Friday, October 19, 2018

Surprising Things about Plumbers

I’ve written several posts about jobs in the nineteenth century, often starting with information from A Book of English Trades, the guidebook used to inform young adults about what job they might want to pursue. I was looking for something interesting to blog about this time and stumbled across the entry for plumbers. And what I found surprised me.

I should start out by saying that our family has lamented for some years that no relative grew up to be a plumber. Fixing piping continues to be a prized skill around here. It apparently was an important skill in the early nineteenth century too. In London, plumbers were one of the Livery Companies. The Worshipful Company of Plumbers was chartered in 1611, but their crest dates to decades earlier. Members agreed to certain ordinances to ensure work was done to standards.

But a nineteenth-century plumber didn’t just fix plumbing. Here’s a list of some of the things a plumber might set his hand to:

  • Making and installing pipes of all sizes
  • Creating siding for houses
  • Building rain gutters
  • Casting statues and ornaments
  • Crafting coffins
  • Fitting water closets (I was also surprised to see these mentioned in an 1818 edition of the book)
  • Making pumps.
What do all these things have in common, you might ask? They were all made with lead in the nineteenth century. Lead was the primary metal of choice for plumbers.

As we know today, working with lead can extract a toll on health. The lead face paint of an earlier age comes to mind. I had thought it still somewhat unknown in the early nineteenth century. But the book cautions young men considering becoming a plumber that the fumes from molten lead can be dangerous. It also warns that young plumbers should cultivate “cleanliness and strict sobriety” and should “never, on any account, eat their meals, or retire to rest at night, before they have well washed their hands and face.”

Seems those thirty shillings a week ascribed to the trade came at a cost. I still want a plumber in the family.


AnneB said...

And they're called "plumbers" because the Latin word for lead is plumbum. The word also survives in the periodic table abbreviation for lead (Pb) and in plumb line, a lead weight at the bottom of a line "used to determine the vertical on an upright surface"(Wikipedia gets credit for helping me explain this) and to determine the depth of a body of water (as in, "to plumb the depths").

Regina Scott said...

Nice, AnneB! I knew about the plumb line, but I didn't realize the connection to lead. Cool!