This was precisely the challenge facing your ancient forebears. The archaeological record gives us an inkling of their ingenuity. Artifacts that have survived the onslaught of time tell of regal toilets and bathrooms, along with aqueducts and sewers to make life bearable for populations in advanced civilizations of antiquity.
Over the years I have collected an entire file cabinet drawer full of material on the history of plumbing. To report it all would require more pages than we publish in the course of a year. Here, there’s only room for a sweeping chronological look at some of the high points in the history of plumbing engineering.
Earliest Evidence of PlumbingThe earliest agricultural societies go back 10,000 years. They settled along the banks of rivers, which simultaneously served as a source of fresh water and sewer. As long as populations remained small and isolated, and as long as they took their drinking water upstream, this situation was tolerable. As populations grew, it became ever less so. Our earliest ancestors probably knew nothing about the health consequences of poor sanitation. But stench and the human instinct to recoil from waste no doubt led them to devise ways to remove it from their presence.
Traces of primitive drains and cess pits date back as far as 6000 B.C. Some of the earliest findings come from excavations in the Indus Valley of what is now Pakistan, where buildings from the ancient cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa were found with latrines and drains beneath the floor.
Similar structures have been identified from about the same time some 1500 miles away in ancient Mesopotamia, often referred to as the cradle of western civilization. Earthenware pipe was made by joining bottomless ceramic pots end to end, and sealing them with bitumen, an early tar-like substance. Cess pits were similar in design to a modern septic tank. Deep shafts were dug in the earth, and lined with loosely packed gravel and broken pottery. Solid waste gathered in the pit, while urine was allowed to seep through to the earth.
The earliest identifiable flushing toilets have been found in the ruins of the palace of King Minos on the island of Crete, circa 1500 B.C. Rain water or water from cisterns traveled though conduits built into the wall to flush away the waste from a master bathroom presumably belonging to the monarch, as well as several other toilets located within palace walls.
Ruins of homes in ancient Egypt display small private, detached rooms presumably used as privies. Waste apparently was carried away by water running through man-made channels from nearby rivers.
Once they had mastered the first priority of waste elimination, early plumbing engineers turned their attention to supplying convenient fresh water for drinking and bathing. The earliest aqueducts seem to have sprung from lessons learned in irrigation and canal building. The ancient Egyptians grew crops with water imported from the Nile River. Mesopotamian engineers, almost from the beginning of their remarkable 26-century civilization, built and maintained canals for both irrigation and to control regular flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
For pure water, the Egyptians depended on wells. The famous “Well of Joseph” near the Pyramids of Gizeh required workers to dig through 300 feet of solid rock. As in most primitive societies, such amazing feats were made possible by a virtually inexhaustible supply of slave labor.
In Mesopotamia, the renowned “Hanging Gardens” of Babylon was an engineering feat so remarkable that the ancient Greeks deemed it one of the “Seven Wonders of the World.” Trees and plants grew atop terraced walls and platforms that stretched as high as 350 feet in the desert climate. Water was believed raised from the river by a series of “shatufs,” or clever water wheels that revolved by the force of current. Buckets on a wheel were filled and set in motion by the stream. As a bucket got to the top of its spin, water fell out into a trough, which dispersed it where needed.
Plumbing for the MassesThe earliest remnants of plumbing belonged to kings and queens. Comparatively little is known about the lot of commoners in those ancient societies. Their dwellings tended to be built of flimsy materials that left little archaeological evidence, and it’s fair to deduce that the benefits of sanitary plumbing largely escaped them as well.
It was left to the classical Greek and Roman civilizations to bring a degree of sanitation to the masses, or at least the upper middle classes. Excavations at Olynthus in northern Greece, destroyed by Philip of Macedon in 432 B.C., attest to tiled bathrooms and self-draining tubs. Their underground piping has disappeared, suggesting it was constructed of primitive clay and straw. However, one uncovered tub was repaired with lead clamps, hinting that Greek plumbers had begun at least toying with this new material. Bathing in ancient Greece was related more to quackery than sanitation. Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine,” advocated cold water baths as a cure for almost any ill. Using hot water was considered effeminate, which was fine with milady, as evidenced by portable earthenware tubs for warm water soaking.
Many houses in ancient Greece were equipped with closets or latrines that drained into a sewer beneath the street. They seemed to have been flushed by waste water, and some of the sewers were fitted with ventilating shafts.
The Greeks were careful to safeguard their water supplies against enemy attacks. Aqueducts generally were laid underground up to a depth of 60 feet. Water supplies were directed to storage cisterns that fed into a multitude of street fountains, some of which are still in use today.
The Roman EmpireNo society of old advanced plumbing technology as much as the Roman Empire. As long ago as 800 B.C. the Romans built enormous sewers to drain waste from the city. The Cloaca Maxima was Imperial Rome’s main drainage trunk. Amazingly, it remains in use today as part of modern Rome’s drainage system. Public lavatories date back just as far, with water constantly running beneath the latrines to wash the waste into Rome’s sewer system.
