The “Very Not Boring” History of  Plumbing

Visiting the bathroom is so much a part of your daily routine, you probably don’t give it much thought. Brushing your teeth, using the toilet, washing your hands and taking a shower or bath are almost second nature. In fact, people use the bathroom an average of six or seven times a day. During those moments, unless you’re really bored or naturally inquisitive, you’re probably not paying attention to how toilets work or how much water it takes for waste to make its way through the plumbing and sewage system. 

When you stop to think about it, though, modern plumbing is nothing short of a miracle: With a simple turn of a knob or press of a lever, germs from your hands and body are sent down the drain, or your body’s wastes are flushed away, leaving you and your bathroom clean and healthy. Modern plumbing advances have long been credited with boosting human hygiene and eliminating contamination and disease

The developments that led to the modern plumbing system haven’t always been effective or simple. It’s taken thousands of years to innovate, refine, and perfect the process, and improvements are still being made. Here’s a look at the history of plumbing and how this complicated system has gotten to where it is today. 

Prehistoric Plumbing

4000-3000 B.C. – First water pipes

Many historians credit the town of Mohenjo-Daro, in modern-day Pakistan and India, as being the birthplace of sewers around 3500 B.C. The Indus River Valley Civilization, also called the Harappan Civilization, was known for many other innovations, as well, such as a system of standard weights and measures, and the production of metals such as copper, bronze, and tin. 

In this area, individual homes drew water from wells through masonry conduits. Wastewater was sent from the houses to covered drains that lined the main streets. Historians believe that cleanliness important to this civilization, because even the smallest houses were connected to the public drainage system. 

2500 B.C. – First copper pipes

The Egyptians developed early piping systems, having devised techniques to create copper alloys. Their smiths created and used copper tools and pipes for their irrigation systems to control water flowing from the Nile River, which flooded their crops when it ran too high, and left their fields parched when it ran too low. 

In 1994, archaeologists excavating the remains of a pyramid’s funerary complex discovered a copper plumbing and drainage system. The pyramid itself was estimated to be about 4,500 years old, dating back to around 2600-2500 B.C. Egyptians believed that the dead enjoyed the same luxuries as the living, which explains the plumbing. 

2000-1,000 B.C. – First drainage and sewage systems

Around 1700-1500 B.C., ancient engineers took advantage of the steep grade of the land on the Greek island of Crete to create a drainage system with lavatories, sinks, and manholes. The system consisted of terra cotta pipes with perfect joint sockets, and the pipes were tapered to prevent sediment from building up. It was the most advanced drainage system of its time. 

Inside a queen’s bathroom from the time, archaeologists discovered a 5-foot-long bathtub that apparently was filled and drained by hand. The water was emptied into a cavity in the floor and, eventually, into the Kairatos River. Also, the bathroom contained what is believed to have been the world’s earliest “flushing” water closet, screened off by partitions and flushed by rainwater or water from cisterns. 

710 B.C. – The world’s first shower (kind of)

Though the first modern, mechanical shower wouldn’t be invented for thousands of years, the first practical showers were created for royalty. One of the earliest records comes from 710 B.C., when King Sargon II of Assyria directed his slaves to pour cold water over his head so he could bathe. 

500 BC-AD 476- Roman plumbing systems

During the time of the Roman Empire, roughly between 500 BC and AD 476, basic plumbing structures evolved into extensive systems that carried water and are regarded as models for the sinks, showers, tubs, toilets, and drains we use today. 

The Romans built aqueducts to transport water from the countryside into Rome. At one point, these aqueducts carried about 1.2 billion liters of freshwater 57 miles every day. After the water passed through the aqueducts, it was collected in tanks and distributed through tunnels of pipes to baths, fountains, and toilets. Wealthy Romans had hot and cold water, as well as a sewage system. Public bathrooms and water supplies would come later, as further advancements were made. 

A fatal misstep took place around 200 B.C. Roman engineers used lead piping to replace the system already in place. This dramatically improved the way that water was carried into the city. Unbeknownst to the Romans, however, lead piping contained toxins that got into the water, causing numerous deaths from lead poisoning. Lead levels rose to 10 times the amount that’s safe to consume. Children and pregnant women suffered the most, with a rise of infant deaths and miscarriages. Scholars still speculate on how much the resulting decline in the size and general health of Rome’s population might have contributed to the downfall of the empire. 

