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I was recently asked by a reader what type water access her ancestors might have had in 19th century London, and I thought the question was something we might explore further as a supply to water is essential in running a home.

The earliest pipes that conveyed water included stone blocks with cylindrical holes cut through and earthen pipes, often encased in masonry. The Romans used lead pipes for distributing water and later during the Middle Ages logs with holes drilled through them and connected end to end and later lead pipes came into use again.

By the early 20th century, water pipes were made of steel, cast iron, wrought iron, lead, wood, vitrified clay (think terra cotta), or even cement or concrete. We recently saw a section of wooden water pipe in an antique store and were thrilled to have discovered it. Wooden pipes were made from spruce, yellow pine, oak, etc., and were usually about 12 feet long. The bark was usually removed but not always. The earliest models were bored by hand, but machinery was soon invented that was more efficient at hollowing the logs.

Edward Wegmann wrote that in the cities of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Detroit pipes were dug up that were perfectly sound having been laid a hundred years before. When buried in the ground and kept from atmospheric changes they lasted a very long time without rotting. The Journal of New England Water Works Assoc., 1916, XXX, p. 318, claimed that such log pipes had been discovered in Boston and Portsmouth, N.H. that were sound and over two hundred years old.

Wegmann dated the earliest log pipes in America to 1652 located in Boston. About 1796 they were replaced with new log pipes where many were used until 1848 when the city replaced all pipes with those made of cast-iron. He dated those first used in New York and Philadelphia to 1774 and 1799. Interestingly enough, London seems to have regressed in its use of piping materials, as he states the lead pipes which melted in the great fire of 1807, were replaced with log pipes. He stated further that there were over 400 miles of wooden log pipes in London during subsequent years.

In 1855, A. Wyckoff, of Elmira, NY, received a patent for an improved water pipe which was spirally bound by a band of iron, steel, or bronze and the whole then coated with an asphalt coating. In Bay City, Mich., the Michigan Pipe Co. acquired the rights to manufacture the Wyckoff pipes in 1880. Companies in Williamsport, PA, Seattle Wash., San Francisco, Tacoma, Wash., Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, BC were also engaged in making the Wyckoff pipes during the first decade of the 20th century.

Cast-iron pipes are thought to date to the 1660’s when Louis XIV of France ordered their use, and possibly earlier. Chelsea Water Co. of London laid a 12 inch cast iron pipe in 1746 which was re-laid in 1791 because the joints were faulty. The engineer, Thomas Simpson, designed the first bell-and-spigot pipe with lead joints about 1785, and the system was soon adopted throughout London.

Cast-iron pipes were imported from England about 1817 and used in Philadelphia where they remained in use a century later. – Wegmann, Edward. Conveyance and Distribution of Water for Water Supply. 1918. NY.

Pumps have been used since 200 BC, with regular boosts in technology. I once lived where water came from a natural spring and was fed into the house by gravity flow (requiring no pump) but had the house been uphill from the spring we would have required a pump of some sort to get the water from the collection tank to a higher level .

Time doesn’t allow for researching early pumps at present, but they have operated off steam power, wind power, turbine power, etc. and for those who want a back-up system for power outages, options still include wind power, hand pumps, ram pumps, and buckets, including those for drilled wells operated by a windlass (a rope and crank which can lower and raise a long narrow vessel designed to fit into the piping for drilled wells).
Lehmans pump Photo: From Lehman’s Hardware catalog.

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