To deliver the necessary fresh water for personal hygiene in the home, a safe and reliable water supply had to be developed. Prompted by a series of cholera epidemics, city officials took a closer look at public sanitation. As cholera was linked to drinking water, officials now realized the entire population was at risk, not just those living in less sanitary neighborhoods. This realization had a dramatic impact on the establishment of sewer systems and the sanitation movement began.
The prison system was actually a pioneer in the provision of toilet facilities. However, the idea of a permanent water closet indoors was slow in coming to most homes. People were accustomed to using the outdoor privy, and they were well aware of the odors produced there and did not want them inside the house. There was also the issue of where the water closet could be placed in the home. In addition, the development of the indoor toilet was dependent on the advances made in public water supply and sewer systems, which were slow in coming to many areas.
The earliest indoor water closets were disguised as furniture, much like the chamber pot. They were located in a separate unvented room or "closet" without running water, which was often located at the end of the hall, under the stairs, or on the stair landing. Thomas Jefferson is said to have had the first indoor privies with a vent to remove unwanted odors. These privies were not high tech, however, as waste fell into a pit that was emptied by slaves. For the first flushing privies, water had to be carried to the water closet for the flushing. One variation of the water closet was the "earth closet," but it too required much work and added waste materials to the backyard.
City sanitation began with moving the waste out of neighborhoods. Improvements in sanitation began as some cities incorporated drainage systems that carried waste through canals or pipes to the nearest river or stream. Although these systems cleaned up the neighborhoods to some extent, they basically just moved the problem from one place to another. Chicago built its first sewer system around 1856. In about 1880, municipalities began to pay more attention to city plumbing problems, and health departments in New York City, Washington, DC, and Brooklyn, New York established some of the first plumbing codes.
Sanitation problems continued to increase as populations grew larger and more concentrated in metropolitan areas. City officials recommended that a standard of at least one water closet per family be in place before the end of the nineteenth century. This goal was not met, however. An 1893 Bureau of Labor report stated that only 2.83 percent of the people in some parts of New York City and Chicago had bathroom facilities. Running water and disposal facilities were limited to the middle class and wealthy.
Improvements to the water supply continued at a slow pace. Modern plumbing, including fresh water supplies and effective sewer systems, did not become widely used until the late nineteenth century. One improvement was replacing wooden pipes with lead pipes.