Precursors to Modern Plumbing

1596 – First flushing toilet (aka ‘The John’)

Fast-forward to 1596, about 500 years ago, when Sir John Harington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I, created the first flushing toilet. Harington, who had been banished from the royal court for telling risqué stories, built a home and created the first flushing toilet. After forgiving him, Elizabeth visited her godson and was so impressed by his invention that she ordered him to build one for her at Richmond Palace … and bathroomgoers ever since have invoked the inventor’s name in “the John.”

Mid-1600s – America’s first citywide water system

In 1652, the first city water system was built in Boston. Early settlers came together and formed a corporation to build the “Conduit,” a waterworks system for fighting fires as well as for domestic use. Most of the system’s vent piping was made of hollowed-out tree logs. 

1664 – First water main

King Louis XIV of France ordered construction of a cast-iron water main that extended 15 miles from a pumping station at Marly-on-Seine to the palace at Versailles. The main supplied water to the nearby town, and the piping served the palace gardens and fountains for more than 330 years. 

1767 – First mechanical shower

English stove and heater manufacturer William Feetham created and patented the world’s first mechanical shower, known as the “English Regency shower.” It consisted of a large basin, where the bather would stand, and an overhead water tank that pumped water upward from the basin via a hand pump. Once the water was collected overhead, the bather would pull a chain, and the water would be dumped onto them, eventually collecting back in the basin. The water then would be reused over and over for the duration of the shower. 

In the beginning, no one wanted anything to do with this contraption; the recycled water was dirty and cold. By this time, hot baths were common and seemed a lot better than “showering” in soiled water. It would take several years and major improvements — including the development of the water heater — before the shower became a standard household feature. 

1775 – Prototype for the modern toilet

Nearly 200 years after Sir John Harington invented the first flushing toilet, Scottish inventor Alexander Cumming received the first patent for a very similar — but improved — device, with a few crucial additions. Cumming improved on Harington’s toilet, which hadn’t been able refill on its own or eliminate the horrible smell. Cumming’s prototype featured a device that linked the water inlet valve to the flush mechanism, allowing the pan to be emptied and refilled. Below the bowl, Cumming installed an S-shaped pipe (or “S-trap”) that used water to create a seal, preventing sewer gas from entering the toilet. 

1795 – First water system for firefighters

When New York City’s population outgrew its plumbing system, it devised a new network of hollow logs to transport water for firefighting. The setup allowed firemen to access water by drilling through the walls of the “pipes,” then plug the hole after they were finished — giving birth to the term “fireplug.”

19th-Century Advances

1804-1810 – First cast-iron pipe system in America

Philadelphia became the first U.S. city to switch from wooden log pipes to a cast-iron system. The more durable plumbing system allowed users to regulate water pressure far better than with wooden piping.  

1815 – First water availability and safety measures
Philly was also the first U.S. city to approach a safe and readily available water supply as a municipal governance issue. The Fairmount Water Works system replaced its inefficient steam engine system with a dam and water wheels across the Schuylkill River. The water was piped directly to the businesses and homes of paying customers, and free water was provided via fire hydrants to anyone with a bucket. 

1829 – First hotel with plumbing

The Tremont Hotel of Boston became the first hotel of its kind to offer indoor plumbing for guests. The Tremont, designed by architect Isaiah Rogers, is considered the first modern hotel in the United States. In addition to featuring indoor toilets and running water, it offered free soap for guests to use at their convenience. 

1833 – First plumbing in the White House

It’s odd, but true: A fancy hotel installed plumbing before the White House did. Until Andrew Jackson’s presidency, water was pumped to the White House from a well at the neighboring Treasury Building. Plumbing wasn’t introduced at the presidential home until 1833 — and then, it was only available on the main floor. The second floor wouldn’t see plumbing until 20 years later, during the presidency of Franklin Pierce.

1835-1842 – First municipal reservoir

In 1835, New York began building its first aqueduct and reservoir system for midtown Manhattan, using water from the Croton River. When put into service in 1842, the system delivered city residents about 72 million gallons of fresh water a day. 

1848 – National Public Health Act

England passed the National Public Health Act — which included notes on water health and safety and established a Central Board of Health — in response to several severe outbreaks of cholera. The act had its flaws, but served as a blueprint for later public safety acts. Recognized as one of the greatest milestones in public health history, it has been adopted and adapted by countries all over the world. 

