PM Letters to the Editor - February 2001

Educated Guesses

Editor's Note: We received plenty of letters and emails concerning the mystery item Dan Dougan uncovered, which we pictured in our December Letters To The Editor. The consensus appears to be an early attempt at indoor plumbing, an elaborate spittoon or specialized drainage system.

What a very unique and interesting contraption. I've asked my 72-year-old father (who has been in the plumbing trade for more than 50 years) his opinion and even he is stumped! So we have taken the liberty to speculate on just what this thing might be. Let's look at the obvious clues:

1. Copper construction - for durability and corrosion resistance.

2. Connected to a sanitary drain.

3. Connected to the potable water system.

4. Found set in the main floor of this 100-plus-year-old house.

5. Hinged cover - it was intended to be opened, often.

6. It appears to have much "black build-up" inside the cover.

7. The water line connects at an extremely shallow angle - as opposed to perpendicular.

8. The vessel is mainly round in shape.

Have you ever looked inside an old copper drain line - like one that's been servicing a water closet? Did you notice the nasty "black build-up" in the pipe? Getting ahead of me? Indoor plumbing was just making inroads 100 years ago. Usually there was an outhouse nearby most homes. However, I would guess that most people didn't venture out at night. They used their chamber pots.

But, come daylight, those pots needed to be emptied. Carry them outside? Dump 'em on the ground? I think not. Simply carry those pots to the lid in the floor, empty their contents, open the water valve and woosh, the water stream emulsifies the solids, the centrifugal force keeps the particles moving and down the drain they go. The first indoor privy.

All the clues seem to point in this logical direction. I would be very interested to find out if our speculation is on target. Oh to cast my eyes on the actual artifact instead of pictures! Thanks for a great magazine. Keep it coming.

Charles Busch
Alford C. Busch Plumbing & Heating
Richmond, Mich.

On Friday night I was looking at this object in PM, and I couldn't come up with the answer. The next morning, while eating my Wheaties, it came to me. I grew up in Israel so I have plumbing influences and knowledge from the East and West. The contraption in this picture is - a toilet. It is very common in the East to install a toilet level with the floor as it is used in the crouching position. The lead pipe is the flushing mechanism, and the lid is to cover the opening when not in use. This contraption was probably not too sanitary and very smelly since it doesn't have a trap.

Chaim Cohen
C. Cohen Plumbing and Heating
Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Although I've never seen this contraption before, I'm going to take a logical guess. I would venture to say you have unearthed a homemade, primitive toilet - a chamber pot with running water. I base my hypothesis on the following reasons: 1) floor-mounted for squatting over; 2) domestic cold water supply to flush away waste; and 3) the large waste connection (for 1880s, that is). Two pieces of information are missing though. What room was it located in, and where was the cold water valve located to control flushing the fixture? If it was mounted above the floor, I would bet you a hoagie at Mia Casa's in Dunmore that the device is a "modern" chamber pot. Let me know!

Stephen B. Pendrak
Powerhouse Plumbing
Scranton, Pa.

Hats off to the plumbing professionals of 100 years ago for their innovation and inventiveness. The motto was, and still is, "to protect the health of the nation." This is done in part by removing waste and refuse from the modern American home. Faced with a turn-of-the-century waste problem, some long forgotten plumbing professional rose to the occasion with quite a unique solution.

Cuspidors served a useful purpose at the beginning of the century. But their regular emptying and cleaning could be rather distasteful for the modern 20th century lady.

Our unknown craftsmen either modified or made a replica of a cuspidor "spittoon," adding straps to support the main body under the floor allowing the top of the fixture to be flush with the finished floor. Our plumber also installed the 3/4-inch lead supply pipe on an angle to the bowl to provide a scouring action, the same as you get in the cuspidor of a dentist's chair. The 2-inch drain took care of the drainage of the fixture to the building's sanitary sewer.

The finishing touches of workmanship was the removable sliding lid to keep foreign objects out and possible odors in. The operating valve could have been located either in the basement or upstairs near the fixture.

Many thanks to Doug Dougan for sharing the pictures and history with us.

Trent Showalter
Draft Electric & Plumbing
Stuartsdraft, Va.

Have you ever seen a slop jar? It's a small ceramic bowl with a lid that looks just like the pictures of the copper vessel. They were kept under the bed in order to not have to go to the outhouse on a cold night. In the morning it was taken out and emptied. My mother told me that she and her family still used them before World War II here in Utah. From the pictures, it looks like the very first flushable one made.

