Monday, February 25, 2019


Victorian-era water closet: Eventually, it was
allowed into the room with the bathtub.
(Image courtesy of Plumbing Geek)
Like me, you probably don’t think twice about being able to switch on a light, draw a hot bath, turn up the heat, or call a friend on your land line. Yet just 140 years ago—a mere blip in the long history of domestic architecture—none of these things was possible.  Technologically, housing was still mired in the Middle Ages.

While it’s remarkable enough that these conveniences have only been with us for the last hundred forty years, it's even more amazing that all of them harken from the last three decades of the Victorian era, between 1870 and the end of the nineteenth century.  It was a time of explosive technical progress in domestic technology—the equivalent of our own end-of-the-century digital revolution.

A host of innovations, including piped-in hot and cold water, indoor bathrooms, central heating, electricity, and telephone all entered the modern home during this brief span of decades.

Central heating was a huge step forward, freeing floor plans
from their age-old tether to the fireplace chimney. Since
these furnaces worked by gravity alone, they had to be
located beneath the living area in a basement.
Gas lighting, known in Europe as early as the 1830s, was widely introduced in the U.S. just after the Civil War. Although it was sooty, noxious, and produced a feeble, unsteady light, it proved a harbinger of great progress during the remainder of the century.

The introduction of pressurized water systems by about 1870 set the stage for running hot and cold water and the advent of indoor plumbing. By 1880, most homes had an indoor toilet, although at first the Victorians, who were obsessed by fears of “deadly sewer gas”, confined it to its own little room—hence the term “water closet”. Later, however, the water closet was annexed to the room containing the bathtub—eventually yielding the now-familiar "bathroom".

By the end of the nineteenth century, light came at the mere
push of a button—a big improvement over lighting
a gas mantel, let alone a candle.
Although central heating was known as early as the 1820s, most middle-class homeowners couldn’t afford it, and instead relied on coal-burning fireplace grates for heat. This meant that every heated room had to adjoin a chimney, dictating compact, boxy floor plans clustered around one chimney for economy. By 1880, though, coal-fired central heating systems were becoming more commonplace. Aside from the obvious improvement in comfort and convenience over the fireplace, central heating freed room arrangements from their historical tether to the central chimney, encouraging the rambling, asymmetrical floor plans of late Victorian home styles such as Queen Anne.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell spoke the famous words, “Watson, come here; I want you,” through his experimental transceiver and, for better or worse, unleashed the telephone on society. By 1900, it was already quite commonplace in homes across America. 

Early electric lighting fixture intentionally flaunted
naked bulbs fo that they couldn't possibly be mistaken
for old-school gaslights.
Gas lighting made a big leap forward with the1887 introduction of the Welsbach gas mantel, which produced a brighter, soot-free flame. But by that time the fate of gas lighting was already sealed: Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, had seen to that when he invented the incandescent lamp in lamp in 1879. By the mid-1890s, the electrification of the United States was already well underway. Electric lighting was such a powerful symbol of progress that early lighting fixtures proudly flaunted bare bulbs, so that no one could mistake them for gas lamps.  It wouldn’t be long before each room in the house had an incandescent ceiling fixture and—wonder of wonders—a single electrical outlet.

Think about that the next time you plug in your computer, monitor, backup drive, printer, phone charger, desk lamp, and shredder.

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