As a historical romance writer, I have often found myself asking the weirdest questions of the Universe. How complicated was it to remove women’s underwear in the late 1800s? What did peasants eat in the Middle Ages? How dirty were cities really in the early Industrial Age? And, of course, the topic that has had me scratching my head recently as I write a novel set in Montana in 1897, Would houses have had flush toilets by this point?
No, seriously, the question of when running water and flush toilets became standard in all houses is one that has kept me up at night for years. It’s not something that gets brought up in your average history class, but if you’re writing any sort of historical novel—or if you’re a history nerd like me—it’s something that you need to know.
Now, I grew up in a house that was built in 1918. We had the original blueprints framed on the wall in the downstairs hall, and the bathrooms were clearly marked as bathrooms in those drawings. (Well, the downstairs half-bath is marked as “WC” for water closet) So yes to plumbing by at least 1918. On the other end, I’ve read plenty of novels written and set in the first half of the 19th century that clearly refer to chamber pots and the necessity of having the maid empty them. So no to plumbing before, oh, say, 1850.
Okay, so when did indoor plumbing become commonplace?
The cheeky answer to that question is Ancient Rome. It’s true. The Romans had an extensive system of aqueducts and underground lead pipes to bring fresh water into every home and to remove waste. Those aqueducts were so well-constructed that many still exist and are still in use today. And as for the lead pipes causing extensive lead poisoning, nope. According to scientific research, the water was running too fast for much lead to leech into it. So score one for the Romans for their sanitary advancements!
And then, of course, Rome was no more. Plumbing wasn’t exactly forgotten. Several medieval monasteries had varying degrees of plumbing. But it didn’t hold a candle to the Roman system. As cities grew in the Middle Ages (and were ravaged by diseases caused by poor sanitation) rudimentary systems of waste removal were implemented. They usually involved redirecting sewage through the streets or crude pipes into rivers or cesspits.
But that’s not running water and flushing toilets like we enjoy today. So how did we get to our glorious and convenient system of faucets, sewage systems, water treatment plants, and clean drinking water at the twist of a handle then?
Well, as you might imagine, the impetus for bringing running water into every home came from Science by way of the Industrial Revolution. Systems for moving water along pipes and into machinery were developed as the demand for steam power increased throughout the early Industrial Revolution. In order for steam-powered machinery to have steam, it needed to have water that was either pumped up through wells or brought in from rivers. The technology developed thanks to Industry.
It didn’t stop there though. Throughout the first half of the 19th century (yes, the first half), more and more companies were popping up that specialized in pumping water in from river sources far up-stream from population centers and into public cisterns, industrial locations, and the homes of the wealthy who lived along the pipelines. So if you happen to be writing a novel about a duke set in the 1830s, his house very well might have had running water!
The drive to carry that technology into every home, thus providing fresh water for domestic use by the low as well as the high, came about with the advent of germ theory. In particular, an outbreak of cholera in London in 1854 drove home the need for a filtration system to “clean” the water that was being pumped into the city and to make sure it was supplied to everyone.
So as with so many other things about the 19th century, it wasn’t that the technology wasn’t there at first. Some homes and public places did have running water as far back as the late 18th century, thanks to the Industrial Revolution. But as Science advanced, so did public awareness of sanitation and the necessity of equipping all homes with the basics. By the end of the 1850s, British building codes required that all new construction of middle-class homes include a “water closet”.
Awesome! But what exactly did a water closet entail? What did those early flush toilets look like?
Believe it or not, the idea of a flushing toilet had actually been around since the Middle Ages (not counting those Romans). In fact, in 1596, Sir John Harington had one installed in Richmond Palace for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I. She refused to use it because it made too much noise. The design was played with and updated throughout the 1700s as new and better ways of causing the water to flush and preventing leakage and back-seepage were discovered.
The invention of the good old S-bend came about in—wait for it, wait for it—1775. We still use it today. The design prevents the escape of sewage by standing water in the bowl of the toilet. The “plunger closet”, which gets the water into the toilet, was invented in 1777. Translation: toilets are an 18th century invention!
The very first public toilets may have been those used at The Crystal Palace during the 1851 Great Exhibition. They were such a novelty that people paid a penny to use them. After that, they began to slowly and steadily appear in homes. And, of course, let’s not forget Thomas Crapper, whose company began manufacturing and selling toilets in the 1880s. He did not, however, lend his name to the word “crap”. “Crap” is a much older word, and it’s all a coincidence.
So this brings us back around to the question I started with. Would my characters and indeed my town of Cold Springs, Montana have had running water and flushing toilets in 1897? Absolutely. In fact, they would have been so common at that point that no one would have blinked an eye. Now, it would likely have taken longer for the existent technology to make its way out to the frontier the way it was in use in cities, but if you’ve read the books you know that Cold Springs “secret benefactor” made sure that the entire town had every modern infrastructural convenience installed, including power plants to supply electric light (which is a whole other blog post).
Incidentally, at some point in the next several years I will be writing a large series that takes place in London in the 1880s. I am now confident that yes, the dwellings of the characters involved in those books would have had running water and flush toilets at their disposal. Regency? Not so much.
Once again, the late 19th century proves how much more advanced it was than people generally think it was! Go Gilded Age!