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«Pipes, Pools, and Privies: Some Notes on Early Island Plumbing Robert C. Schmitt Few subjects are so basic to modern living, so commonplace, and yet ...»

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Pipes, Pools, and Privies:

Some Notes on Early Island Plumbing

Robert C. Schmitt

Few subjects are so basic to modern living, so commonplace, and yet so

poorly covered by the historical literature of Hawaii as bathroom

plumbing. The opening paragraph of Bushnell's pioneering paper on

"Hygiene and Sanitation Among the Ancient Hawaiians," for example,

referred to the paucity of materials on pre-contact sanitary practices,

and ruefully added: "As a matter of fact, very few people have paid any attention at all to the unromantic details of the business of living even in the years since the islands were discovered."1 The following pages present a modest effort to fill some of these gaps.2


Even the most rudimentary plumbing was unknown before Captain Cook's arrival. The ancient Hawaiians depended on streams and springs for their water supply, sometimes carrying calabashes of water great distances over rugged terrain. They bathed in streams, mountain pools, auwai (irrigation ditches), shore pools, and the sea. Commoners typically used the bush as a bathroom; they would dig a hole to bury their waste, together with the leaves or small stones or wisps of grass with which they cleaned themselves when finished, and then would carefully cover the hole to hide it from the kahuna ana'ana. Adult ali'i used 'umeke (wooden bowls) or ipu (hollowed gourds) as chamber pots and waste receptacles. Family privies and community latrines were generally unknown.3 Robert C. Schmitt is State Statistician with the Hawaii State Department of Planning and Economic Development.

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of H. James Bartels, Rhoda E. A.

Hackler, Edward Joesting, and Richard Thompson.

Although the first foreign settlers initially relied, like the Hawaiians, on streams and springs for their water supply, they eventually explored other sources. One of these settlers, James Hunnewell, later recorded that the earliest attempt to dig a well in Honolulu was by William R.

Warren, in the central part of the village, around 1820, but this effort was abandoned before any water was reached. The first successful well was dug by Joseph Navarro in his yard near the present intersection of Bethel and King Streets some two years later.4 Tyerman and Bennet, visiting Honolulu in 1822, noted that "good fresh water is obtained from wells sunk eight or ten feet through the coral reef."5 Windmills provided an early means for pumping the water, but the date of their introduction is uncertain. Masselot's lithograph of Kinau returning from church, drawn in 1837, shows at least two huts surmounted by windmills in its background.6 A windmill erected in the yard of William French in the middle of what is now Alakea Street, pictured in an 1853 lithograph by Emmert, has also been described (by John Cook) as "the first windmill in Honolulu."7 Both Hawaiian and foreign dwellings in the 19th Century usually included a backyard hale li'ili'i (little house).8 The native facilities were especially primitive; an 1852 visitor wrote, "Their water closets are excavations covered in atop, leaving a small square hole for business.

I took them for wells! !"9 As late as 1880, Walter Murray Gibson found it necessary to issue detailed instructions on the construction and maintenance of privies, the need for frequent bathing, and other matters of hygiene.10 PIPED WATER Work on a piped water supply system for Honolulu was first undertaken in the late 1840s. Ladd & Co. had imported 14 reels of i|-inch lead pipe in October 1838, but seven years later 10 reels remained on hand. This supply was finally sold to the government in September 1847, for temporary use in Honolulu's pioneering water supply system until iron piping could be obtained. The new line, completed by March 31, 1848, conveyed water from a taro patch mauka of Beretania Street, between Fort and Emma, to a water tank erected "for the convenience of shipping" in the basement of the new Harbor Master and Pilots' Office, near the wharf at the foot of Nuuanu Avenue.11 The new system was soon expanded. By 1851 a small masonry reservoir had been completed near Nuuanu Avenue and Bates Street;

connected to the harbor by a 4-inch iron main, it served the vessels coming into port as well as the businesses and dwellings along its route.

