Life Before Indoor Plumbing

CULTURE | January 18, 2019

Castle Hill Mansion on The Crane Estate, Ipswich, MA. A 59-room Stuart-style mansion designed by architect David Adler circa 1928. Source: (Jumping Rocks/UIG via Getty Images)

When we need to use the facilities, we don’t have to think about it. We find the nearest bathroom and take care of business. What was it like before indoor plumbing came along?

Old wood bucket. Source: (etsy.com)

How Did They Get the Water Inside the Home?

Getting water into the house wasn’t as simple as turning on a faucet. It had to be hauled in by hand. Usually, a child or the women of the household had to bring it in as part of their daily chores. Sometimes the water source would be a well dug relatively close to the home, but some people had to walk quite a long way to a creek, river, or public well to fetch water. Several trips would have to be made to bring in enough water for the family to bathe, cook, drink, and clean.

Vintage Chamber Pot. Source: (livesandlegacies.org)

Using the Toilet

There were a few different types of ‘bathrooms’ before indoor plumbing came along. Some families used chamber pots. A chamber pot was a large basin one could use to relieve themselves. It would be stored under the bed or in a closet, waiting to be emptied. There were a couple of downsides to the chamber pot. One of the problems? Bugs. The pot would need to be emptied often to avoid attracting flies. The other problem was the smell, especially in the summer months. The stench could be overpowering. One can imagine how unpleasant a job it was to empty the chamber pot. It would have to be taken outside and dumped in a hole, or if in a city, a public sewer.

Photo of an Outhouse. Source: (jldr.com)

Other people built outhouses. Basically a small shack, over a deep hole. There would be a wooden seat with an opening. This was preferable to chamber pots, as it kept the stench and bugs outside the home. There were problems with outhouses as well. In the middle of the night or during a blizzard, no one wanted to go outside to use the outhouse. In these instances, many families had a back-up chamber pot to use.

Woman bathing her children in metal wash tub. Source: (teara.gov.nz)


Very few people had the luxury of taking a full heated bath. Most people used a pitcher with a basin and washed with cold water and lye soap. Some folks had wide metal wash tubs that doubled as laundry basins. Hair washing was not done regularly either. Usually, women would brush their hair to remove dirt and oil, then wash the brush. Showering was non-existent.

Portrait of Thomas Crapper. Source: (lolwat.com)

Indoor Plumbing!

The first toilets were thought of in the 1500s, but without a sewage system, the idea was useless. Then, in 1891, Thomas Crapper patented the modern toilet which was not much different than what we have now. US servicemen saw “Crapper” stamped on the toilets when they were in Europe and began calling toilets ‘crappers,’ hence the nickname. The first sewer system was built in Chicago in the late 1800s. By the 1900s, indoor bathrooms were much more commonplace, at least in the city. Many rural families used outhouses well into the 1970s. Even today, there are homes in America without indoor plumbing.

Tags: Thomas Crapper, indoor plumbing, toilets, 1800s

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