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History of Plumbing

Reflections From The Past

July 12, 2000
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This is the 7th annual installment of our "History of Plumbing" series. Coverage thus far has dealt with a wide variety of cultural and technical subjects. Though not in chronological order, the articles have taken us from the ancient civilizations that offer up the earliest plumbing artifacts (Babylonia, Crete, Jerusalem, etc.), through the glory days of the Roman Empire, past the subsequent Dark Ages and into the Western renaissance of civilization these past 500 years.

The series further has explored the evolution of the plumbing craft in America from colonial days to modern times. We have taken a close-up look at plumbing in the White House and inside the space shuttle. We ran a stomach-turning review of the plagues and epidemics that have arisen in the absence of good sanitation, along with some tongue-in-cheek analyses of Thomas Crapper and his legacy. In our 1990 and 1991 installments, we expanded coverage to include the history of hydronic heating, plumbing's sibling craft.

Now, allow me a moment to tell you something of my craft.

People commonly misconstrue the work of a writer/historian. Most perceive it as a matter of compiling information. In fact, the trickiest part of writing history or any other researched article is deciding what to leave out.

In researching the six previous installments of "History of Plumbing," the PM staff has come across quite a few interesting tidbits that just didn't fit into any neat story structure. This article, titled "Reflections From The Past," features several vignettes from this category gleaned from American plumbing industry archives in which members of the trade reflect upon their work or industry affairs.

Part 7 also will include a look at the advertising habits of contractors in the old days. Additionally, this issue contains a second installment of "Greatest Plumbing Inventions."

When Plumbers Had To Make Their Own Materials

The archives of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Information Bureau in Chicago contain some fascinating clippings from old trade magazines and newspapers. One of the most engrossing comes from an 1890 edition of Domestic Engineering, 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 É 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 É

"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 É"

"Whatever you undertake to do, do it well É 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."

Journeymen Received $2 A Day & Thought That Was Big Money

Time marches on. Some in the apprentice class of 1889 would go on to become old-timers themselves and reminisce about their "good old days." In the Sept. 15, 1931, edition of Sanitary and Heating Age, one of the contemporaries, William J. Culbert, of Jersey City, N.J., gave this account of what it was like to be a plumber 40 years earlier.

"At that time, plumbers did not need a license nor permits to operate, neither were the men unionized. Journeymen received $2 a day and thought that was big money.

"Steam and hot water systems were not on the market É Folks heated their homes with pot-bellied stoves or hot-air furnaces and most of this work was handled by sheet metal workers. Manufacturers of steam and hot water systems have done much for the plumber from a dollar and cents standpoint. Before these products came on the market, the plumber made little money in connection with heating repairs and installations. Today, plumbers in this country do millions of dollars yearly in such work.

"Water pressure was bad in the old days, not only in New York but in other cities, and sometimes people could not get water above the street floor. In many houses, hand or gas pumps were installed to remedy this, these pumps being connected to a large, lead-lined tank under the roof. This tank was supported on a drop ceiling and was placed under the roof to prevent the water from freezing in winter.

"Gas pressure was also poor in those days. Sometimes gas on the top floor went out, endangering lives of householders. There was plenty of water in the gas too, and often the rise and fall of a gas flame was so marked that it was difficult to read. Plumbers got the water out of the pipes by removing the caps from the drop-lights and letting the water run down. The members of our craft did much gas fitting work É and we were instructed to run pipes with some continuous fall to the riser, so that the watery vapor, when condensed, would run back into the meter and not into the fixtures. The old-timers also set gas meters, work which is now handled mostly by the gas companies É

"There was much lead work in those days, and few journeymen today can swing a soldering iron the way the old-timers used to do. We made our own lead traps from molds in the shop and also lined high tanks with sheet lead until the demand became so great that these units were made in a factory. Most plumbing fixtures were made of cast iron and some were enameled, but the enamel was so poor that it peeled off quickly and the surface became rust-pitted. Bathtubs were copper lined and once or twice we pulled one out that was lined with lead.

"There were plenty of outhouses around New York even after 1900, but the better homes possessed water closets in the 1880s and 1890s. There were two general types of water closets at that time - the pan closet and the Philadelphia hopper. The pan closet operated with a lever at the side, which released water from a pan above the bowl.