Lindsay Fausett
Williams Plumbing & Heating Inc.
Ogden, Utah

I've never seen one like it, but my guess without knowing the physical size of the vessel would be that it was a spittoon hooked up in a convenient location for an older person who either chewed tobacco or had any other need for a spittoon, which was a very popular item in years gone by. How convenient - water fed and 2-inch waste (probably no air gap) to flush it out when necessary. Talk about necessity being the mother of invention. Please let us know what other opinions and ideas you receive.

Jim Ujazdowski
Jim's Plumbing
Greenville, Wis.

I can only guess, but I suspect this thing to be a self-cleaning spittoon. Perhaps Mr. Dougan can identify the room below which this gizmo was located. All I can say is, please make sure we all find out when you find out. Thanks for your wonderful magazine.

Randy Hilton
Ft. Worth, Texas

In response to the device Dan Dugan sent to you, it would be my opinion this device is a built-in spittoon.

Jerry Crain
J.L. Crain & Son Plumbing & Heating
Covington, Ind.

I've been involved with plumbing since 1946. I've never seen anything like this, and I've worked on some very old houses. I believe this old vessel is a spittoon. It must have had a valve somewhere to turn the water on to wash the vessel. Just a guess.

Ronald A. Moore
M&M Mechanical Contractors Inc.
Monroe, La.

I believe I can identify your "mystery contraption" as a spittoon. Believe it or not, many years ago that was an accepted part of our culture and a staple in many homes. I haven't seen or used one in years! Let me know if I am right.

William Archer Sr.
Wm. Archer & Sons Inc.
Old Bridge, N.J.

I believe the contraption is a waste receptor for an old ice box. The lid could be closed to stop odors as well as keep the water from splashing out when it was rinsed out by means of the water line you see attached. The 2-inch drain was then tied to the waste system.

I hope I am right with this. I am a fourth-generation plumbing contractor in Mamaroneck, New York. I have to give the credit to my dad who remembered what the contraption was. We are avid readers of PM. It is read front to back by both of us. Thanks for your great publication.

Scott McGuire
McGuire's Mechanical Contracting
Mamaroneck, N.Y.

I have a possible idea. I'm a third-generation master plumber and have an engineering background. I have gone through my grandfather's plumbing technical books dated from the 1920s. I cannot seem to find anything. However my best guess is this:

Obviously this is a hand-crafted item. It is shaped like a floor drain, has a removable cover, cold or hot water supply to it, and sits flush to the floor.

Question: This 100-year-old house - was it a farm house and did they slaughter chickens or turkeys? In what room did you find this device?

Best answer: This is a manual flushing floor drain. (I think Zurn Industries makes something like this.)

Use: Slaughter room for a farm house.

Who knows, I might be all washed up on this one. Good luck and let me know what you guys find.

Mike Tiberii, CIPE
Charlton, Mass.

God Bless Missy

Just a note to thank Dan Holohan for a terrific column in PM's December issue ("The World According To Missy"). I am self-employed and enjoy "going in" 90 percent of the time. I thank God for that quite often, for family, friends and helping to keep me sane during a very busy time of the year. His column made me step back, take a look and think. Thanks so much for the story, and God bless Missy.

Jim Trach Jr.
Trach Plumbing & Heating
Nazareth, Pa.

I really enjoyed Dan's December column. I wish the world could look at life the way Missy does, too. We'd all be much better off.

Dave Anderson
TLA Inc.
Richmond, Va.

Dan, thank you for sharing your story about Missy with us. I took it home last night and read it to my wife and three children. You could have heard a pin drop as I was reading, and I did my best to keep tears from running down my face. Your story made us stop and think about what is truly important. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life sometimes we miss the point.

Jim Young
Riddleberger Bros. Inc.
Mt. Crawford, Va.

Be A Coach

I enjoyed Frank Blau's column about the frustrated tech ("A Dear John Letter," December 2000). While the original column was printed three years ago, it reads as if the tech is in my area right now.

I would have liked to have had a chat with him to help him work through this step by step. I've started doing some part-time consulting to help guys in similar situations. They basically need a coach.

It's been rewarding to see the "lights go on" - profit goes up, confidence increases and stress levels go down. Just knowing there is someone who has done it and who you can go to if needed, is enough to get them walking in the right direction.

Joe Ranck
Robert H. Ranck Inc.
Lancaster, Pa.