Reflections From The Past
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
When Plumbers Had To Make Their Own MaterialsThe 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
Journeymen Received $2 A Day & Thought That Was Big MoneyTime 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
The Endless Saga Of Incorrect Selling PricesPM 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
"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 $3.33
The Endless Saga Of Ruinous Job BidsLikewise, 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 x
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