power
companies that often functioned regionally.
The adoption of strict sanitation systems and the use of indoor plumbing
did achieve their intended result: they dramatically reduced the spread of
disease. But the advances had unintended consequences. Indoor plumbing encouraged
the phenomenal waste of water. A single faulty toilet could easily leak a hundred gallons
of water a day. Not until the 1990s with the development of new low-water-usage
toilets, which could save between 18,000 and 26,400 gallons of water a year,
would new standards be established to reduce the use of water, an increasingly precious natural