This ad is a mother’s fantasy circa 1930, when the kitchen sink might or might not have a faucet and running water. (And if you really want a ‘farmhouse sink,” take another look at the one in that ad.)
A Visit to the Dakotas, Autumn, 1949
In 1949 my mother loaded me (too young for school), her own mother, and a few suitcases into a second-hand Studebaker and set out on a three month road trip to New York, with stops along the way at points of interest.
We also stopped to meet — and stay with — distant members of my father’s family in the midwest and the Dakotas. For the three generations — Grandmother, Mother, and me — who grew up on the San Francisco Peninsula, with the green slopes of the Coast Range to the west and the Bay and Mt. Diablo to the east, the flatness of the Dakotas was not attractive. I remember watching miles and miles of dull brown scenery (it was November) through the window of the car, and finally a tiny pointed object — I thought it was a distant Christmas tree — appeared on the horizon. It got bigger as we came closer, as if it were growing, and resolved itself into a church steeple. We had reached a town.
We were going to spend the night at a house in that town. I don’t know the name of the town, but our relatives definitely did not live on a farm. They had neighbors on all sides. Almost as soon as we entered the house, the housewife ushered us into the kitchen to show us a wonderful home improvement that her husband had just finished installing . . .
. . . she finally had running water in her kitchen! In America, in 1949. But it didn’t come out of a faucet; a pump, like the one in this picture, was attached to her drainboard, and she could lift the handle and pump cold water right into the sink. She was thrilled. (And well she might be, compared to lugging heavy buckets of water in from the yard for washing and cooking and bathing.) As I remember, the drainboard and sink were dark gray (probably zinc), not porcelain or tile like the ones I was used to seeing in Redwood City:
Our happy hostess still had to heat all her water on the stove, but she didn’t have to go outside for it, which was a good thing, because it began to snow that night.
Of course, without running water there was no flush toilet in the house. I suppose the chamber pot under the bed was too big for a child to use (or already full), so, in the middle of the night, my mother had to throw on an overcoat and her galoshes, dress me the same way, and take me outside to use the outhouse. She had a flashlight for the purpose, but there were no streetlights or lighted windows to soften the blackness of a night when snow was falling. And there were no fences between the back yards, so it was easy to get disoriented.
When we came down to breakfast the next morning, our hostess had already received a crack-of-dawn visit from her irate next-door neighbor. Someone from our house had used this neighbor’s outhouse! This was incredibly rude, and might start a feud that lasted years. There was no denying it — a track of footprints in the snow led from our back door to the wrong outhouse. In the daylight, we could see that the two outhouses were perhaps fifteen feet apart. (Both houses had located these noxious outbuildings as far from their back doors as possible, close to their property lines.)
This adventure stuck in my four-year-old mind — the pump in the kitchen and the trip to the outhouse — because Redwood City had had municipal water and sewage lines for a long time. (Those in Menlo Park were built around 1917 to accomodate Camp Fremont Army Base.) Our friends, the Halletts, still lived on their family’s ranch in Woodside — my father once kept a herd of cattle there — but by 1949 their farmhouse kitchen had hot and cold running water, and their bathrooms had flush toilets and warm baths, just like houses in town. By 1930, Better Homes and Gardens magazine had plenty of ads for home water systems that could be installed on farms or in towns where people depended on well water.
Water for the Mere Turning of a Tap: The Kitchen Faucet
“Down the centuries stretches the immemorial line — carrying home the daily water supply from stream and lake, from spring and pond, from cistern and fountain, from well and pump — in an unbroken chain of Yesterdays. Today the picture changes. Modern housekeeping, with its emphasis on cleanliness, its insistence on sanitation, hygiene, comfort and convenience, requires water in greater quantities than ever before. Human effort, however willing, cannot keep up with the demand. Nor does it need to when a simple low-cost machine and a few lengths of pipe supply more water for the mere turning of a tap, than could be delivered by many weary hours of carrying.”
Most of these water systems (“for operation by hand, windmill, electricity or gasoline engine”) cost about $75 in 1930, which was a lot of money, when you could buy a kit to build an entire pre-fabricated five room house for $483:
In just one magazine, I found ads for water systems from the F.E. Myers & Bro. Company, General Electric, General Motors’ Delco Light (which made the ‘Waterboy’ system, ) and Fairbanks-Morse.
“Housekeepers who are still struggling with the old pump-and-carry method of water supply, might think ‘There is something wrong with that picture.’ But it really takes very little coaxing to get ‘help with the dishes’ when there is plenty of water always on tap and no heavy buckets to lug. The task is so shortened that even the youngsters enjoy it. Living beyond city water mains no longer means doing without running water. Thousands of suburban and country homes are being modernized each year with the help of the reliable MYERS Self-Oiling Water Systems. A few cents worth of gasoline or electric power per day, gives you complete service — running water any time, day or night — in kitchen, bathroom, laundry — for lawn and garden — for garage, stock watering and fire protection.”
Most Americans take faucets with hot running water in the kitchen and bath for granted. But my grandmothers grew up without them. And even in 1949, in a small town in the Dakotas, one woman’s life was vastly improved when she got, not a “water system,” but a primitive hand pump installed in her kitchen. We have it easy.
(In many places in the world, women and children still walk miles a day to carry water to their families. Charities like Oxfam and Heifer International , among others, make it possible to donate a water pump with life changing results. Oxfam America received a Four Star (excellent) rating from Charity Navigator. Heifer International spends 23.6% of its income on fundraising, and received only Two Stars, but a family that receives a goat, a heifer, or a flock of chickens is required to give one of their offspring to another villager, and I like that idea.)