Thriftstorm #11: Yesterday’s Plumbing Today

Thriftstorm is Captain Video’s secondhand anthropology project. Follow @Thriftstorm on Twitter for the latest news on things people were just going to throw away.

Artifact: Practical Up-To-Date Plumbing, by George B. Clow

Description: Hardcover book with linen binding. “OVER 180 ILLUSTRATIONS.” Published by Frederick J. Drake & Co., Publishers.

Source: Junk store, sometime earlier this year.


This summer beat the hell out of me. That happens sometimes. You sit down to do something, and then a bunch of stuff happens to you, and suddenly an entire season has gone by, and all you feel is tired.

I was going to write about a different subject for today’s post, but I never had the time I needed to do the additional research I felt it deserved. And on some nights, I couldn’t sleep, and I needed to read something boring to help me. So here’s that something boring.

Practical Up-To-Date Plumbing, by George B. Clow, has everything you need if you’re a plumber in 1914. Per the copyrights, it supersedes the editions of 1912 and 1906. Please read the following in the same tone of voice as the spoken-word bit from Cameo’s “Candy”:


I’m going to level with you, I don’t know a whole lot about plumbing. My understanding is that clean water goes into a building, the occupants ruin the water, and then the dirty water is sent to a treatment plant to have the shame wrung out of it.

To read Practical Up-To-Date Plumbingthough, you get the impression that major strides were taking place in the field. Speaking of a reasonably modern-looking toilet, Clow enthuses that “The washout closet is, perhaps, the best sanitary water closet, and they are made by nearly all manufacturers of sanitary fixtures.” (“Sanitary plumbing” is the header for this section, which very circumspectly acknowledges the existence of sewage.) “The washout closet would would be almost perfect if it were set up and connected as intended to be, and with a good local vent connected.” Amusingly, Clow gets into aesthetics: “The appearance of this style of closet is also very bad, especially the style of washout with the back outlet as shown in Fig. 126.”

Behold, the good toilet designs the Illuminati didn’t want you to have.

The whole book is filled with illustrations, mostly woodcuts. If you need literally 27 pages of drainage fitting woodcuts, have I got the book for you.

The detail on the woodcuts is fine enough that I had to rescan some of the pages. I was getting a rainbow effect on default color scan, and had to switch to the preset for magazine photos.

There are also cruder blueprint-style diagrams, the most complex of which look like illustrations from the Voynich Manuscript:


What led me to buy this was the chapter on solder. I do pewter casting from time to time (one of my many hobbies that doesn’t love me back), and pewter and plumbing solder are similar. The big difference is that modern pewter and solder have cut lead out of the equation. 1912 did not give a fuck about how much lead you were exposed to, as detailed in this table of melting points:

I have no idea where you were supposed to buy the working materials for these recipes. Maybe the five and dime just had lead ingots you cut chunks off of and paid for by weight.

Also, God help you if you got zinc into your tin/lead soup: “Zinc is the greatest trouble to the solder pot. Great care has to be taken to exclude it, or to get it out.” Please take a moment to clear your mind before starting this next sentence. “Solder that has been poisoned by arsenic or antimony [which are also both toxic] is beyond the plumber’s skill to clean, but zinc can be extracted by stirring in powdered sulphur when the solder is in a semi-molten condition, and then melting the whole, when the combined sulphur and zinc will rise to the surface and can be taken off in the form of a cake, the solder being left in good condition for use.” This cake is zinc sulfide, which would become the primary phosphor in black and white TV picture tubes 40 years later.

The section on solder also contains a weird detour into molecular theory: “If, for instance, the particles take the form of spheres like a number of marbles, the surface in actual contact is comparatively very small indeed, [and] the same would be the case if they were very irregular in form. But if each particle took the form of a cube, or some other regular body, the the attraction would be greatly increased, as each of the particles approached and fitted into its proper place.” Consider that sentence, and then imagine that the person reading it may have showed up to work on a horse.

Clow’s interest in molecular theory borders on the philosophical: “It would be interesting to try and find out why a combination of metals fuses at such a low temperature when compared with the fusing points of the component parts of the alloys.” What he’s saying, in as many words as possible, is that you can end up with a metal whose melting point is lower than any of the starting ingredients. (Scroll back up to the table of lead/tin/bismuth alloys from earlier.) The term for such alloys is “eutectic,” and a eutectic system is described by an equation I’m guessing Clow didn’t have.

Practical Up-To-Date Plumbing concludes with a section titled “Useful Information,” and I’ll reproduce some of it here. For legal reasons, this reproduction should not be considered an endorsement. If you burn yourself roasting “strong cement,” that’s on you.


I assume half the guys who read this book were killed a couple years later in World War I anyway. A great era of turbulence was at hand, but the world would emerge stronger, wiser, and with better plumbing.

NEXT TIME: Notes on thrift shopping in the Great White North.