The history of indoor plumbing

Today people look for bathrooms that are luxurious. They want a bathroom in the master suite as well as additional bathrooms. They want a tub with jets, a giant shower with specialty faucets and heads, at least two sinks, and sometimes heated floors. Would you believe that inside bathrooms have only been part of housing facilities for the past 100 years?

First of all let me start with what I remember. My grandparents’ house had a bathroom; and so did my great-grandparents’ homes. Remember that I grew up in town. None of them were what I would classify as extraordinary bathrooms. They had the basics but that was it.

The home I grew up in had a claw foot bathtub, a standard commode (but the seat was higher than they are now), and a pedestal sink. My grandfather built in a cupboard for the towels. The bathroom was upstairs. There was no bathroom downstairs and there was no place to put one.

My great-grandparents’ house had a bathroom downstairs and none upstairs. They, too, had a claw foot tub, a sink, and a commode. Upstairs they used the old-fashioned pitcher and bowl sets and chamber pots. Some of those sets were beautiful, although they must have been inconvenient since water had to be carried upstairs and then carried back down.

Hickory Heights did not have an indoor bathroom when it was first built in the late 1800s. A small bedroom off the kitchen was converted into a bathroom during the 1940s. I suspect this happened about the same time that electricity went through this area. One lady who visited here told me that she remembered sleeping in that bedroom when she visited her friends.

When we moved to Hickory Heights the bathroom was the most modern room in the house. By many standards our bathroom was large although it only contained a commode, a built-in tub, and a small sink that fastened to the wall. A closet was built into the back wall. It jutted out over the outside entrance to the basement. While that might have been a unique idea, it was not really satisfactory in the winter. The towels froze to the back of the cupboard and toiletries often froze as well. There was no door on it either so it was hard to keep everything where it was supposed to be.

That was our only bathroom until the 1990s when we put in a bathroom upstairs. We elected to put in a bathroom upstairs before we refinished the downstairs one. By then I was tired of having to run down the stairs and around the house to go to the bathroom during the night. If you were sick it was terrible. I always kept an enamel pan upstairs just in case one of the children got sick. I often carried a glass of water upstairs just in case I needed to give/take medicine. The only drawback there was that when we first moved to Hickory Heights I froze water upstairs! There was no heat up there and it was drafty. The old pipe system that brought heat from the woodstove used to keep it warm but it was no longer functional.

When the children were in school we all had to get ready in the one bathroom. If you think that was easy you have another guess coming. We did not have a shower, either. Everyone took a bath in those days. If we were all going out it was my job to be ready and out of the bathroom before the rest of the family got home from the barn. Since everyone needed a bath it was rather tricky.

Today I have a half-bath downstairs and a full bath upstairs. Considering where I had come from that was luxury for me. I am so happy that we put in a bathroom upstairs. It makes those mid-night jaunts to the bathroom a whole lot easier and more pleasant.

I guess my standard of living would be described as quite simple. That is fine with me. The less apparatus I have the less repairs there are to be done. I chose to move my washer and dryer from the basement to the downstairs bathroom. That meant I no longer had to contend with a mud floor. In the old days if I dropped something it had to be rewashed.

I do not understand the luxury that people live in nowadays. Just because we can do something, it does not mean that we should do it. By the world’s standards most Americans live in luxury. We have running water, hot and cold. We have indoor plumbing complete with a commode. We have electricity throughout our homes. We have a furnace to keep us warm. We are spoiled rotten.

My husband grew up in the country and remembered the outhouse. People took baths once a week and they all used the same water to conserve. My neighbor told me that the washtub was brought into the kitchen. The youngest child was bathed first. I suppose Dad had the last bath. Of course, the wash was done with a wringer washer and rinse tubs in those days.

We are so used to all of the modern conveniences that we cannot do without them. If you live in the country you get a taste of the old days when the electric goes out, but even that is not what our ancestors experienced.

If the source of power was curtailed in this country we would all be in deep trouble. We would not even be able to charge our electronic devices! I still have a telephone that rings if the power is out, but many homes do not. We cannot keep adding to our electric and other utilities without there being a price to pay. Our environment suffers as we tax the utilities. Eventually, we will suffer too.

Think about it when you take your next daily shower! We have to do better, our lives depend on it.

Ann Swanson writes from her home in Russell, PA. Contact at