When did lightbulbs and toilets become a fact of life?
February 17, 2010 7:18 PM   Subscribe

When did electricity and indoor plumbing first become widespread and commonplace in even the poorest urban first world homes, in the same way that owning a television is unremarkable now? (Obviously rural communities took longer to acquire utilities.)
posted by desjardins to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In Australia, later than you'd think. Lots of Western Sydney and outer Melbourne were unsewered in the 1970s. In the flasher suburbs, plumbing replaced night soil carts through the 1910s and 1920s; although a sewered toilet was often still outdoors. My grandparents in Bathurst (a largish railway and mining town in NSW) had a very unremarkable outdoor toilet in the 1980s.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:40 PM on February 17, 2010

My stepdad grew up in a very rural coal mining town in Eastern Kentucky. He tells stories of when he was a child (back in the early 30s) when the first electric lines were run to their town. His dad got a job helping run the lines.

I don't know that his experience is universal, but it would coincide with when the TVA was signed into law by Congress (in 1933) under FDR.

So obviously the poorest URBAN centers would have had it before then.
posted by darkstar at 7:42 PM on February 17, 2010

In the US, electricity service became widespread in rural areas in the 1930s and 40s with the passage of the Rural Electrification Act.
posted by unreasonable at 7:44 PM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

As another data point, the Georgia Power company seems to have served about half of the state in 1926. I suspect that the poorest urban centers wuoldn't have seen that service. However, in 1935, they sold a billion kilowatt hours of electricity for the first time.

So, while the timing was different depending on which part of the country you were in, it appears that sometime in the late '20s and early '30s, the less affluent urban centers in the southern part of the US would have seen the advent of electricity services.

I'm sure that the date for some of the poorer urban areas in the western US would have been somewhat later, though.
posted by darkstar at 7:51 PM on February 17, 2010

I read a book review recently that mentioned that the 1960s were probably the decade when a majority of the UK population had access to an indoor toilet, though I'm guessing (like Fiasco da Gama) that most outdoor toilets were 'sewered' before that. Also like Fiasco da Gama, I remember being taken to houses as a child in the early 80s where the toilet was still in an outhouse, and this not being especially strange.

Could find that book review if you like--it was in the LRB, within the last four months.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 8:30 PM on February 17, 2010

She's asking about urban homes.
posted by ged at 9:29 PM on February 17, 2010

Best answer: Indoor plumbing in urban areas was really a project of the late 19th century, for health reasons. The Chicago Sanitary District was formed in 1889 and by 1900 it had completed the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, to "flush" sewage away from the city using Lake Michigan water, which famously necessitated reversing the flow of the Chicago River.

Chicagoans first pumped water from municipal systems into their homes in the 1850s. Like their counterparts in other cities, they probably were far more aware than we are of the water and sewers that make indoor plumbing possible. Cities across the U.S. and Europe developed water distribution systems, at first to guard against fire and disease and then quite quickly to meet urbanites' demands for stationary baths, toilets, kitchen sinks, laundry tubs, and showers. By 1885, Chicago residents spent $2,500,000 on indoor plumbing in their new houses, connected to growing water and sewer networks. At the time of the Civil War, only the wealthiest Chicagoans could afford the luxury of indoor plumbing. But with each passing year, plumbers became more adept and efficient at their work and manufacturers mass-produced more and more of the pipe, fittings, and fixtures. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the new kitchens and bathrooms of the Chicago bungalows (and the contemporary brick two-flats) sported the latest plumbing fixtures, now affordable to the working class. By the 1930s, the conventional availability of indoor plumbing led the federal government to identify housing as substandard if it did not have indoor plumbing within the unit. In less than 75 years, what had once been a luxury had become a necessity of modern American life. -- Water and Urban Life

The issue of plumbing really moved from being a luxury item toward commonplace during the development of the first modern comprehensive building codes, around the turn of the last century. Much of this coincided with the City Beautiful movement^, which was a progressive (though oft paternalistic) reform era in which slums were supposedly razed forever and replaced with rowhouses and respectable housing for the working poor, in order to elevate them and prevent them from living like animals. The Chicago connection is also important here in that the movement was inspired and popularized by the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and the Pullman district an example of the type of housing desired.
posted by dhartung at 10:01 PM on February 17, 2010

Well, this is days later so perhaps not worth mentioning. But ged, all of the answers here except one concern urban areas. A couple (darkstar's answers) draw plausible conclusions about urban areas from data about rural ones. Mine is certainly urban, since an enormous majority of the British population was urbanized long before the areas they lived were

Anyway: some more data, about Britain in the 1930s this time. This is from a review of Martin Pugh's 'We danced all night': a social history of Britain between the Wars:

"What this meant, Pugh notes, marching out the statistics to prove it, was a domestic population that was, by 1939, on average better-fed, longer-lived, healthier and better-housed than ever before. Life expectancy rose significantly across the period (from 52 to 61 for men from 1910 to 1938 and from 55 to 66 for women), and infant mortality fell. Aggressive house-building by governments and private builders alike, coupled with the introduction of long-term mortgages, made home ownership a real possibility for families lower down the social ladder: while only 10 per cent of houses were owner-occupied before the First World War, by 1939 that figure was around a third. Those new homes, moreover, were more modern and comfortable, with indoor bathrooms (finally), running water and gardens. The expansion of the national grid meant they were electrified as well; indeed, by 1939, 75 per cent of all homes were wired up. Household appliances began to spread: by 1931, Pugh tells us, 1.3 million electric cookers, 400,000 vacuum cleaners and 220,000 fridges were in use in Britain. And by the end of the period a radio was enthroned in virtually every home."

Note that it's referring to new homes, here: these 'mod cons' were no doubt slower to spread to older homes (the majority, obviously). That review, by Susan Pedersen, is also in the London Review of Books (article may require login, I'm afraid). Infuriatingly, however, I can't find the source of that thing about indoor toilets becoming the norm in the 1960s.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 6:29 PM on February 21, 2010

And just because I have no other place to park this tidbit of information, my stepdad recounts in 1933-34 when his dad was hired to cut trees to clear a path for the electric lines there in Kentucky. He was seven years old in early 1934 and he was hired to carry water for the workers.

His description when I asked him about it again, last night:

"They paid me the same as the men. I think it was $3.30 per day, which is what my dad got for cutting and clearing trees all day. I didn't have to work all the time and just hunted squirrels, mostly, but if they needed water, I had to bring it to them. Of course, none of us got paid in money, but they hooked up our house. That was fine with me, because I didn't need the money, but I wanted electricity. They came in and wired the house and got all the lights working and everything was different after that."
posted by darkstar at 10:56 AM on February 22, 2010

Hmm, just noticed the missing "electrified." in the first paragraph of my last post. Whoops!
posted by lapsangsouchong at 9:30 PM on February 22, 2010

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