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The progress of a society may be judged by the way in which it disposes of its human waste material, and thus by the quality of its sewerage system (Mumford 1961, chap. 8). In the ancient world, the Greeks and Romans put great emphasis upon town planning. Roman cities were famed for their sewers, drains, aqueducts, paved streets, and roads. Domestic plumbing ranged from marble bathrooms with under-floor heating and indoor toilets in upmarket villas to basic latrine provision for the Roman army, as found, for example, alongside Hadrians Wall in northern Britain (Greed 2003). Following the decline of the Roman Empire, waste disposal returned to more primitive methods. Most ordinary people used an outdoor privy, while nobles often had an indoor toilet built out from the wall of their castle, hanging over the moat. In the Christian West during the Middle Ages, indoor plumbing, or for that matter personal hygiene and privacy, were not highly esteemed marks of civilization or progress, although washing and bathing, and bathhouses, were given higher priority in the Muslim East (Bonneville 1997).

In urban areas, the emptying of chamber pots straight into the street, and the accumulation of piles of human waste, resulted in disease and an unpleasant urban environment. Night-soil men were often employed to collect excreta, which was spread on the fields as fertilizer. Although Sir John Harrington had developed an indoor flushing toilet for Queen Elizabeth I in 1596, it was not until the rise of mass industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century that domestic toilets were mass-produced in northern England. Flushing technology was improved through the efforts of inventive manufacturers such as John Shanks, George Jennings, Alexander Cummings, and Thomas Crapper in the United Kingdom (Reyburn 1969) and Thomas Maddocks, John Randall Mann, William Campbell, and Henry Demarest, among others, in the United States (Palmer 1973). Early toilet manufacturers were generally companies that had first made their name in the manufacture of china and earthenware. Such English companies as Minton, Twyford, and Doulton adapted their production processes to make porcelain toilet bowls and pans. Toilet design was based upon the sit rather than squat mode of excretion (which required nothing more than a hole in the ground). The sit approach required a specific and highly marketable consumer product, the pedestal toilet, along with all the plumbing fixtures, such as taps (faucets), cisterns, basins, and fittings that together made up the bathroom. Interestingly, urinals for men, although a common feature of public toilets, are not generally a feature of private domestic bathrooms. These artifacts were exported from Britain to the rest of the world as a sign of modernity and Western progress, and were rapidly adopted for fear of being seen as backward or dirty, in spite of the fact that the majority of the worlds population squats when eliminating waste, a position that is ergonomically more healthy and efficient.

Compartmentalization of production was marked by separate metal-manufacture companies specializing in lead piping, plumbing fixtures, and other nonporcelain components. Nowadays, international toilet companies such as Armitage Shanks, Ideal Standard, and Geberit have diversified to offer a wide range of toilet technologies and materials. Synthetic materials now predominate; piping is made of plastic and the porcelain is more likely to be polymer. Old and widely used lead piping has been condemned as a potential cause of poisoning. (Plumbing gets its name from plomb, the medieval word for lead, as plumbers were essentially lead workers.)

While in the past, mains drainage and indoor plumbing were a sign of modernity, today people want designer bathrooms, luxury fixtures, power showers, fitted kitchens, and the latest technology. There has been a restroom revolution in Asia in particular, with companies such as Toto producing complete prefabricated bathroom units for the Japanese housing market, all the components being made together. Colored polyester resins, modern plastics, and marble and granite composites feature strongly in these modern bathroom modules (Greed 2003). Likewise, modern automatic public toilets are fully integrated, prefabricated systems that often use stainless steel and pathogen-resistant polymer materials. However, user-end toilet innovation must be matched by provider-end infrastructural sewerage system provision. The functionality of domestic toilets is dependent on there being a working sewerage system to take away output. Alternatively, the output from a luxury bathroom, as is the case in some affluent areas in developing countries, might end up in a cesspool under the house for collection by traditional night-soil operatives. Alternatively, as in some parts of the Americas and Australasia, even upmarket private houses are not served by a municipal sewerage and drainage system, and depend upon their own cesspits, generators, and water tanks.

