Fun Facts About the Early Days of Plumbing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave
The White House of today would undoubtedly impress and astound the Founding Fathers with its immaculate beauty, lavish style, and decadent amenities - to say nothing of the sophistication and scope of its enormous plumbing system. When the President’s House (as it was then called) was built in the 1790s, chamberpots and basic washbasins were the only facilities to be found, with water being carried in buckets from the nearest well or river.
Today, with nearly three dozen bathrooms and an elaborate kitchen capable of feeding hundreds, the White House has come a long way in terms of plumbing. Here’s a brief look at its inauspicious beginnings, from the first instance of indoor plumbing to the improvements and bathroom antics of presidential luminaries.
Running Water Is Installed in the White House
Running water first made it to the White House in the late 1820s, under President John Quincy Adams. Requiring irrigation for his expansive garden, he had an iron pump installed at a well near the Treasury building to provide the necessary water. In 1833, with Andrew Jackson in office, an indoor plumbing system was finally installed.
The system was primarily for fire protection - the 1814 burning of the White House by the British was still fresh in everyone’s minds - but it was quickly put to use for bathing purposes. Besides giving Jackson his beloved “shower baths” the system also served as the foundation for further advancements made by his successors Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, such as hot running water and upstairs plumbing.
First Flushes - The Evolution of White House Toilets
President Fillmore also oversaw the installation of the White House’s first flush toilet in 1853. This early type of flushable toilet was bulky, made of wood, and extremely noisy. Still, it was a considerable hygienic improvement from the simple wooden latrines and “thunderboxes” that sat atop chamberpots - the contents of which had to be hauled off to a community waste depository several blocks away.
In the 1880s, after the District of Columbia’s sewer system had been updated and expanded, the older wooden toilets were replaced with more sanitary porcelain models - which also happened to be much quieter. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered an extensive (and expensive) renovation of the White House, and the toilets were once again upgraded.
Other Presidential Plumbing Facts
Since Truman’s time in office, the White House plumbing system has gone through many more overhauls, some to enhance luxury, and others to implement new eco-friendly, water-saving technology as it comes along. But other presidents throughout history have made some notable changes of their own for slightly quirkier reasons.
William Howard Taft famously had an enormous custom bathtub installed in the White House to handle his 340-pound frame. Some publications joked that his successor, Woodrow Wilson, would need to have the gargantuan tub removed for fear of drowning. To eliminate delays in urgent communications with his staff, Lyndon B. Johnson had telephones installed in multiple bathrooms, including his own.
Though the House had washtubs at the time, John Quincy Adams reportedly preferred to bathe in the Potomac River - some trickster even made off with his clothes during one bathing session, leaving him stranded until someone could fetch another outfit for him!
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