Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Maureen Ogle, All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Maureen Ogle, All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890

Annemarie Adams
McGill University
Ogle, Maureen. All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

1 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 hardest-working 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.

2 The book's major assertion is that the development of plumbing in the nineteenth century occurred in two distinct phases. Ogle characterizes 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.

3 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.

4 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 focused 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.

5 The final two chapters of All the Modern Conveniences deal with the later period. Like historian of medicine Nancy Tomes (whom she doesn't cite), architectural historian Gwendolyn Wright, museum curator Ellen Lupton, and other scholars, Ogle sees the bathroom after 1870 in the context of science and the rise of professionalism.1 And like them, she suggests that the house became a vital component of a much more complex and highly regulated system. Municipal ordinances, plumbing codes, and standardized fixtures meant that the American bathroom of 1890 was much more predictable than what it had replaced. It was also by this time a standard feature of the middle-class home.

6 Ogle's book is a work of social and cultural history, especially the history of technology, rather than material history. It is the twentieth book, in fact, in Johns Hopkins' New Series in the History of Technology. In this regard, material culture scholars may be disappointed. Apart from Ogle's impressive explanations of how the various plumbing technologies worked — she clearly subscribes to the notion that form follows function — the author appears to have little interest in the fixtures themselves. At one point, Ogle even articulates her mistrust of artifacts as historical evidence, stating that "the obvious not fit the facts." And classic references in the material history of American plumbing, such as May Stone's 1979 article, are not cited.2 Although she makes extensive use of primary sources in the history of domestic architecture, most notably the popular pattern books by Samuel Sloan and George E. Woodward, secondary sources in the history of domestic space are surprisingly absent.

7 Furthermore, although there are more than thirty illustrations in All the Modern Conveniences, there are no direct references to these in the text nor is there a list of the images included. They act, rather, simply as background illustrations to a different sort of story.

8 The weakest aspect of All the Modem Conveniences is the author's insistence throughout the book that plumbing was a mark of American "civilization." Ogle associates developments in plumbing with national character and stability, presuming, like many publications in the multi-disciplinary field of American Studies, that such demands (and progress) occurred only in the United States. Readers from other civilizations may find especially irksome the numerous references to American "perfection" and the "machine-loving people," without any explanation as to why the author believes Americans to have such attributes. She goes so far as to claim that American plumbing is the most elaborate in the world, adding that "plumbing is almost as much a part of our national identity as our inbred belief in the superiority of the American way of life." And the author's numerous suggestions that the nineteenth century is the first period of plumbing, of course, neglects the substantial innovations in drainage and plumbing made by Roman engineers, medieval monks, and other civilizers.

9 All the Modern Conveniences concludes with a fascinating rumination on methods and assumptions in the history of technology, including commentary on the relevance of material culture studies. This section may have been better placed in the book's introduction, but still, it provides a penetrating glimpse of the ways in which the author has formulated her questions and worked through the difficulties of studying an aspect of our lives often purposely hidden.

1 Nancy Tomes, "The Private Side of Public Health: Sanitary Science, Domestic Hygiene, and the Germ Theory, 1870-1900," Bulletin of the History of Medicine 64, no. 4 (Winter 1990): 509-39.
2 May N. Stone, "The Plumbing Paradox: American Attitudes toward Late Nineteenth-Century Domestic Sanitary Arrangements," Winterthur Portfolio 14 (Autumn 1979): 284-309.