A year later, five hydrants were placed along Nuuanu Avenue and cisterns were constructed at various street intersections.12 The hydrants served to prevent a recurrence of the messy slapstick that took place a few years earlier, when Honolulu's first firefighters mistook a cesspool for a well.13 The system was sporadically extended and improved, but it remained inadequate well into the 20th Century. Major expansion took place in 1860-61, for example, but by the end of the decade users complained of low pressure and alarming pollution.14 The first artesian well in the Islands was drilled in 1879, and eventually artesian water supplemented the water from mountain streams in Honolulu's supply. Purity remained a problem, however, and health officials urged the construction of a filtration plant for the water from the Nuuanu reservoirs.15 As late as the 1920s, homes in the uplands did not receive a regular supply of water, and others received unfiltered, muddy water from Nuuanu and had to buy drinking water. No substantial progress on solving these problems was achieved until the creation of the Board of Water Supply in 1929.16 PLUMBERS The first plumber in Hawaii, G. Segelken, arrived in 1850 and opened a shop on Nuuanu Avenue near the waterfront.17 Others soon followed.

In 1861, a newspaper advertisement announced that George C. Riders had "secured the services of a Practical Plumber" and was offering "an assortment of... Wash Basins... Iron Bath Tubs.... Those persons who intend having water introduced into their houses would do well to have the pipes laid at an early date in order to be ready when the new pipes are laid."18 The 1869 directory listed three plumbing firms in Honolulu.19 Census statistics charted a rapid growth in the number of plumbers in Hawaii over the ensuing century. The 1884 count, the first to offer detailed occupational data, reported 15 plumbers and gasfitters throughout the Kingdom.20 This total rose to 76 in 1900, 248 in 1920, 748 in 1940, and 1,938 in 1970.21 Female plumbers did not appear in the tallies until 1940, when there were two of them, but by 1970 they numbered 28.


References to home bathrooms began to appear before the middle of the 19th Century, although without any mention of their contents or exact functions. An 1846 advertisement, for example, described a house "sent out from the U. States in frame... Bath rooms, Ironing rooms,

Cook House, &c attached."22 The same year an advertisement read:

"To Let. Four good houses in the enclosure formerly occupied by Capt.

Adams.... A good Cook House and Bathing House are attached."23 A visitor in 1848, describing the Palace grounds, noted that "the bathing house and servants lodge are the other buildings within the grounds."24 And an 1850 advertisement for a "country villa, in Nuuanu Valley" stated that "the house is conveniently arranged for the accommodation of a small family, with the luxury of a bath room."25 Bathtubs had by that time already become relatively common in Honolulu. Advertisements for basins, chamber pots, wash bowls, and wooden tubs appeared in 1838 issues of the Sandwich Island Gazette, Hawaii's first English-language newspaper. In that same year, Stephen Reynolds' journal recorded a visit to the fort's prison, where Reynolds "looked in on a certain Billings, who was in a tub washing himself."26 By 1847 newspaper ads were explicitly listing "bath tubs" for sale, and such notices continued to appear at sporadic intervals thereafter.27 It was not until 1866, however, that one of these advertisements carried an illustration of the product in question. This one-column notice—"Robert Rycroft, Plumber!... N.B. He begs to call attention to his Superior and Cheap BATH TUBS! Lined with Zinc."—included a small cut of a woman seated in a high-backed tub.28 Bathing at this time often took place in backyard structures detached from the main dwelling. One such facility, owned by Elisha and Mary Allen and located along Nuuanu Stream near Judd Street, was described by Mrs. Allen in 1863. "Out in the garden there was a small house built over a good sized cement cistern and equipped with a platform and seats.

Fresh, cool water from the stream flowed in one side and out the other, giving the bather a delightful cold water dousing, which was refreshing and considered very healthful."29 The flush toilet appears to have been introduced to the Islands in the 1850s, long after its appearance in Europe and America. A valve water closet had been described by Sir John Harington in 1596, but was not put into general use until its re-invention by Cummings (another Englishman) in 1775 and subsequent improvement by Bramah in 1778.30 Increasingly common (although far from universal) in both Europe and the eastern United States as the 19th Century reached its midpoint, the flush toilet apparently remained unknown in Hawaii.

