Title Reviewed:
All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840–1890

Author Reviewed:
Maureen Ogle

Marilyn Thornton Williams


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 93, Issue 3, pp 299-300

Article Type:
Book Review

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All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840–1890. By Maureen Ogle. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Pp. xii, 191. Illustrations, notes, note on sources, index. $39.95.)

America's love affair with their bathrooms and their obsession with cleanliness seem to be ever-continuing phenomena that historians have only begun to explore. Maureen Ogle's brief history of the development of indoor plumbing in the nineteenth century is a welcome contribution to this growing body of literature.

Ogle's study focuses on the history of indoor plumbing fixtures (sinks, basins, bathing tubs, shower baths, and water closets) before they took their modern form in the 1890s. From 1840 to 1870 she finds a period of experimentation and inventiveness that was the consequence of a nationwide interest in plumbing. This interest, she maintains, stemmed from growing American affluence, a belief in progress, and the desire to improve the convenience of family and domestic life and was not connected, as generally believed, with the provision of public water and sewer systems. Early indoor plumbing utilized water pumped from cisterns, tanks, wells, or nearby bodies of water and disposed of wastes in cesspools or drains. It was therefore available to residents in country settings and in villages as well as those in cities. Hot water heaters or boilers provided additional convenience to mid-nineteenth century homes. Ogle supplies fascinating descriptions as well as illustrations of these early indoor plumbing fixtures, most especially of mechanical, water-flushed water closets. Ogle asserts that both middle- and upper-class Americans enjoyed indoor plumbing in this period, but her evidence for this widespread use is scant.

The second part of Ogle's book covers the period from 1870 to 1890 when indoor plumbing was transformed from a private, relatively unregulated matter to a concern of the whole community. A new group of professionals (mainly engineers and physicians) who called themselves sanitarians, immersed in the culture of "scientism," denounced then current plumbing practices as bringing the dangers of disease and even death not only to individual families but also to the public health. Plumbing fixtures ceased to be conveniences and became the objects of the laws of science as fears of the "abominable evil" of sewer gas and other poisonous emanations proliferatedfears that predated the general acceptance of the germ theory of disease in the 1880s. Sanitarians not only called for scientific plumbing but also demanded scientifically designed public water and sewer systems that would be professionally connected to household fixtures whose characteristics and installation would be regulated by law. Local governments responded by building waterworks, if they did not already have them, and sewer systems and by passing plumbing codes.

This monograph is based on intensive research in nineteenthcentury architectural works, builder's and plumber's guides, domestic advice books, and United States Patent Office records, as well as many other documents, and is an invaluable source of information on nineteenth-century plumbing fixtures-how they worked and where they were located in the home. One would like to hear more from the consumers and users of nineteenth-century plumbing beyond the few intriguing excerpts from diaries and family papers included in this book. Ogle's analysis of the difficult historical question of the relationship between the development of technology and "the underlying cultural setting" (p. 6) rejects the notion of technology's impact on society. The author chooses instead to consider "the values and ideas [that] prompted the selection of a technology" and the ways in which "cultural shifts shape technology's form or lead away from one form and toward another" (p. 157). Ogle relates the development of household plumbing to "existing interpretations of American culture" (p. 158) and finds that in the 1840–1870 period, for example, values of "privatism, individualism and limited government" (p. 158) were reflected in the choice of individual household plumbing systems with private water supplies and waste systems. Between 1870 and 1890 individualism was replaced by "interconnection" and a more activist role for government produced an integrated system of water mains, sewers, and household plumbing.

MARILYN THORNTON WILLIAMS is professor of history, Pace University, New York City Campus. She is the author of Washing "the Great Unwashed": Public Baths in Urban America, 1840–1920 (1991).

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.