Plumbing In The 1940s

By Jim Olsztynski

Plumbing was a mature industry at the dawn of the 1940s. Plumbing had made its mark as a specialty trade back in the 1870s and the trade continued to evolve with new technologies and materials. By 1940 most city dwellers in the U.S. enjoyed indoor plumbing, although this was not the case with rural society.

Indoor plumbing refers mainly to flush toilets, the most critical plumbing fixture. Historical data showed that by 1940 around two-thirds of American homes had an indoor flush toilet, but in many rural parts of the country, farm families still relieved themselves in outhouses. Even in the cities, while most residences had flush toilets, working class neighborhoods abounded with cold-water tenements lacking piped hot water and a bathtub or shower. A tradition had evolved of the “Saturday night bath” in a sink or tub filled with water heated on a stove, often with several family members sharing the same bathwater. A galvanized steel tub was a common piece of furnishing tucked away in closets and corners in homes and apartments of the era.

As the 1940s dawned, lead service pipe had largely given way to galvanized steel. While that was a great advance from a health standpoint, plumbers began to notice that after 20 years or so galvanized steel began to rust shut like clogged arteries, leading to reduced water pressure and in some cases burst pipe. So starting around the mid-1930s, copper supply piping came into widespread use.

At the other end, cast iron was the material of choice for drainage. Some old-time plumbers still remember the laborious, smelly and unhealthy task of forming lead and oakum joints to connect drainage pipe. Another widespread trend that took root in the 1940s was replacing older toilets with their elevated tanks with modern toilets that incorporated the water reservoir right atop the bowl.

In the 1920s Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, started the Materials and Structures Division of the National Bureau of Standards and appointed Dr. Roy Hunter to head the Plumbing Division. Dr. Hunter conducted a series of studies on how to best handle various aspects of plumbing. These studies, published in the 1930s and 1940s, resulted in the so-called “Hunter Curves” of sizing guidelines used by plumbing engineers and which form the basis of modern plumbing codes, which have changed little since then. Since these plumbing codes were developed, nearly all new housing has been built with complete plumbing facilities, defined as hot and cold piped water, a bathtub and/or shower, along with a flush toilet.

The Plumbing Workforce: Like virtually every other business, the plumbing trade suffered severe cutbacks and deprivation during the Great Depression. Plumbing was of minor concern for many people who relied on soup kitchens just to survive. Most plumbing was done by small mom-and-pop shops whose businesses rarely supported more than immediate family members, and then just barely.

In line with the overall economy conditions improved significantly at the beginning of the 1940s, thanks to military spending. Plumbers went to work helping to build ships, military barracks and many other facilities that served wartime needs. Overall worker wages grew by 65% over the course of the war. The era was also a boon for organized labor, which worked hand-in-hand with the federal government to train skilled workers and manage labor supply. By 1945 about 35.5% of the non-agricultural work force was unionized, a record high. The United Association plumbers’ union, IBEW electrical workers and other construction trade unions reached their peaks of influence during the war years.

Bigger plumbing firms able to compete for defense contracts found the war years a time of unprecedented prosperity. However, many mom-and-pop shops catering to civilians struggled during the era and quite a few went out of business, their owners usually going to work for someone else or ending up in military service.

Many plumbers and other skilled tradesmen received occupational draft deferments granted to persons with critical skills that could benefit the war effort. The catch was they had to work where the government assigned them or lose their deferments. Countless plumbers who could not or would not relocate were drafted into the military. They also could be drafted once a project was completed and they couldn’t latch onto another critical job. Throughout the war manpower was a big problem for the trades, and just about everyone else. By 1944 unemployment in the U.S. reached its all-time low of 1.2%. Anyone who wanted a job could have one, and a well-paid one at that. Residential plumbing firms that catered to civilians were mostly staffed by retirees, youngsters below draft age or men with medical-related draft deferments.

Civilian demand for plumbing plummeted, because the wartime economy all but eliminated non-military construction and material restrictions impacted the trades along with everyone else. For instance, approximately 18,000 tons of steel were expected to be saved by eliminating metal jackets from low pressure heating boilers, and 180,000 pounds of brass by eliminating fusible plugs and tri-cocks. One old-timer I spoke with recalls plumbers installing tubs made of cement and cast iron faucets due to shortages of more conventional materials. Another senior citizen told me of a plumber carrying a grinding machine to make his own faucet seats because no replacement parts were available. With plumbers and their materials in short supply, by necessity many homeowners became resourceful do-it-yourselfers. The government’s slogan of “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” was taken to heart by almost everyone.

Aftermath: The first couple of years after the war were rather sluggish economically as the government tried to figure out how to transition to a peacetime economy. Price controls remained in place. Rosie and her fellow female riveters largely went back to homemaking and raising families.

However, the stage was set for an explosion of American prosperity. A big reason is that with high wages and wartime restrictions on production of consumer goods, Americans saved a large portion of their incomes. Families and individuals were in the market for homes, autos, appliances and other big-ticket merchandise. Coupled with the G.I. Bill, they had money to go to college or start a business.

Housing in particular was in short supply due to pent-up demand from returning GIs and their families, and this fueled a construction boom. So the last few years of the 1940s were go-go years for the plumbing trade. The trade association now identified as NAPHCC blossomed with membership and by the 1950s was attracting thousands of members to its annual conventions. Many plumbing companies of today were formed during that era of booming home construction.

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