Women, plumbers and doctors: sanitation in the home

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By | From the Collections

On World Water Day the book Women, Plumbers and Doctors caught my eye. It seems an unusual title for a book from 1885, but when you turn the front cover over it becomes apparent that this quirky title is a manual of household sanitation aimed at the American housewife.


According to the first chapter, “women should understand the details as well as the theory of sanitation” because they are “more interested in household hygiene than men”. Apparently it is the “divinely appointed mission” of women to “guide the house” since there is “nothing in hygiene that she could not comprehend”. The health benefits of good sanitation are clearly spelt out:

If women and plumbers do their whole sanitary duty, there will be comparatively little occasion for the services of the doctors

Among the sanitary issues covered are the problems and remedies of contaminated drinking water, an issue that “produces more preventable diseases than any other”.

Shallow wells previous to contamination were an age-old problem. Traditionally houses in rural settings tended to be situated in close proximity to the well, cesspit and barn yards, often leading to a sewage nightmare. Lining the wells with tile or cement to make them impervious is recommended.

illustration of a contaminated well

Incautious use of water drawn through lead pipes was another problem. One farmer who liked drinking the rather unpalatable combination of ‘vinegar and water sweetened’ suffered from lead poisoning as a result of drawing water up the well through a lead faucet. As well as partial facial paralysis and “gradual undermining of the health”, lead contamination could cause ‘wrist drop‘.

Despite awareness of the dangers of lead in 1885, it was not until the 1970s that lead pipes began to be phased out. Advice in the book includes running water for some time before drinking, a tip that is still being dispensed today in the United States where an Act to reduce the presence of lead in drinking water was only passed in 2011.

The book concludes with the assurance that “soon every true mother in America will be able to make an intelligent demand for a sanitary home” given the plethora of practical literature devoted to sanitation being produced “nearly every month”. Sadly for many mothers around the world today safe water and a sanitary home remain something of a pipe dream.

Author: Julia Nurse is Web Content Officer for the Wellcome Library.

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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3 comments on Women, plumbers and doctors: sanitation in the home
  • Mark Fernandes


    Hi Julia.. It is a very impressive article and thanks for enlightening me about these important facts to be noted by plumbers and women.

  • Nancy


    Hi Julia! Thanks for sharing such a good info. We look forward reading that book too.

  • Nedine


    Great article; as a woman I am very focused on household hygiene; cant wait to read the book. Thanks

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