A Look Back: Plumbing in the 1800s

A visit from a retired plumber causes the author to reflect on how much the industry has changed

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One day I was retrieving parts from our warehouse for an elderly man who came in for “packing” to “repack a stem.”

The way he explained it to me struck me as strange since he used plumber lingo. I asked him if he had been a plumber. He replied, “Yes, I was a master plumber for a very long time. Matter of fact I worked here where we stand a very long time ago.”

I was stunned. I sat down with him and asked him how he got into plumbing. He explained that his father and grandfather considered themselves plumbers, and he then opened a window into plumbing history that I will never forget.

The Morning Routine

In mid-sized working towns there was typically a “knocker” or “night watchman” who would walk through neighborhoods and knock on windows with poles to wake people up for work. Everyone lived near their workplace, and if the town didn’t have knockers, they had a factory whistle that would blow at 4 a.m. There was no electricity, and candles were rationed and considered a wealthy person’s asset so when you woke up it was dark. You would typically keep a candle on you.

Once you were up, it was time for breakfast. Cornmeal and coffee were kings during this time period because corn could be easily grown and stored. The coffee was made using water from a hand pump well, since most of the country did not have running water. The food and coffee was usually heated with a wood-fired pot belly stove, which you had to feed with wood that you cut down. 

You would typically bathe once a week — and maybe less often in the winter since there was no hot water — and in the summer you would fill up a tub with water in the morning and let the sun heat it up during the day so you could have a warm bath after work hours. You would also make your lunch (meat and cornmeal) and put it in your homemade lunch box (tin or leather). Once you were ready to roll, you headed out of the house and walked to work.

Shaving was done daily with a straight razor. Clothing was usually bought at local general stores. Men would keep two sets of clothing. One set of everyday work clothes, and another set of better clothing for church. Work pants and shirts were made from cotton twill. The typical plumber would wear cotton twill pants, a chambray style button down shirt, and denim or cotton twill overalls.

The Walk to Work

Most people lived close enough to walk, and the working class at this time was known to be swift nomads traveling place to place in a flash when work opened up — unless you owned your own land. There were no cars, only horses. The walk to work was typically a struggle to walk around the large quantity of horse manure that was caked over every street. It’s estimated that this horse manure came out to 10 tons per square mile. There were also occasionally carcasses of dead horses lying in the streets that would remain there stinking for weeks until the city came to clean it up.

At Work

Upon arrival at work, if you weren’t sent to start a large project somewhere in or around town, you handled three orders a day as a service plumber. You would receive your three work orders at the beginning of the day and be accompanied by two laborers. The laborers would push a wheelbarrow full of fittings and tools and walk with you to each job. You got three trips back to your supply yard for parts. If you came back a fourth time you were sent directly home for the day, and more than likely replaced with another plumber who had been waiting for employment.

Food

Lunch for the working man consisted of either cornmeal or white potatoes (if you lived in the North) or sweet potatoes (if you lived in the South). White potatoes matured too early for consumption in the South. Fruits were usually missing from the American diet during this time period because of how fast they would spoil, with the exception of apples. Some workers would spoil themselves with a piece of chocolate or tea.

Dinner was almost always salted and smoked pork because there wasn’t a means of preservation. Pork was the most popular because pigs required little attention.

Heating Systems

There was no central heating at that time, so wood or coal had to be brought into the house and the fires had to be tended to throughout the day. The rags in the cracks of a house’s walls were typically the only insulation. Pot belly stoves, coal stoves, and wood burners were the only source of heat, all of which were very dangerous fire hazards. Even with those sources of heat, the house remained very cold throughout the winter months.

I have never been more engaged in listening than I was when this gentleman was speaking. It had a feel of simple, yet highly skilled professionals living in a time of plight and depression. It seemed to be a time when the plumber was considered the savior of society and at his social status peak. You could feel the pride radiate from the man’s personality and I am grateful to say the least that I had the opportunity to speak with him before he passed.

About the Author

Anthony Pacilla is a registered master plumber for McVehil Plumbing in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has 22 years of experience in the plumbing and HVAC trades, and has a bachelor’s in business and economics from Thiel College. 



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