When Our Ancestors Became Us

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By mid-century a typical upper-middle-class urban household kept a cook, a waiter, and a maid, who cleaned the parlors and bedrooms. (The waiter not only waited on the table but also kept the china and silver in order and did such heavy chores as tending the furnace, hauling coal, and shoveling snow.) A wealthy family would have had not only these three but an upstairs maid, a laundress, a houseman (who did the heavy work), a coachman, and a governess for the children as well. Skilled domestic help (such as cooks) earned as much as six or seven dollars a week plus room and board, a decent wage then, for which they worked six days a week, generally rising an hour before the family and remaining on duty until dismissed for the night or the family went to bed. In many families favorite servants were an integral part of the household and were greatly loved and valued. Under these circumstances the life of a servant, especially for an unmarried female, could be a pleasant one. It was certainly a great deal more pleasant than most of the alternatives: a job in one of the new factories and a room—or, more likely, part of a room—in the teeming, noisome slums that were fast blighting American cities as immigration from abroad and from declining rural areas relentlessly accelerated.

The Miracle of Clean Water

The Romans, of course, had developed elaborate means to supply Rome and other cities with water, but as cities decayed at the end of classical times, so did the technology needed to sustain them. It was largely reinvented during the Renaissance. Because American cities were very small until the nineteenth century (even the largest, Philadelphia, had a population of only 42,444 in 1790), they could obtain the water they needed from local wells, streams, and, for the affluent, cisterns fed from house roofs. As the population of American cities began to swell in the first decades of the new century, the problem of water for drinking, cleaning, bathing, and cooking became acute.

People still bathed—when they bathed—in the kitchen. They used back-yard outhouses or chamber pots, whose contents as often as not were emptied into the streets. There rain or the herds of pigs that wandered around many American cities would, it was hoped, cope with the mess. Although it was not known at the time, water, grossly contaminated by this sewage, was the source of the frequent epidemics of waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhus that swept many American cities. Meanwhile, cisterns and water barrels provided ample breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carried yellow fever and malaria.

 

American cities met the problem each in its own way and according to its local water resources. In 1830 Philadelphia opened the Schuylkill Water Works, and in 1832 the first houses in America to be built with bathrooms were supplied with water from this system. New York, with the greatest population and the greatest technical difficulties, did not get a reliable water supply until July 4, 1842, when the forty-five-mile-long Croton Aqueduct opened. Philip Hone, for one, was agog. Months later he reported in his diary that “nothing is talked of or thought of in New York but Croton water.... Fountains, aqueducts, hydrants, and hose attract our attention and impede our progress through the streets.... Water! water! is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city, and infuses joy and exultation into the masses.”

Soon the new cookstoves were fitted with water tanks, and hot running water, a luxury unimaginable a few years earlier, became a commonplace. To the middle and upper classes, this was nothing short of a miracle. The lack of running water was one aspect of the good old days that Hone and everyone else was more than happy to part with. Hone almost immediately had his mansion at Broadway and Great Jones Street fitted out with bathrooms. When George Templeton Strong’s father had a bathroom installed in his house on Greenwich Street in 1843, his son became altogether carried away. “I’ve led rather an amphibious life for the last week,” he wrote happily in his diary, “paddling in the bathing tub every night and constantly making new discoveries in the art and mystery of ablution. Taking a shower bath upside down is the last novelty. A real luxury, that bathing apparatus is....”

Of course, as with every major technological advance of the industrial era, there were those who saw the imminent collapse of Western civilization in the luxury of too frequent bathing. In 1845 the city of Boston, ever alert to the possibility that people might be enjoying themselves excessively, actually outlawed daily bathing except on a doctor’s prescription. It is doubtful anyone paid the slightest attention.

In rural areas water from a hillside spring was often piped in to supply a farmhouse. In the 1850s the prefabricated wind-mill was developed to pump water to a tank in the attic, whence it flowed to kitchen and bathroom. In less affluent households the soon familiar farmhouse pump offered a vast improvement over hauling water by bucket.