Let's Appreciate Modern Plumbing
Updated: Jul 11, 2019
Some old-timers among us may recall growing up without running water and indoor toilets, especially if they lived in rural America. Although we take modern plumbing for granted, it hasn’t been around very long.
Only about 5% of the American population had running water at the close of the Civil War. By the end of that century the percentage rose to about one out of four. A large measure of credit goes to one of the great unsung heroes of American history, though most people haven’t heard of him. A sanitary engineer from New York by the name of George E. Waring, Jr. wrote numerous articles and books advocating better sanitation and describing ways to provide it. A book he published in 1884, The Sanitary Drainage of Houses and Towns, was especially influential.
One of Waring’s great achievements was to calculate proper venting of plumbing fixtures, specifying how large vent pipes needed to be and how far apart they should be spaced for different applications. Flush toilets had been around for ages, but without proper vent outlets people didn’t want to have a toilet indoors because it would stink up the house. Thanks to Waring and his followers, by the end of the 19th Century about 24% American homes would have indoor plumbing.
That still left three-quarters of our population without. Progress was steady but slow. Prior to the 1920s, most Americans tended to bathe no more than once a week. A tradition arose of the “Saturday Night Bath,” with numerous family members sharing bathwater that had been heated on a stove. Around that time a campaign arose by plumbing manufacturers to promote “A Bath A Day,” which of course also served to promote their products.
By the 1930s just about all people living in urban areas had access to running water and indoor toilets, but many rural areas didn’t acquire the means until after World War II. There are people still alive today who grew up with outhouses and stove-top washtubs for bathing. Indoor plumbing progress tended to go hand-in-hand with electrification, because electricity was needed to operate the pumps that provided water to homes.
The growth of plumbing in America was phenomenal during this era. 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.
We are lucky. According to the World Health Organization, 32% of the world’s population, some 2.4 billion people, lack adequate sanitation facilities and 750 million people do not have access to clean drinking water. Some 3.1 million people die each year from water-borne diseases related to poor sanitation, most of them children under five years old.
A group called the World Plumbing Council has set aside March 11 each year as “World Plumbing Day.” Visit www.worldplumbingday.org for more information.
And let’s count our blessings to live in a land where virtually everyone is able to enjoy the wonders of modern plumbing.