The Evolution of the Bath Room

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

It’s World Toilet Day, a day emphasizing the importance of sanitation to public health and reminding us that 2.4 billion people still do not have access to basic toilets.1 On this day, we look back to a historic time of toilet transformation in America and look forward to a time when disease-mitigating sanitation becomes available for all.

The Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company formed in Pennsylvania in 1875.2 At that time, indoor bathrooms had only just begun to appear in urban and suburban settings, newly possible thanks to the advent of sewer systems.3 Early indoor bathrooms hid plumbing and fixtures under wooden doors and cupboards.2,4 But by the publication of Standard Sanitary’s The Evolution of the Bath Room circa 1912, open plumbing and visible commodes had taken over bathroom design: “The bathroom of today is infinitely more cleanly, durable and efficient.”2 And the public health infrastructure that allowed for them, like sewers and access to clean water, saved lives.

Back cover, The Evolution of the Bath Room, circa 1912. Cover, The Evolution of the Bath Room, circa 1912. The 1870s-style bathroom is shown on top. The 1912-era bathroom is on the bottom.

Back cover, The Evolution of the Bath Room, circa 1912. The 1870s-style bathroom is shown on top. The 1912-era bathroom is on the bottom.

The bathrooms of this pamphlet look like the ones we have in 21st century America (except, in some cases, for their cavernous size and luxurious fittings). But today we are not as excited about our commodes as Standard Sanitary would like us to be: “The bathroom is rightly considered by many as the first room in the home and is exhibited to guests with the utmost pride. Truly the comfort that may be derived from a complete and up-to-date bathroom is worthy of this appreciation.”2

Along with several other companies, including Kohler (founded in 1873),4 Standard Sanitary worked at the forefront of the plumbing industry. The company developed “the one-piece toilet, built-in tubs, combination faucets (which mix hot and cold water to deliver tempered water) and tarnish-proof, corrosion-proof chrome finishes for brass fittings.”5 By 1929, Standard Sanitation led the bathroom fixture market worldwide. It still exists today as the American Standard company.

Enjoy perusing the full pamphlet, full of memorable quips like: “There is nothing which will appeal so strongly to the fastidious and careful housewife, and be so great a source of enjoyment, as modern high-grade fixtures.”2

Click on an image to view the gallery.


1. World Toilet Day. Available at: Accessed November 10, 2015.

2. Standard Sanitary Mfg. Co. The evolution of the bath room. Pittsburgh: Standard Sanitary Mfg. Co; [1912].

3. Duncombe T. A long soak in the subject of bathrooms. Philadelphia Inquirer. Published October 1991. Accessed November 10, 2015.

4. Horan J. Sitting pretty: An uninhibited history of the toilet. London: Robson; 1998.

5. American Standard. Company Information. Available at: Accessed November 4, 2015.

Garbage and the City

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

This summer we are proud to present a new collaborative series, “Garbage and the City: Two Centuries of Dirt, Debris and Disposal.”

Together with our partners the Museum of the City of New York and ARCHIVE Global: Architecture for Health, “Garbage and the City” presents three moments in the city’s battle with sanitation and waste disposal challenges in a rapidly growing urban environment. Catherine McNeur will set the scene with “Hog Wash, Swill Milk, & the Politics of Waste Recycling in Antebellum Manhattan” on July 1. Julie Sze will discuss “Noxious New York: Race, Class and Garbage” on August 3, and finally, Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence for New York City’s Department of Sanitation, will consider the daily practice of garbage collection and management in the city today with “Life Along the Curb: Inside the Department of Sanitation of New York” on August 17. All three events are free with advance registration.

New York City garbage truck, circa 1929. Photo from The New York Academy of Medicine Committee on Public Health Archive.

New York City garbage truck, circa 1929. Photo from The New York Academy of Medicine Committee on Public Health Archive.

