The History of Plumbing

install a toilet

Elizabeth Weintraub

Plumbing comes from the Latin word for lead, which is plumbum. Plumbing by definition is a utility that we use in our buildings consisting of the pipes and fixtures for the distribution of water or gas and for the disposal of sewage. The word sewer comes from the French word essouier, meaning "to drain."

But how did plumbing systems come together? Surely it didn't happen at once, right? Of course not. Let's go over the main fixtures of modern-day plumbing systems. These include toilets, bathtubs and showers and water fountains.

Let There Be Water Fountains

The modern drinking fountain was invented and then manufactured in the early 1900s by two men and the respective company each man founded. Halsey Willard Taylor and the Halsey Taylor Company along with Luther Haws and the Haws Sanitary Drinking Faucet Co were the two companies that changed how water was served in public places.

Taylor's interest in developing a fountain for drinking water began when his father died of typhoid fever caused by contaminated public drinking water. His father's death was traumatic and motivated him to invent a water fountain to provide safer drinking water.

Meanwhile, Haws was a part-time plumber, sheet metal contractor and the sanitary inspector for the city of Berkeley in California. While inspecting a public school, Haws saw children drinking water out of a common tin cup that was tied to the faucet. Because of this, he feared that there was a health hazard in the making because of the way the public was sharing their water supply.

Haws invented the first faucet designed for drinking. He used spare plumbing parts, such as taking the ball from a brass bedstead and a self-closing rabbit ear valve. The Berkeley school department installed the first model drinking faucets.

Toilets Were Seats Meant for Kings

A toilet is a plumbing fixture used for defecation and urination. Modern toilets consist of a bowl fitted with a hinged seat that's connected to a waste pipe where waste is flushed. Toilets are also called privy, latrine, water closet, or lavatory. Contrary to urban legend, Sir Thomas Crapper did not invent the toilet. Here's a brief timeline of toilets: 

  • King Minos of Crete had the first flushing water closet recorded in history and that was over 2,800 years ago.
  • A toilet was discovered in the tomb of a Chinese king of the Western Han Dynasty that dates back to somewhere between 206 BC to 24 AD.
  • The ancient Romans had a system of sewers. They built simple outhouses or latrines directly over the running waters of the sewers that poured into the Tiber River.
  • Chamber pots were used during the middle ages. A chamber pot is a special metal or ceramic bowl that you used and then tossed the contents out (often out the window).
  • In 1596, a flush toilet was invented and built for Queen Elizabeth I by her godson, Sir John Harrington.
  • The first patent for the flushing toilet was issued to Alexander Cummings in 1775.
  • During the 1800s, people would come to realize that poor sanitary conditions caused diseases. Thus having toilets and sewer systems that could control human waste became a priority to lawmakers, medical experts, inventors as well as the general public.
  • In 1829, the Tremont Hotel of Boston became the first hotel to have indoor plumbing with eight water closets built by Isaiah Rogers. Until 1840, indoor plumbing could be found only in the homes of the rich and the better hotels.
  • Beginning in 1910, toilet designs started moving away from the elevated water tank system and more toward a modern toilet with a closed tank and bowl setup.

Toilet Paper and Brushes

The first packaged toilet paper was invented in 1857 by an American named Joseph Gayetty. It was called Gayetty's Medicated Paper. In 1880, the British Perforated Paper Company created a paper product to be used for wiping after using the toilet that came in boxes of small pre-cut squares. In 1879, the Scott Paper Company began selling the first toilet paper on a roll, though roll toilet paper did not become common until 1907. In 1942, St. Andrew's Paper Mill in Great Britain introduced the first two-ply toilet paper.

In the 1930s, the Addis Brush Company created the first artificial Christmas brush trees, using the same machinery for making their toilet brushes. In general, the type of material used to make a brush and its design was dictated by its intended use. The hair of animals such as horses, oxen, squirrels, and badgers was used in household and toilet-brushes. Various types of plant fibers have also been used, such as the piassava obtained from a Brazilian palm and palmyra bassine derived from the palmyra palm of Africa and Sri Lanka. Brush bristles were joined to handles and backs of wood, plastic or metal. Many household and toilet-brushes were produced by inserting tufts of fibers into holes drilled in brush backs.

One of the earliest and most elaborate of showers was the English Regency Shower developed around 1810.

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Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "The History of Plumbing." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). The History of Plumbing. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Plumbing." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).