Its earliest known mention occurred in the original plans for the new Court House on Queen Street, drawn in 1850, which showed a small room marked "water closet." These plans were later discarded, however, An early bath tub advertisement in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Feb. 17, 1866.

and after the facility was completed, late in 1852, it was described as simply a "privy."31 The first flush toilets for which an unambiguous record can be found appear to have been those installed in King Kamehameha IV's new house on the Iolani Palace grounds in 1856. Entries in the Chamberlain's account books list expenditures for "Water traps for closets," "digging cesspools," "oil casks for cesspool," "bathing tubs," "lead pipe, paper work on water closets &c," "plumbers bill," and "fixing water closets," made over a 15-month period from May 1856 to August 1857.32 Washington Place, built between 1844 a n d 1847 and now thought to be the oldest continuously occupied residence in the Islands, was one of the earliest private dwellings to have modern plumbing. A recent architectural study of this historic structure, formerly the home of

Queen Liliuokalani and now the residence of Hawaii's governor, states:

"Personal accounts indicate there was a bathroom adjacent to the Queen's bedroom on the first floor (probably installed in the latter half of the nineteenth century); a one-story kitchen wing, porch and servant's toilet had been added to the rear."33 Newspaper advertisements did not mention flush toilets until 1861, when James J. O'Donnell offered "Bath Tubs, Wash Stands, Water Closets, etc."34 Advertising copy slowly became more explicit, and by 1879 Nott's could praise its "Water pipes!... House Plumbing Materials, such as Earth Closets,... Hose Bibb Cocks, Sewer and Sink Traps, Urinals...,"35 Scott notes that, by the 1890s, "J. Emmeluth & Company offered the new porcelain water closets at both their stores, under such transparent trade names as 'Sanitas,' 'Deluge' and 'Washout,' aimed at making slophoppers and outhouses obsolete."36 The earliest Island plumbing for which detailed descriptions have survived appears to have been the facilities installed in the new Iolani Palace, beginning early in 1881. The plans called for six flush toilets ("Smith's Patent Earthenware Siphon Jet Water Closet"), four bathtubs with showers, and two urinals.37 Subsequently modernized, these facilities have recently been restored to their original appearance.38 No record exists of the first appearance of toilet paper in Hawaii, but it was presumably on hand by the time Iolani Palace was opened.

Packets of toilet paper were manufactured in New York City as early as

1857.39 Perforated toilet rolls, contrived by Wheeler in 1871, were produced in both Great Britain and Philadelphia beginning in 1880.40 Honolulu newspaper advertisements for toilet paper appeared much later, the first apparently being placed by Hop Kee's Meat Market and Grocery ("Lily Brand Toilet Paper, 4 rolls, 250") in 1926.41 The new-fangledflushtoilets were viewed with considerable skepticism by some Island officials. An 1880 report from the Superintendent of Public Works to the President of the Board of Health called for the rapid elimination of "the privy and cesspool" but also recommended replacing water closets with Moule's dry-earth closet system.42 Six years later, Captain John H. Brown, Agent of the Board of Health, wrote: "And a very large danger to the public health, and particularly to the better-off classes of society, is the construction of water-closets, sinks, and baths in the interior of houses—often within bedrooms and dressing-rooms— trusting entirely to the common trap for preventing gases to escape, left without exterior ventilation."43 In the same biennial report, C. B.

Reynolds deplored the prevalence of cesspools and vaults and recommended against the use of the earth closet.44 Private citizens sometimes expressed similar sentiments. An instance was in regard to "Woodlawn," the "simple one-story cottage" near Punahou Avenue and Beretania Street occupied by Frank Dillingham and his family in 1879: "To the minds of the older generation Frank was risking the family health in establishing bath and toilet in the main house instead of an out-house."45 The first statistics on Island plumbing were those compiled in a survey of 363 representative wage-earning families in Honolulu in 1910.

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