"Kitchen sinks were made of slate or cast iron with wooden drain boards. Coal stoves and not gas ranges were popular with housewives, and plumbers sold hundreds of coal burners. Gas logs, gas water heaters, gas ranges and laundry irons operating from gas outlets were usually hooked up to separate meters from that which furnished illumination for the home.

"No plumber thought of merchandising gas appliances or any other [gas] product. Even the gas companies made no attempt to push appliances and did business from side street offices. No one ever heard of cooperation between the utilities and the plumbers then.

"There was much saloon plumbing, too, and this business paid well. These installations had to do mostly with the siphon system connecting the kegs in the cellar with the bar."

Mr. Culbert also complained to the interviewer that inspection was lax in the old days, and the "gyps" would take shortcuts such as running gas pipes through chimney flues, and now and then fill up a gas pipe with water to tighten up the joints via rust. He complained about the lack of codes to protect the public but recalled that by around the late 1880s, a plumber was obliged to post a bond of $1,000 to protect the city on street excavations.

The Endless Saga Of Incorrect Selling Prices

PM columnist Frank Blau has been working tirelessly ever since the mid-1980s putting on his "Business of Contracting" seminars, trying to teach PHC contractors the basics of business math. The centerpiece of his efforts has been to correct a fundamental error made by up to 90 percent of all people in the business - failure to accurately compute selling price and profit. Most contractors figure profit as a percentage of their costs, instead of as a percentage of selling price.

Alas, this lack of business knowledge has been a plague on the industry ever since its earliest days. In 1914 the National Association of Master Steam and Hot Water Fitters (now MCAA) and National Association of Master Plumbers (now NAPHCC) jointly produced a pamphlet instructing the trade on the correct way to calculate selling prices. Key excerpts:

"We find that some of our members have been figuring their SELLING PRICE [original caps] as follows:

    Cost of article..............................$10 Overhead charges........................20% Profit..........................................20% .................................................40%

"40 percent equals $4, which added to the COST, $10, equals $14, their SELLING PRICE, from which one may see that such process is absolutely wrong, as it would result in a bare profit of only $0.67, whereas the original intent of the seller was to secure a PROFIT of $3.33É

"If your OVERHEAD CHARGES amount to 10 percent and you desire a PROFIT of 10 percent, divide the COST of the article by 80 and multiply by 100 to find SELLING PRICE."

Anyone who has attended a Blau seminar or read his "Business of Contracting" series in PM will recognize this 78-year-old message as precisely the same math lesson Frank gives. (In deference to a bit of inflation since then, he uses hypothetical direct job costs of $1,000 instead of $10.)

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

The Endless Saga Of Ruinous Job Bids

Likewise, ignorance of simple business math led to numerous jobs bid below cost. An article in the Feb. 1, 1889, edition of The Plumbers Trade Journal decried in colorful language, "The alarming death rate of many of our public buildings belonging to Uncle Sam calls out for thorough investigation by Congress, which should not be delayed, ere a fearful epidemic breaks out in our public sepulchres xÉ

"Why is all this? É We can answer it to the letter, and our answer is, simply because honorable and intelligent master plumbers are not employed and allowed a liberal sum for the proper kind of work. Plumbing work above all other requirements in a building needs the most liberal consideration, while on the other hand it is screwed down to the lowest possible pitch, with no allowance for contingencies, and to overcome which the plumber is forced many times to slight his work on the plea that it was not 'specified' or 'called for,'" stated the unidentified writer.

This article singled out a job the year before to replace the drainage in the Treasury building in Washington. There were at least eight estimates ranging from the winning bid of $7,400 to a high of $15,000. The article charged that the contractor failed to remove an old brick drain and the earth beneath that was "impregnated with foul secretion and leakages."

"They simply broke the crown of the arch of the old drain and laid a 6-inch pipe in lieu of the 12-inch, on the bottom of this filthy and reeking foul brick drain without removing any of the saturated brick or soil, within or under. My, my; what a beautiful subject to contemplate!" wrote the sarcastic author.

"We are informed there is very loud and frequent complaints of the odor that arises from the vicinity of this old brick drain," he added. "But so long as the Secretary or some high official does not get poisoned and die from sewer air, it is all right."