The Academy has a long history tackling questions related to New York City’s sanitation infrastructure. Waste management and disposal was an ongoing concern as the city grew. Despite the creation of the Department of Street Cleaning in 1881, street cleaning and garbage removal contracts, like many other services enmeshed in the politics of city, included the trading of political favors, jobs for constituents, and the creation of slush funds. The threat or occurrence of epidemic disease triggered attempts to improve the situation, but at the turn of the 20th century, sanitation and waste disposal efforts remained haphazard and slow to change.

Many sanitation advocates of the late 19th century blamed disease on filth and refuse and the foul-smelling miasmas they produced. The emergence of new bacterial theories and techniques linked disease to the presence of specific pathogens. Whichever approach to disease was taken, the reality was clear: keeping the city clean from refuse was critical to minimizing the spread of infectious diseases such as cholera, making dealing with garbage a critical issue for the health of the city.

An open letter to mothers from the Committee of Twenty.

An open letter to mothers from the Committee of Twenty. Click to enlarge.

The Academy’s Committee for Public Health proposed new street cleaning methods periodically in the early 1900s. At this time, most of New York City’s garbage was carried out to sea in barges and dumped into the ocean. Collaborating with municipal officials and around a dozen civic organizations, the Academy appointed a Committee of Twenty on Street and Outdoor Cleanliness (a subcommittee of its Committee on Public Health). Its goal was public education, and included signage urging people to clean the sidewalks and curb their dogs, and a competition to design a more effective trash basket. The Committee reported on topics as varied as the effective design of dump trucks; conditions at the city’s open air markets and suggestions for their improvement; education campaigns instructing “every mother in this neighborhood” to teach their children to “refrain from this obnoxious practice” of throwing litter in street; and air pollution from fires on Rikers Island.1

Pamphlets reflecting the work of George Soper and the Committee of Twenty.

Pamphlets reflecting the work of George Soper and the Committee of Twenty.

In the 1930s, George Soper, the sanitation engineer best known for identifying Mary Mallon (“Typhoid Mary”) as a carrier of typhoid,2 was sent by the Committee of Twenty to take a trash tour of Europe. He attended the 1931 International Conference on Public Cleansing in London; measured the plowing capacity of German snow trucks; visited 14 incineration plants; and documented varied street sweeping methods during his extensive travels. The evidence he brought back all pointed in the same direction: whatever its successes, New York City was behind the times when it came to dealing with trash. The Academy used Soper’s reports to urge significant changes in the infrastructure of New York City’s garbage collection and disposal.

By 1933, politics struck again. The Committee chairman’s report stated that “the activities of the Committee of Twenty were considerably curtailed by the unexpected changes in City administration.”3 The Committee bemoaned the fact that despite better cooperation between the Police and Sanitation Departments, new ordinances and regulations were not systematically followed, and the “streets of New York City remain an untidy, if not disgraceful, condition.”4 Despite their concerns, the Committee concluded that the combination of political change and worsening economic conditions meant their attention would be better directed towards other efforts at a national level.

On a more positive note, the 1930s saw considerable resources expended, partly through New Deal projects, building new sanitation infrastructure, particularly sewage treatment.5 A 1934 law curtailed the dumping of municipal waste at sea, beginning a new era of sanitary landfills.6 Throughout the decade the Department of Sanitation (renamed from the Department of Street Cleaning in 1929) introduced new mass-produced garbage truck able to better compact and transport garbage. The winning entrant of the Committee’s competition for a more effective trash basket however, has sadly been lost to time.

New York City garbage truck circa 1930.

New York City garbage truck, circa 1930. Photo from the New York Academy of Medicine Committee on Public Health Archive.

The “Garbage and the City” series is presented in collaboration with the Museum of the City of New York and ARCHIVE GLOBAL and is supported by a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


1. Committee of Twenty on Street and Outdoor Cleanliness, Committee on Public Health Archive, New York Academy of Medicine.

2. George A. Soper, “The Curious Career of Typhoid Mary,Bulletin of The New York Academy of Medicine, 1939 Oct; 15(10): 698–712.

