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Beehive Archive: Indoor plumbing eases the domestic burden

By Staff | Sep 28, 2022

Inddor plumbing was not always the norm here in Utah.

Welcome to the Beehive Archive — your weekly bite-sized look at some of the most pivotal — and peculiar — events in Utah history. With all of the history and none of the dust, the Beehive Archive is a fun way to catch up on Utah’s past. Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities, provided to local papers as a weekly feature article focusing on Utah history topics drawn from our award-winning radio series, which can be heard each week on KCPW and Utah Public Radio.

Indoor Plumbing Eases the Domestic Burden Most of us take for granted the luxury of having running water inside of our homes. But, indoor plumbing is a relatively new phenomenon that has made life significantly easier! At the turn of the twentieth century, just 1% of homes in the United States had electricity and indoor plumbing. This number increased in the 1930s when federal funding and improved technologies made running water much more accessible for homeowners. Advancements such as flushing toilets, hot water, and steam heating became standard in urban houses and apartment buildings, easing the burden of housework for many Utah women.

Even as costs lowered, however, these modern luxuries were unevenly distributed. They primarily benefited middle-class city dwellers, leaving many rural Utahns without access to running water well into the 21st century. In the early 1900s, cities invested thousands of dollars into plumbing new housing developments and connecting homes to sewer systems.

These changes were especially important in dense, urban areas because easy access to clean water helped ward off disease in crowded neighborhoods. Buildings such as the Hillcrest Apartments in Salt Lake City boasted modern amenities aimed at cleanliness and convenience. Steam-heated closets that dried clothes, flush toilets, and hot water on demand eased household tasks for women who no longer had to cart their own water from a well each morning.

For those who were wealthy enough to live in newer buildings, running water quickly went from a luxury to a necessity. But such updates were slow to arrive to many areas of rural Utah. New constructions often outfitted homes and commercial buildings with the appropriate pipes and connections to public water. But for existing buildings, such upgrades could be costly, if they were able to connect to a water source at all.

Cities enacted ordinances that required homeowners to pay for permitting and inspections before installing plumbing infrastructure in their homes. This financial burden prevented many interested residents from updating their homes.

For some Utahns, running water is still its own luxury. Despite the major improvements that indoor plumbing made for domestic life, advancements did not reach every community in Utah. Members of the Navajo Nation residing in southeastern Utah, for example, continue to face poor water infrastructure and limited access to running water — well into the 21st century.

Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. This Beehive Archive story is part of Think Water Utah, a statewide collaboration and conversation on the critical topic of water presented by Utah Humanities and its partners. Sources consulted in the creation of the Beehive Archive and past episodes may be found at www.utahhumanities.org/stories. © Utah Humanities 2022

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