1855 – First comprehensive sewer system in America

In the mid-1800s, Chicago completed construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal and reversed the flow of the Chicago River, two massive plumbing feats that helped transform the city into a national trade hub. During this same period, though, the burgeoning city also lost thousands of lives to multiple cholera, typhoid, and dysentery outbreaks. 

To eliminate the swampy conditions that kept making its citizens sick, city engineers laid sewer lines above the thoroughfares and covered them with dirt, elevating the streets by as much as 8 feet and literally raising the city out of the muck. By 1855, Chicago had built America’s first citywide sewer system.

1857 – First commercially available toilet paper

American inventor Joseph Gayetty began selling “medicated paper” made of hemp and aloe. He was so proud of his invention that each sheet carried a watermark of his name. The toilet paper was sold in packages of flat sheets and advertised as “the greatest necessity of the age!”  

The recent phenomenon of people hoarding toilet paper in anticipation of the coronavirus quarantine shows how precious a staple it has become around the world.

1870s – First ceramic flushing toilet — and water heaters

British pottery manufacturer Thomas William Twyford invented the single-piece ceramic toilet. His breakthrough came a few years after he took over the Twyford company from his recently deceased father, Thomas Twyford, himself a pioneer in sanitary hygiene.  

Around the same time, water heaters began to appear in smaller buildings, revolutionizing the American home with immediate improvements in cooking, cleaning, handwashing, and bathing.

1891 – The truth and myth of Thomas Crapper

Thomas Crapper was a successful plumber and sanitation engineer. But, contrary to popular myth, he did not create the flushing toilet — which long predates his arrival on the scene. Crapper has been falsely credited with the invention thanks to his work on toilets, but his contributions to bathroom history were still significant: In fact, he opened the world’s first bathroom showroom in 1870. 

Contemporary Developments

1930s – First standardized plumbing codes 

Before he became the nation’s 31st president, Herbert Hoover was one of the fathers of modern standardized plumbing codes for builders and plumbers, along with Dr. Roy B. Hunter. Hoover was an engineer and Secretary of Commerce in 1921, and Dr. Roy B. Hunter was head of the plumbing division of the National Bureau of Standards in the 1920s through the 1940s. The nation’s first plumbing code, named the “Hoover Code” in Hoover’s honor, was published in 1928. Dr. Hunter’s work is still referenced in U.S. plumbing codes used today. 

1950s – First non-metallic pipes 

Plastic piping was introduced in 1952 in the United States, in response to the shortage of metals after World War II. Three years later, the first polyvinyl chloride (PVC) water pipes were laid in the U.S. Most pipes for plumbing throughout the country today are made of PVC material, due to its relative stability and low cost. 

1978 –  First water conservation laws

California adopted a law stipulating that toilets may use no more than 3.5 gpf (gallons per flush). Previously, most toilets consumed at least 6 gpf. The densely populated, drought-prone state consumed about 2.9 trillion gallons of water per year for urban uses, according to a 2013 report, and toilet flushing accounted for between 28% and 40% of that total. 

1992 – U.S. Energy Policy Act

The United States Energy Policy Act reduced water-flow rates into plumbing fixtures. This act mandated the introduction of low-flush toilets and outlawed toilets that flush more than 1.6 gallons of water. 

2003 – First international standards

The International Code Council was formed to ensure a strictly enforced code and standard in all plumbing projects around the globe. The nonprofit council develops model codes and standards used worldwide to construct safe, sustainable, affordable and resilient structures.

2015 – Stricter conservation in California

California adopted one of the strictest water-saving standards in the country: No residential toilet in the state can flush more than 1.28 gallons of water at a time. Under this law, no urinal can use more than 0.125 gallons in a single flush flush, and kitchen faucets must use no more than 1.8 gallons of water a minute. 

Plumbing has evolved dramatically since the dawn of civilization. At one time, showering and using a toilet were luxuries that took lots of time and effort. Now you can walk just a few feet to your bathroom to do both in less than 30 minutes. 

Hygiene and sanitation services are necessities we often take for granted. But the next time you fill a cup with drinking water or flush the toilet, think of how far our bathroom fixtures and sewers have come: From a simple hole in the ground, we’ve developed elaborate citywide systems and sophisticated devices that make our lives healthier, easier, more comfortable, and much more pleasant.

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