Both public and domestic toilet design is becoming increasingly technologically driven, with automatic flushes and sensor-controlled washing-and-drying facilities becoming commonplace. In parallel, environmental sustainability requirements to save water have resulted in a range of dual-flush cisterns, waterless urinals, and human-waste recycling innovations. High levels of toilet provision in every home, along with highly developed sewerage systems, are no longer necessarily seen as signs of progress and economic development. Such assumptions are now being questioned. Many parts of the world are not economically or environmentally in a position to build modern, expensive water and sewerage systems: It is not a high priority. Water is becoming an increasingly expensive and scarce resource; some see it as the new oil in terms of future geopolitical tensions. Far from being a sign of economic development, many see the emphasis upon water-based sewerage systems and flushing toilets as old fashioned, colonial, and unsustainable. Instead, new, more sustainable solutions are being developed, especially within prosperous advanced Asian countries that can afford such research. Such systems will incorporate the most modern technological and scientific advances in the fields of engineering, pathogen control, and urban governance (Chun 2002; Mara 2006).

SEE ALSO Civilization; Developing Countries; Development; Modernization; Planning; Public Health; Sanitation; Toilets; Urbanization; Water Resources


Bonneville, Françoise de. 1997. The Book of the Bath. London: Thames and Hudson.

Chun, Allen. 2002. Flushing in the Future: The Supermodern Japanese Toilet in a Changing Domestic Culture. Post Colonial Studies Journal (The Toilet Issue) 5 (2): 153170.

Greed, Clara. 2003. Inclusive Urban Design: Public Toilets. Oxford: Elsevier.

Kira, Alexander. 1976. The Bathroom. London: Penguin.

Mara, Duncan. 2006. Modern Engineering Interventions to Reduce the Transmission of Diseases Caused by Inadequate Domestic Water Supplies and Sanitation in Developing Countries. Building Services and Engineering Research and Technology 27 (2): 7584.

Mumford, Lewis. 1961. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. London: Penguin.

Palmer, Roy. 1973. The Water Closet: A New History. London: David and Charles, Newton Abbot.

Reyburn, Wallace. 1969. Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper. London: Macdonald.

Clara Greed

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PLUMBING. Plumbing is the system that supplies, distributes, uses, and removes water from a building. Among the components used in the system are pipes, fittings, sinks, basins, faucets, valves, drains, toilets, and tubs. In colonial America, water used for cleaning or cooking was typically brought into a building by bucket and the wastewater was later removed in the same way. Elimination, for the most part, tended to take place out-side in a privy or outhouse. Although there were rare isolated examples of indoor toilets and running water based on or using English and European technology, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that there were an appreciable number of plumbing installations. For many households they amounted to nothing more than a hand pump and kitchen sink. For a far smaller number it also might be hot and cold running water and what early on became known as the bathroom. During the 1840s and 1850s, the major elements of the bath were in place and consisted simply of a water closet or toilet and a "bathtub." Light washing still took place at the bedroom wash-stand with its basin, water pitcher, and slop jar or bucket. It was not until the 1860s that these items began to be replaced gradually by basins, faucets, and running water installed in the bathroom.

The Evolution of Bathroom Fixtures

Those who attempted to bring plumbing indoors faced technical as well as attitudinal challenges. Decisions on how wastewater was removed required as much concern as those made to ensure an adequate water supply. But equally vexing was the prevailing miasma theory of disease, which held that illnesses stemmed from "bad air" that was readily identifiable by its offensive odor. This led to a distrust of early indoor plumbing that tended to leak and a deadly fear of the sewer gas that accompanied the leaks. It is no wonder then that many individuals maintained a strong belief that elimination was best taken care of out of doors.

Of the components that were part of plumbing, the development of a reliable and trouble-free water closet posed the most problems. A number had been invented by the middle of the nineteenth century, but all had shortcomings. The most common complaints were that they were troublesome to flush and were easily clogged. Perhaps the most offensive of the lot was the pan water closet. It was so named for the waste-collecting sheet metal pan that was designed to close off and seal the bottom of the closet bowl. When the unit was flushed the pan tipped aside, opening the drain at the same time water rinsed the bowl and the pan. The operating mechanism was intricate and because of its location easily became fouled; it also required regular attention. The most serious deficiency common to nearly all toilets of the time was the poor seal they provided between the bathroom and the soil pipe that carried away waste.

