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Annmarie Adams on All the Modern Conveniences

17 December, 2020

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (1997) review ‘ All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890, Material Culture Review, No.46 1997, 85-87

 

If you want to know how old toilets work, this is the book. Maureen Ogle’s All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890 traces the evolution of our hardest­working domestic fixture, as well as sinks, showers, and sewers, through its first half century in the United States. Using patent records. trade catalogues, municipal documents, architectural plans and pattern books, periodical literature, and even personal recollections about plumbing, Ogle’s book is the first to explain how these various tech­nologies really worked and how the ‘culture’ of plumbing changed in the United States during the course of the last century.

The book’s major assertion is that the development of plumbing in the nineteenth century occurred in two distinct phases. Ogle characterises the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s as a time when Americans concocted a wide range of solutions to the challenge of ‘in-house running water and water fixtures’. Largely unconnected to municipal water supplies and unregulated by government codes, mid-­century plumbing in the United States was an extremely private affair.

About 1870, however, a completely new attitude toward plumbing developed. Whereas during the period 1840-70 plumbing had been seen as a way to improve houses, it became something to fear during the 1870s and 1880s. Consequently, the fixtures produced during this second phase, according to the author, should be understood as a completely different class of objects, driven more by the principles of the new field of sanitary science than by a basic urge for domestic reform.

Ogle’s mere attention to the period 1840-70 makes a solid contribution to the field of American plumbing history. The innovative and rather ad hoc plumbing arrangements of the mid-nineteenth century are extremely difficult to study, given that they were often ‘invented’ by individuals to solve particular problems. Most other scholars – the topic has attracted only a handful of historians – have focussed on the turn of the century and especially the Progressive Era in the United States, by which time the mass production of fixtures was in full swing. Ogle’s masterful interpretation of mid-nineteenth century plumbing as a window on American individualism, and especially her commentary on the social and material implications of the term, ‘convenience’, fills a large gap in the existing literature.

Annmarie Adams on All the Modern Conveniences

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (1997) review ‘ All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890’, Material Culture Review, No.46 1997, 85-87