Museum Provides Glimpse Into Plumbing’s History

One plumber’s collection of industry artifacts that started in the 1950s has grown into a museum that aims to educate plumbers and nonplumbers alike

Museum Provides Glimpse Into Plumbing’s History

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A lot has changed in the plumbing trade over the years. A great place to see that evolution is located just outside of Boston in an old ice house once owned by a frozen meat distributor.

The Plumbing Museum, in Watertown, Massachusetts, houses more than two centuries worth of plumbing technology — a collection that includes bathtubs, toilets, sinks, piping, early plumbing tools, and other implements of the trade. Visitors can see everything from a 19th century era composting toilet and an early dishwasher known as the “electric sink” to a toilet featuring Bluetooth technology.

“It’s a pretty quirky, fun museum,” says Sasha Parfenova, the museum’s program manager. “We have quite the collection here.”

A clawfoot bath tub with oak trim from 1891.
A clawfoot bath tub with oak trim from 1891.

The museum’s origins start in the 1950s when plumber Charles Manoog started acquiring various relics of the trade, such as antique commodes, clawfoot tubs, ornate sinks, early lead-working tools, and wooden pipes. But it wasn’t until 1979 that it began to take the official form of a displayed collection when Manoog’s son Russell created the original museum, the American Sanitary Plumbing Museum, in Worcester. 

When Russell decided to retire, he started searching for a new home for his father’s passion project.

“The family wanted the collection to stay together,” Parfenova says.

Enter J.C. Cannistraro, a Boston area construction firm specializing in turnkey service, including plumbing and HVAC work. The company was located in an old ice house in Watertown that it had steadily developed and added on to over the course of 20 years.

“Cannistraro had purchased this historical space already for its operations,” says Parfenova. “The building dates back to the late 1800s.”

The sturdy brick complex provided the perfect setting to house the Manoog family’s collection, and in 2007, the Cannistraros converted a 1,000-square-foot space of the building into what’s now known as the Plumbing Museum.

Some of the earliest forms of sanitation: 19th century earth closets.
Some of the earliest forms of sanitation: 19th century earth closets.

Visitors to the museum will see — but thankfully not smell — some very early toilet technology. One such display is one of the earliest examples of a composting toilet: the 1860s era earth closet that Parfenova calls the “human litter box.” It was configured so that after a person used the facility, a lever and pulley system dropped a portion of earth or ash over the deposit. Once full, the pail or other container used for the deposits would have to be emptied.

Then there’s the Civil War era “hat bath.” The bather would sit in the middle of the metal bathtub, shaped like an upside-down top hat with a wide brim. 

The Plumbing Museum also displays remnants of some of the earliest wooden pipes used to convey water, dating back to the late 18th century.

Another display recreates a plumber’s workshop from the early 20th century, showing how plumbers of that era worked with lead pipes and the tools that they used. 

In addition to all the vintage fixtures, a new acquisition shows how far indoor plumbing has come.

“We have a new Kohler electric toilet,” says Parfenova. “It has a self-cleaning function, a bidet, a heater, Bluetooth technology to provide music from your phone, and a personal greeting.” 

But the Plumbing Museum isn’t only a place to display various components of the plumbing trade over the decades. Another unique aspect of the museum is its artist-in-residency program. An artist herself, Parfenova proposed and developed the program, a three-month residency that offers each artist studio space, a stipend, guided access to Cannistraro’s manufacturing shops and job sites, recycled fabrication materials, and an opportunity to display their art. The idea is for the artists to create works inspired by industrial technology or water.

Sculptures created by one of the museum's recent participants of the artist-in-residency program.
Sculptures created by one of the museum's recent participants of the artist-in-residency program.

One of the most-recent artists, Joshua Ruder, created sculptures using found materials for his show “Industrial Nature.” The contemporary art complements items from the museum’s collection, which includes elaborately decorated toilets from the Victorian era, an ultramodern hand-blown glass “drape” sink, and a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s famed urinal art. 

The museum’s programming also includes educational tours, especially to high school students interested in careers in the trades. It hosted a festival this past July featuring short one-act plays written by Massachusetts playwrights and inspired by the historical books, catalogs and trade journals in the museum’s collection. And even more water- and plumbing-related programming is in the works: Parfenova is planning a film festival around water-themed cinema, a concert series, and another round of short comedic plays, all centered around the importance of water.

The museum is also a place for Cannistraro meetings and events, says Parfenova. And the museum can be rented out for private events. 

For more information about the Plumbing Museum, visit www.theplumbingmuseum.org.



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