A little later came their great aqueducts that still stand in parts of Italy, France and Spain. Some were still in use until recent times. They are among the most imposing Roman engineering achievements, bringing water from mountain streams as far as 50 miles away, sometimes channeling underground, sometimes rising on piers. I recently watched a series about the Roman Empire on The Learning Channel, which reported that the volume of water transported to Rome back in imperial times was not surpassed by that city until the 1950s.
Just as impressive was the infrastructure built to distribute that water to different neighborhoods within the city. The Romans had an ingenious device called a “water castle” that took water in bulk, and through a revolving interior diverted it to channels branching off in various directions. Frequently the water would be stored in water towers, which provided pressure for further distribution. Water wheels were commonly used to raise water on high.
Lead was the mainstay of Roman piping materials, but they also made use of bronze, tile and wooden pipes. Water cocks and taps, along with sophisticated valving, helped them regulate the flow of water.
Luxurious indoor bathrooms have been found in the homes of upper-crust Romans predating the Empire’s famed public baths. In the ruins of Pompeii, destroyed by Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., have been found private homes with entire submerged rooms that served as baths, or perhaps more accurately described as indoor pools. Marble steps led down from the concrete floor of the main house. Walls were marble-lined, and in a hollow space under the floor, a fire burned. The heat passed up through hollow terra cotta tiles to keep both air and water a comfortable temperature.
Also discovered in the Pompeii ruins were ancient water spigots and water closets flushed by water from a cistern. Included are metal hinges that archaeologists believe attached to wooden toilet seats that have since deteriorated. Some homes in Pompeii had as many as 30 water taps.
The average citizens of ancient Rome had to content themselves with public toilets and baths. To guard against the riff-raff tapping into private water supplies, water pipes leading from the distribution lines were inscribed with the names of the customer and the plumber—along with that of the emperor and sometimes a local water supply official. Some historians have noted that many of the plumbers so inscribed had female names, leading to the conclusion that females participated in Rome’s plumbing trade or at least owned companies that installed plumbing.
The famous public baths of Rome came into being during its peak of imperial majesty in the century before the time of Christ. By the 4th Century A.D. there were 11 public baths in the city, including one that could accommodate 3000 bathers. These complexes were marvels of plumbing engineering. Millions of gallons of water flowed in and out daily to keep the water fresh. Coal- and wood-fired furnaces provided an array of temperatures to different pools to satisfy individual choices.
At first, Roman men and women had their separate public baths. As time passed mixed nude bathing became the norm, albeit with “eyes forward” cultural mores. By the time of Rome’s collapse in the 5th century A.D., the baths had devolved into little more than brothels. This debauchery mirrored the general descent into decadence that historians associate with the Empire’s decline.
The Dark AgesFrom this point on, the history of plumbing took a break that lasted about a millennium and a half. Rome was conquered piecemeal by a series of nomadic barbarians who tended not to stay in one place long enough to appreciate the need for sanitary plumbing.
This was also a time of Christianity’s spread, and the early Christians showed a peculiar aversion to cleanliness. Partly, this may have been a backlash against the sinful bath houses of their Roman tormenters. St. Augustine and other early Christian theologians looked down upon activities that pampered the body when in their world view the sole purpose of life was to prepare the soul for eternity. One 4th Century religious tract cites a pilgrim to Jerusalem gushing with pride that she had not washed her face in 18 years so as not to disturb the holy water of her baptism.
Many of you who have spent time in Europe no doubt have visited some of the imposing medieval castles that dot its landscape. You may have taken note of the little anterooms that served as privies, with openings to the outside through which human waste was deposited in the surrounding moat. One can appreciate how the foul content might have made many foes think twice about trying to breach those narrow waterways.
Imagine the stench endured by medieval kings and queens and their minions on hot summer days! History is filled with examples of regals succumbing at an early age to water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery. If this was the lot of kings and queens, think of how miserable life must have been for the peasants.
In their captivating book, The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, an Englishman’s World (Little, Brown and Company, 1999), English authors Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger had this to say about that: “If the late twentieth century is scented with gasoline vapour and exhaust fumes, the year 1000 was perfumed with sh-- … requiring the human nose of the year 1000 to function as a considerably less prissy organ than ours today.”
Occasionally the architect of a monastery or castle would have the foresight to situate the facility above a stream. This would provide a convenient supply of running water and enable privies to be built above. This is what passed for state-of-art plumbing design in the Western world for about 15 centuries following the fall of Rome.
Science and the arts began to flourish again with the onset of the Italian Renaissance starting in the 15th century. Plumbing, however, still would have to wait several hundred more years for its glory days.
As the Industrial Revolution unfolded in Europe and America, cities became overcrowded, unsanitary hellholes. The English colloquial term for a privy, “loo,” supposedly arose from a mispronunciation of the French expression, gardez l’eau (“watch out for the water”), which was the customary warning of tenement dwellers as they emptied their chamber pots on the streets outside.
