Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Water Closet

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Last month, I blogged about the kitchen sink. Since I often include the sink’s hand pump in my work, curiosity led me to find out exactly how water was brought to the home in order for the pump to work, which opened the door to another modern day convenience we take for grantedthe water closet.
King Minus of Crete had the world’s first flushing water closet, with a wooden seat, over 2,800 years ago. Unfortunately, this luxury was lost in the rubble of the palace ruins and did not make an appearance again until 1594 when Sir John Harrington built a private privy for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth, and one for himself at his own home. Sadly, because of book he published with jokes and puns about his invention, the water closest wouldn’t see life again until 200 years later. Chamber pots were used inside the home, and like the Hohokam Indians who instituted a series of irrigation canals in the southwestern United States before their sudden disappearance in 1450 A.D., folks used the good ole outdoors, and no place in particular, as their water closet.
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The outhouse slowly gained acceptance in the early 1800’s, as the stench was overpowering. Most of these structures were made of wood, but some, such as Chief Magistrate William Byrd’s, were crafted of brick. His was said to have 5 holes, with the largest in the center of the semi-circle for his use. Thomas Jefferson devised an indoor water closet at his Monticello home using a system of pulleys the servants used to empty chamber pots. As is true with today’s standards, hotels in this era were viewed as luxurious and comfortable. Many hotel owners thought the outhouse troublesome and ugly and strove for a better method. Architect Isaiah Rogers fitted the Tremont Hotel in Boston with its first indoor plumbing unit in 1829. The Tremont was four stories tall and equipped with eight water closets on the ground floor at the rear of the central court. Water was drawn from a metal storage tank on top of the roof, using a simple water carriage system to remove tainted water to the city’s sewer system of hallowed out wooden pipes.
copper-lined closet with oak high tank   
As the sewer system gradually changed from wood pipes to lead and copper pipes, the water closet went through several changes. The conical-shaped hopper was invented first. Flushed by a valve directly connected to the bowl, it easily became a source of contamination. Around this time, the country had begun to take an interest in germs and hygiene, so a better bowl was need.  
The pan closet followed, with an upper earthenware basin and a shallow copper pan holding 3-5 inches of water as a seal around the base. One merely had to tip the pan, which operated on hinges, to discharge the contents into a large, cast iron bowl connecting to the drainage system. The washdown closet came next, using the same principles as the pan closet. The water was flushed from a direct line from an attic storage tank. William Campbell and James T. Henry obtained the first patent in 1857 for a plunger closet. John Randall Mann created the first siphonic closet in 1870. Three pipes delivered water into a basin; one fed the flushing rim around the edge of the basin, one discharged a ½ gallon of water rapidly into the basin which started the siphonic action, and the third provided the after flush.    
Several other English and American inventions, including the incorporation of piping heat throughout the home, would eventually turn the water closet into the bathroom of today. Hot and cold water taps helped to move the sink and tub from the main floor to upper floors. Free standing showers, fixtures for towels and bathrobes, carpeting instead of wooden planks, and heated seats keep this generation comfortable any time of year.
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1 comment:

Shanna Hatfield said...

Such an informative post, Julie! Thank you for doing the research on this. :)