The same article goes on to describe another recent bid for plumbing in the new gun factory being built at the Washington Navy Yard with estimates ranging from $715 to $1,518. "One of the bidders informs us that his estimate for the material alone was more than the above lowest bid."

Their counterparts on the heating side fared no better. In an address to the first-ever convention of the National Association of Master Steam and Hot Water Fitters, Sept. 10, 1889, secretary George Reynolds declared, "It is a sin for any contractor to take an unreasonable profit, and it is just as great a sin for him to take a contract where he cannot make any money with a more than fair promise that he will lose, and his only reason for this being that he does not want his competitor to have the work.

"Many Master Fitters," he added, "do much harm through want of ability, experience or system in estimating the cost of work."

A Bath A Day Keeps Bolshevism Away!

Modern society regards as uncouth the person who doesn't wash and deodorize every day. Yet this is a custom of relatively recent vintage. As recently as the 1950s many working-class Americans still lived in cold water flats without a bathtub. 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.

As the first three decades of this century progressed, tubs came to be installed in virtually all new dwellings and retrofitted in many others. The trend was slowed by the Depression and World War II but resumed at a hastened pace during the era of postwar prosperity. Now, of course, the basic question asked by prospective home owners and renters is not whether the dwelling has bathing facilities, but "how many?"

Cultural acceptance of daily bathing was sparked in great measure by an annual "Bath a Day" campaign mounted by the plumbing industry to promote sales of bathtubs and related products. The campaign was originated in 1914 by the old Domestic Engineering magazine. A few years later it was adopted and expanded by the Trade Extension Bureau, forerunner of today's Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Information Bureau, which came into existence in 1919. The soap industry soon joined in with an allied effort of extensive consumer promotion.

"Bath a Day" was sustained throughout the 1920s with a variety of consumer promotions, quite successfully it seems. Consider this editorial from the New York World, Dec. 13, 1929:

"The time is soon coming, according to the computation of those attending the soap convention in Chicago, when every night will be Saturday night in the American home, and a bath every day will be taken as a matter of course by the whole American nation. Already, it appears, we consume 3 billion pounds of soap per annum, which would indicate a bath two or three times a week for everybody, and the total tends to rise É

"Much of the credit, it seems to us, will go to the manufacturers of bathroom fixtures. The strides they have made in the last 30 years are hardly to be described in prose. As late as the Spanish-American War, most Americans, if they had bathrooms at all, were provided with tubs made out of some shiny metal, probably tin, and with other fixtures of the same general pattern. Obtaining hot water was extremely difficult, involving as it did a deal of yelling to Sarah, down in the kitchen, to start the heater going, or else requiring the operation of a smelly heater in the bathroom itself É

"Now, however, all that is changed. In the big cities even the cheapest apartment has a bathroom that would put the best bathrooms 30 years ago to shame. The fixtures are porcelain, or of metal enameled in excellent imitation of porcelain; the hot water runs hot water; the floor is tiled; and so are the walls.

"And in the better apartments the bathroom begins to be exceedingly luxurious. Tubs sunk in the floors are by no means uncommon, deep enough to float in; the banality of dead white has been replaced by bold colors; the metal and stone are quite artistic. This nation will presently demand, as a minimum requirement in its bath, out-and-out voluptuousness. And this, it might be argued, is in itself a kind of civilization É

"People reach their highest development when a touch of luxury enters into their living, when they become aware of their personal dignity, and insist on it no matter what happens. Fastidiousness is the inevitable result of luxurious bathing, and it is rather pleasant, on the whole, to realize that the American people are requiring it."

The New York World writer was quite restrained in his enthusiasm compared with an unnamed contractor who penned an article published in Illinois Master Plumber magazine claiming that regular bathing was a useful antidote for Bolshevism! He reasoned that being clean would make the downtrodden feel better about themselves and less liable to rise up against authority.

"If we can spread the gospel of more baths and greater cleanliness," he wrote, "We will be getting nearer to Godliness and away from the unclean aetheism [sic] of the Bolshevik." He added, "Let our slogan be 'Banish Bolshevism By Bathtubs.'"

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