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Aug. 24, 2021
Taking a look back at how our trade, and our trade practices, have evolved could provide some perspective on our vibrant and ever-changing trade.

With all that is happening in our nation and the world today, it is relatively easy to find things, industry specific, to write about. After all, the COVID and political stories alone could (and do) fill many pages of many publications and internet sites. Finding a thread that connects them to our businesses isn’t all that hard.

With that said, I thought taking a look back at how our trade, and our trade practices, have evolved might be a good diversion and could provide some perspective on our vibrant and ever-changing trade.

In 1900, indoor plumbing was a novelty, reserved for the very wealthy, wannabe wealthy, upscale hotels and specific buildings of a public nature. An indoor commode, as opposed to the proverbial “thunder mug,” was a status symbol of sorts, not to mention the convenience of not having to visit the “outdoor library”—especially in the winter months!

Keep in mind that ancient Rome had indoor plumbing and public bathrooms (not necessarily sanitary public restrooms) over 2,000 years ago, and the Mycenaean civilization on Crete had similar accommodations in their palaces some 5,000 years ago, so the American experience of 120 or so years ago is nothing to get puffed up about.

Plumbers at the turn of the 20th century were working with materials with which we are familiar today (which are slowly being supplanted), mostly cast iron, lead and galvanized pipe and in some cases red brass pipe for potable water. In some of the older cities, water mains were made out of wood (I actually watched my dad and grandfather tap a wood main in the streets of Brooklyn, way back when I was in short pants) and drainage, waste and vent piping was a combination of cast iron, galvanized and lead tube.

Trade skills have, before the present time, been taught from a master, or journeyman, to an apprentice. That is the way it had been done for thousands of years. Most manual skills, and the people who learn them, are best transmitted to the hands by the “watch, learn and do” method. As we enter the 21st century, the advent of YouTube and like media seems to have partially replaced that one-on-one experience, but it is far from being the best way to learn a manual skill.

120 years ago, plumbers had to know how to wipe lead (a skill which has gone by the wayside), cut and thread pipe and caulk lead joints in cast iron. By mid-century, copper tubing for potable water and DWV became popular and plumbers of that era had to learn a new skill: soldering copper joints. If you think that this new technique for joining water and DWV piping was easily learned, think again.

An old plumber I knew, who was an apprentice in 1938, told me that when copper tube came into general use, replacing galvanized and red brass pipe, few plumbers could solder. His first experience was when his journeyman mentor had him “tin” the tube before applying the fitting. I imagine that pre-fitting a tinned piece of ½” copper and a 90° would have been quite the chore, not to mention time consuming and frustrating. Burning the fitting and flux (which was pretty toxic at that time—remember the original NOKORODE?) was easy to do, especially before the Turbo-Torch. And accidentally burning down the building was a true worry! Use of a kerosene torch which was hand pumped was the common way to solder.

Bell and spigot cast iron soil pipe (and some DWV stacks) remained common for another 30 or so years, before the invention and approval of No-Hub. Prior to that each joint had to be caulked with a bituminous fiber known as oakum. Molten lead heated over a propane burner (sometimes called a “bomb” because it looked like one) was poured into the space above the oakum but below the top of the hub, or “bell end” of the fitting or run of pipe, and “tapped up” using a set of tool steel irons that set the lead and held the joint rigid. Horizontal lead joints were done with what were called running ropes made of oil-soaked asbestos, clamped at the top so that the molten lead could be poured into the gap. After pouring, the lead in the key-way was cut off and the joint tapped up or caulked like a vertical joint.

Oh, and cutting cast iron? Well, before the invention of the snapper in 1957 by Wheeler manufacturing, cast iron was cut by using a three-pound sledgehammer and a cold chisel. The apprentice (no self-respecting journeyman of that era would cut iron if there was a way to avoid it) would mark the length on the pipe, usually with a yellow lumber crayon and then methodically hammer on the chisel around the circumference of the pipe until it broke on the mark he had been hammering on. The invention of the cast iron snapper was a godsend to apprentices across the world! That simple invention not only saved time, but also many bruises from missed hammer strikes! Between the snapper and the introduction of No-Hub cast iron pipe and fitting (by Tyler Pipe in 1964), both production and apprentice’s hands improved exponentially.

After plumbers got really good at soldering, and No-Hub took over from hub and spigot sanitary soil/DWV, a wave of new materials burst on the scene. While PVC water tube had been around since the 1940s, it was never in wide use until the 1970s. It was first given an ASTM standard in 1960, but municipalities (most in the big cities) refused to allow it in their buildings for any number of reasons for many more years. The same was true of PVC and ABS for sanitary soil/DWV. The changes go on.

As you can see, innovations in materials have changed the physical aspects of the trade, lessening the requisite manual skills, but not the practice and knowledge required to install and maintain the plumbing systems we have come to rely on. Regardless of what the pundits tell you, and what new type of materials are brought into the marketplace, a well-trained craftsman is just as important today as he was 120 years ago, or 2,000 years ago for that matter. 

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].

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