For anyone who spends any time with children, there are certain questions and subjects that come up over and over again. Subjects like bathrooms and poop.
At a museum like ours, this comes up fairly frequently. We have outhouses, including one two-seater (glamour!). We also have donkeys–you can always tell when they poop in front of a school group–there are usually lots of screams! One of our homes also features an indoor bathroom, one of the earliest in Dallas.
One point that we try to make with our kids is that an indoor bathroom is a really big deal. And it’s also one of those things that wasn’t immediately accepted as an “improvement.” This is a historical concept that us modern folks can find hard to understand. After all, indoor plumbing is certainly at the top of my list of reasons why I’m glad to live today and not back then (along with modern medicine and the right to vote).
Last week, I picked up The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald. I know I read this as a kid. I know I read it multiple times as a kid. And yet, my memories of the book are more than a bit fuzzy. So I entered into 1896 Utah as a practically new reader. And imagine my thrill when the very first chapter is all about a brand new indoor bathroom!
The entire town is checking it out, and they’re all secretly thinking that this family is nuts to put such a thing inside. Aunt Bertha says “this is going to make us the laughing stock of Adenville.” J. D. says “it will stink up the whole house.” Of course, Tom sees it as an opportunity and charges neighborhood kids a penny to watch it installed.
As J. D. listens to his neighbors wonder at his father’s sanity, he becomes very, very worried: “I flung myself on the bed and began to cry. I had always been proud of Papa in spite of him buying crazy inventions that didn’t work. But this time he’d gone too far. . . Nobody would come to our house anymore. How could Mamma entertain the Ladies Sewing Circle in a hosue that smelled like a backhouse? It would be the same as entertaining in our old backhouse. I visualized callers at our house stopping at the front gate and putting clothespins on their noses before entering our house.”
But it’s installed and it works the way it’s supposed to. And Tom has yet another opportunity to make money off of his friends as he makes a sign that says “See the magic water closet that doesn’t stink.”
And then the bathroom isn’t really mentioned again. It’s become a part of their lives, as new technology so often does.
By the time of Heaven to Betsy (set in 1906–exactly ten years later), an indoor bathroom is no longer questioned. In their new home, the bathroom is a definite improvement, as Mrs. Ray exclaims “I’m going to take one bath after another all day long!”
I’ve always been intrigued by those early times of transition–when a new thing isn’t quite accepted yet and people are still wondering. Often, it doesn’t take long for it to become old hat. But how lucky we are to have these books that helps us explore the wonder and curiousity of the beginning of modern conveniences.