The introduction of the first water-retaining traps or seals in the 1850s, and the common use of "U"-shaped traps in the 1870s, were major steps forward. The design of the trap ensured that enough water remained in it to effectively block the passage of sewer gas back through the plumbing fixtures. During the 1870s vent pipes were introduced. They not only carried sewer gas out of the system, but also broke the suction created by movement of liquid in the pipes and eliminated the possibility of siphoning water that sealed the traps.

One of the most important improvements was the development of the siphon toilet, patented in 1890. This greatly simplified yet highly efficient glazed earthenware toilet had no moving parts to get out of order and flushed perfectly every time. Its operation, a combination of a slight vacuum created by siphonic action and a large volume

of water, made it self-cleansing. Furthermore, the possibility of leaking sewer gas was eliminated by its interior design. Water that remained in it after flushing provided a perfect seal between the bathroom and the sewer.

The Securing and Disposing of Water

Several of the nation's larger cities were providing water to their residents during the first decade of the nineteenth century, but only infrequently was water actually brought into homes. City-provided water was used in large part to fight fires and flush streets. Household water was most likely taken from a tap located outside of the house or a common hydrant. For those not connected to city mains, and even some who were, there were still other ways to obtain water. If a stream was not near by, there was rain runoff from a roof. It could be collected in one or more tanks located in out-of-the-way places in a house and feed the plumbing system through gravity.

Types of Pipe

Several types of pipe were used during the nineteenth century. With little or no knowledge of its possible long-term harmful effects, lead pipe was widely used. Its low price and the ease with which it could be formed and joined made it the material of choice for many installations. Iron, brass, and copper pipe were used as well. It was not unusual for a structure to be plumbed with several types of pipe, each used where it was most suited. But by the early twentieth century there was a move away from lead piping. The basic elements of domestic plumbing, in both the kitchen and bathroom, were in place by the 1890s. Changes since that time have been primarily aesthetic and in the materials used. During the second half of the twentieth century, tubs and basins that previously had been made of glazed ceramic or enameled iron, and much of the pipe manufactured in the United States as well, were being made of plastic.

Plumbing—from fixtures to vent pipes—in high-rise buildings and skyscrapers duplicated that used in other structures, but with the addition of several unique features. As gravity-fed city mains generally lift water no more than five or six stories, electrically operated pumps raise it to elevated storage tanks beyond that point. Water levels in the tanks are maintained automatically. Water is supplied from them throughout the structure by gravity, air pressure, or booster pumps. Likewise, gravity removes waste water by way of drainage pipes.

Beginning in the 1950s plastic pipe, most notably that made of polyvinyl chloride, has been used in ever increasing amounts. In the following decades, other plastics were introduced into pipe manufacture. However, by the last years of the century a number of plastic-pipe failures had occurred. Problems were attributed to defective manufacture and, in some cases, a chemical reaction taking place between the material used to make the pipe and chlorine in the water that it carried. These events led to class action lawsuits and a general reevaluation of the use of this inexpensive and easily worked alternative piping material.

Federal Regulation

Where plumbing had been a mostly locally regulated matter for most of its history, the federal government became involved in the early 1990s. Until the 1950s, toilets generally used five or more gallons per flush (GPF). During the decades that followed, the plumbing industry reduced the standard volume for toilet flush tanks to 3.5 gallons. A further reduction in volume resulted from the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which in the name of conservation mandated that all new toilets made in the United States must use no more than 1.6 GPF. The same legislation also regulated the flow in shower heads and faucets. Although the first low-flow toilets proved un-satisfactory and were met with public disapproval, redesigned equipment employing new technology has removed most objections.


Elliott, Cecil D. Technics and Architecture: The Development of Materials and Systems for Buildings. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992.

Ierley, Merritt. The Comforts of Home: The American House and the Evolution of Modern Convenience. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1999.

Ogle, Maureen. All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840–1890. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

William E.WorthingtonJr.

See alsoHousing ; Sanitation, Environmental .

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plumb·ing / ˈpləming/ • n. the system of pipes, tanks, fittings, and other apparatus required for the water supply, heating, and sanitation in a building. ∎  the work of installing and maintaining such a system. ∎ inf. used as a humorous euphemism for the excretory tracts and urinary system: I'd never discuss my plumbing with ladies.

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