3. Presumably a reference to Mayor John O’Brien, who served a one year term in 1933 before being defeated by Fiorello LaGuardia. O’Brien is now regarded as the last of the “Tammany Hall” mayors, criticized for his lackluster response to the impact of the Depression on the New York population. See: “Mayor John O’Brien: His Heart Is As Black As Yours!” Bowery Boys blog, February 25, 2010.

4. Report of the Chairman at the meeting of March 23, 1933, Committee of 20 on Street and Outdoor Cleanliness, New York Academy of Medicine Archives.

5. John Duffy, A History of Public Health in New York City 1866-1966 (Russell Sage Foundation: New York, 1968), 521.

6. George S. Soper, “Disposal of waste an urgent problem: Supreme Court order against dumping at sea points the need for incinerators,” The New York Times, March 18, 1934.

A Different Kind of Flush

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

It’s World Toilet Day, a day reminding us that one-third of the world’s population does not have access to a toilet and consequently faces serious sanitary challenges.1

Similar difficulties once faced places where toilets are now widespread. In much of the Western world, filthy urban streets, unregulated sanitation, and a series of epidemics marked the early 1800s. Things began to change at the end of the century, dubbed in Sitting Pretty: An Uninhibited History of the Toilet as “the golden age of toilets,” due in part to innovative toilet design, consolidated sewage systems, and a better understanding of disease transmission.2

Flushing the toilet was a loud business in the 1800s, one often plagued by insufficient water and unpleasant smells. These issues with water toilets led to Reverend Henry Moule’s invention of the earth closet in 1860.2,3

The most basic version of the earth closet was a seat above a bucket filled with “fine dry earth, charcoal, or ashes.” Pulling a handle caused fresh earth to fall into the bucket from above. More elaborate versions included closets on adjacent floors, connected via a chute in the wall.3

The inner workings of a basic earth closet.4

The inner workings of a basic earth closet.4 Click to enlarge.

Multistory Earth Closet

Earth closets on multiple floors, connected by a chute.4 Click to enlarge.

In an 1872 pamphlet in our collection, “Earth-closets and earth sewage,” author George E. Waring, a 19th-century champion of sanitation, advocated for the earth closet’s use. According to Waring, benefits included a lack of odors; the “complete and effectual removal of all the liquid wastes of sleeping-rooms and kitchens”; the collection of “manure worth . . . at least $10 per annum for each member of the family”; and disease prevention.4

Waring acknowledged the growing popularity of the water toilet, writing:

“The water-closet is the chief thing of which women living in the country envy their city cousins the possession. In country-houses, one of the first steps toward elegance is the erection of an expensive water-closet in the house, provided with a force-pump that is doomed to break both the back and the temper of the hired man; a tank and pipes which are pretty sure to be burst by frost every winter; the annual tax of the plumber’s bill; and, worse than all, a receptacle in the garden known as a ‘cess-pool,’ which usually has a private subterranean communication with the well from which drinking water is taken.”4

By contrast, wrote Waring, the “properly constructed” earth closet was odorless and absent “of the depressing, headachy effect that always accompanies the water-closet or night chair.” He also argued that outdoor privies, if they must exist, should become earth closets.4

Clearly earth closets clearly never gained the popularity Waring hoped they’d enjoy, although some use their cousin, the composting toilet, today. Whatever toilet you use, give thanks on World Toilet Day for its enormous public health benefits.


1. What is World Toilet Day? (n.d.). World Toilet Day. Retrieved August 29, 2013, from

2. Horan, J. L. (1998). Sitting pretty: an uninhibited history of the toilet. London: Robson.

3. Wright, L. (1960). Clean and decent: the fascinating history of the bathroom & the water closet, and of sundry habits, fashions & accessories of the toilet, principally in Great Britain, France, & America. New York: Viking Press.

4. Waring, G. E. (1872). Earth-closets and earth sewage. New York: Orange Judd and Co.