From the Renaissance through most of the 19th century, cholera and dysentery epidemics were routine on both sides of the Atlantic, nobody having a clue as to their cause or prevention. Many public officials censored reports of these outbreaks, thinking it bad for business and their political reputations. In American cities during the first half of the last century, half of all children died before age five. By 1859, London’s population had swelled to 3 million, and the Thames River was an open sewer. Parliament, which sits on its banks, took to saturating its window blinds with lime chloride and other disinfectants to subdue the odor, but it was so repulsive during that year’s hot summer that the MPs finally decided to suspend operations for a time.
Plumbing Comes Alive—a LittleIn 1652 the first waterworks was built in Boston, using underground pipes made from hollowed out logs. The system was intended for fighting the constant fires that threatened the almost entirely wooden settlement. Firefighters would simply punch a hole in these primitive water mains and plug them up when finished—hence, the term “fireplug.” By the early 1700s, New York City had its own wooden pipe water supply system, with fresh water sold at pumps or hydrants. However, most early waterworks could not keep up with the needs of our nation’s burgeoning and expanding population, at least not until the early 1800s when newfangled steam power led to pumps that distributed water far more efficiently than water wheels.
Home and building sanitation still had a long way to go, however. Outhouses would remain the bathroom standard until well into the latter half of the 19th century. Also, America did not have a culture of cleanliness. Until the 20th century, people rarely bathed. It wasn’t until Pasteur’s germ theory of disease gained widespread acceptance in the latter part of the century that health authorities campaigned to upgrade hygiene and sanitation.
However, indoor plumbing long had captured the imagination of isolated inventors and designers. In 1829, Boston’s Tremont Hotel became the first known American building with indoor plumbing, using water drawn from a rooftop metal storage tank fed by the newly invented steam pump.
Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, tinkerers came up with contraptions that could be called flush toilets, and hundreds of patents were issued for these devices in Britain and America. From time to time an intrepid homeowner would attempt to surpass the Joneses by acquiring one of those primitive toilets and moving his outhouse indoors. But these early attempts at modern plumbing were more foolish than innovative. Closets of the era were unsanitary Rube Goldberg contraptions made of poorly fitting metal and wooden parts. They contained ledges and crevices that tended to collect waste. They stunk to high heaven, and most failed to operate as envisioned because of shortcomings in system design as a whole. Their main benefit was to discourage house guests.
Early American plumbers were missing some key ingredients of an effective system, such as trapping and venting. Keep in mind that most plumbers of the era fabricated their own pipe and virtually everything else by hand. By about mid-19th century, the role of trap seals in eliminating odor had become self-evident to many, and they grasped general principles of venting as well. However, no guidelines existed to specify pipe sizes, flow rates and vent placement. Everything had to be learned by trial and error, more often the latter.
One problem seems to have been that there was no plumbing trade per se to pass along such knowledge. Prior to the 1890s, the U.S. Commerce Dept. lumped plumbers together with gas fitters and other metal working categories. The engineering community likewise tended to ignore this unglamorous specialty.
Plumbing Comes of AgeThings began to change in 1857 when engineer Julius Adams was commissioned to design a sewer system for Brooklyn. Working from scratch, Adams developed guidelines and designs for proportioning sewers to population needs, and most important, he published the results. In 1876 the great sanitary engineer Col. George E. Waring, Jr. published his landmark book, The Sanitary Drainage of Houses and Towns, which sparked many municipal reforms.
Even though Chicago had a workable sewer system, in 1885 a massive four-day rainstorm caused sewage to flush far enough into Lake Michigan to invade the city’s water intake cribs located several miles offshore. An estimated 75,000 people perished from the resulting contamination, about a quarter of the growing city’s population after its devastating fire of 1871. This caused city leaders to commission one of the country’s most stunning civil engineering feats, reversing the flow of the Chicago River so that it would no longer empty into the lake. It also etched a costly but indelible message in the public consciousness of the importance of safe drinking water.
Other water-borne catastrophes would break out from time to time, most notably the infamous dysentery outbreak at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, traced to a cross-connection in a hotel kitchen. But as the 20th century picked up steam, these incidents became fewer in number and severity and, like airline accidents, increasingly attributable to human error rather than flaws in design or materials. The modern history of plumbing is best summed up by words once written by the great medical researcher, the late Dr. Lewis Thomas, in the Spring 1984 edition of Foreign Affairs.
“There is no question that our health has improved spectacularly in the past century … One thing seems certain: it did not happen because of medicine, or medical science, or even the presence of doctors.
“Much of the credit should go to the plumbers and engineers of the Western world. The contamination of drinking water by human feces was at one time the greatest cause of human disease and death for us; it remains so, along with starvation and malaria, for the Third World. Typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery were the chief threats to survival in the early years of the nineteenth century in New York City, and when the plumbers and sanitary engineers had done their work in the construction of our cities, these diseases began to vanish. Today, cholera is unheard of in this country, but it would surely reappear if we went back to the old-fashioned ways of finding water to drink.”