The History of Women and Plumbing

Posted by - Christopher Parrett - April 5, 2013

allie the plumberSitting in the PHCC state-regulated plumbing code class, I quickly realized 50+ male plumbers surrounded me. I was the only lady in the building. Now, I’m accustomed to this phenomenon. Perhaps I was fated to be in this situation since I was the only female born in the hospital on the day I came into this world.

Most women who decide to pursue a career in the trades will need to adapt to being one of a few women in a male-dominated industry. When I started to study plumbing, the thought of working in an ancient trade intrigued me. Searching and scrounging for information on the history of women in the field yielded few results. I share, with you, my findings.

Plumbing has existed since early civilization. Pipes and rudimentary fixtures date back to 2500 BCE. The word plumbing comes from the Latin word “plumbarius,” which means lead. Lead was used as the most common material for early pipes. Increased exposure to lead can lead to adverse health affects and prevent full human development, which is probably why the average life expectancy at the time was 35. The creation of public baths (which created a need for potable water) propelled ancient plumbers to find ways to provide mass amounts of water to certain areas. Our predecessors got fancy and figured out ways to heat and cool water using rudimentary techniques. The Romans designed and built the first sewer and aqueduct systems. Plumbing accessibility has always depended on affordability. As the Romans expanded their empire, they brought their technologies to the regions that could afford such “luxuries.”

History fails to elucidate the sex of our earliest plumbers. One assumes males dominated the field from the start, as they were “more able” to carry large pipe and other tools. The dark ages brought plague and disease to many across Europe. Sewers led to the same rivers where people drank and bathed. It was not until the late 16th century that plumbing uncovered its next big invention, under the influence of the one of the most famous women to ever live. Sir John Harrington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I, invented the first English toilet for his hygienically conscious queen. Many ridiculed the invention and it remained dormant for almost 200 years until Queen Victoriaʼs reign brought the world the flushable water closet.

Obviously, women have not been left completely out of the plumbing history book. Fortunately, the learned minds of the monarchs felt the welfare of their people and the cleanliness of their drinking water was worth further exploration. Plumbers have always carried the burden of providing their communities with healthy, safe drinking water and reliable sewage services.
 As we approach modern times, Smithsonian Magazine recently shared the story of the National Association of Master Plumbers Auxiliary Committee. In 1919, the Committee was turned over to the wives of the Master Plumbers in the association. Afterwards, the committee focused on acquiring the female vote and lobbied for sanitation reforms. In World War II, the demand for women in the trades rose due to men going off to war. When the men returned from war, women were advised to return home until the womenʼs liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Seldom in the books of plumbing history does one find a woman highlighted by name. A handful of women, including Lillian Baumbach and Irena Sendler, break that convention.

Baumbauch was born with plumbing in her blood. Her fathers, uncles, brothers and male cousins owned and operated a local plumbing company. At the age of two, she began plumbing and never stopped. During World War II, Baumbach was a pen pal to troops oversees, a plumber and a pin up girl. Lillian is credited as being the first female Master Plumber in the United States. At the same time, in a different country, Sendler used her female powers to persuade the Nazis to allow her to service the Jewish ghettos rampant in Germany. During this time, Irena and her friends smuggled hundreds of children out of ghettos, some in toolboxes or potato sacks.
These early female plumbers inspire current ladies to follow in their famous footsteps. 
In our world today, female plumbers are very rare, but they do exist. Female-owned and operated plumbing businesses have opened up all over the world. Customers feel safe with a female plumber as most of our customers in the plumbing industry are women. Canada, the United Kingdom and Egypt feature female plumbers, and these ladies have experienced much success

From this blog, you hopefully gleaned that women have played in intricate role of the industry since its inception. As time passes, their dominance in the field also grows.

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