High quality plumbing is something we all take for granted, largely because our current plumbing codes provide modern sanitation solutions. Believe or not, fewer than 100 years ago, for our major cities – including Boston, plumbing and the need for superior sanitation were not entirely understood.
Boston has been at the forefront of plumbing innovations in the United States, and some of the city’s more notable residents have made exceptional contributions to the development of modern plumbing and sanitation. Here are a few interesting facts about “Boston plumbing” that you may not know.
First in Firefighting
Necessity is often the mother of invention, and by 1650, Boston needed a way to combat house fires! In 1652, the City of Boston installed water lines to deliver water for firefighting and domestic use to the inhabited portions of the city. Water lines were often made from hollowed-out trees, and the tree’s natural shape often determined where the waterlines went!
In the 1700’s, the City of Boston sold fresh water from the system to residents at street-level pumps. Wooden pipes were used for municipal water delivery until the early 1800’s, when the size of the system grew large enough to require pressurization. The wooden water infrastructure couldn’t hold up to the pressure, so iron pipes – first used in Philadelphia – were substituted.
The Tremont House was a hotel in Boston that operated between 1829 and 1895. It was located at the intersection of Tremont and Beacon Streets, and was the first American hotel to feature indoor plumbing, indoor toilets and baths and free soap for the guests. Isaiah Rogers, who later transferred his plumbing design innovations to the Astor House in New York City in 1836, designed the hotel’s plumbing.
Steam-powered pumps delivered fresh water to a holding tank on the hotel’s roof, which provided sufficient water pressure at each tap. The hotel’s toilets were located on the ground floor, and bathtubs (cold-water only) were located in the basement. Running water was also delivered to the hotel’s kitchen and laundry facilities, and wastewater was drained away from the hotel to a simple sewage system.
Isaiah Rogers wasn’t the only one with good ideas. For a time, Rogers employed a man named Samuel Willard, who is credited with developing the first commercial system of centralized heating in the US. (If Rogers and Willard had stayed together, they could have formed the first plumbing and heating company in Boston!)
Boston Outlaws Bathing!
What?! (It’s true!) In 1845, the City Council of Boston passed an ordinance that banned bathing in the winter except under doctor’s orders. Philadelphia first considered banning bathing in 1835, but the measure failed by a slim two votes.
Although it seems counterintuitive, cities were trying to cope with outbreaks of disease, and modern wastewater sanitation wasn’t yet in place. Tub bathing – which was something of a novelty – was implicated (fairly or not) in the spread of serious water-borne diseases. Germ theory hadn’t yet taken hold (and wouldn’t until after the Civil War), and tub bathing took the blame for the spread of disease. In all fairness, the city’s relatively few bathtubs were not outfitted with drains, the water wasn’t heated and used water had to be removed with buckets, which meant that it wasn’t changed very often. (Yuck!)
New York City passed the first modern sanitation laws in the late 1860’s and many American cities (including Boston) promptly followed suit.
The Rise of the Flush Toilet
The development of the modern flush toilet occurred as a series of innovations over about 50 years, beginning in the late 1850’s. Running water, siphon flushing and draining, traps and probably most importantly, the development of the sanitary sewer system, meant that residents no longer threw their waste into the streets. The introduction of the sewer system and other sanitation innovations reduced the spread of diseases in cities and paved the way for practical, sanitary indoor plumbing. As one of the major port cities, Boston was often at the forefront of these inventions, and served as a distribution point for “water closets” imported from England. The success of Boston’s municipal water projects led many other cities to incorporate water and sanitation facilities into their city plans.
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