View Full Version : Homes in 1905

10-02-2008, 05:27 PM
Did small town American homes typically have telephone service in 1905?
What about indoor plumbing and electricity?

10-02-2008, 06:10 PM
No and No

10-02-2008, 06:17 PM
I agree with Fern.

My husband's grandfather was a small town (Pennsylvania) doctor. They had the only phone and the only car in the 1920's in case he needed to call the hospital. (The car was to get to patients in coal country. Before that he used a horse and cart.) The first telephone company was American Telephone and Telegraph company (AT&T). You could search for info there, but in 1905 I think phones were rare altogether. As for indoor plumbing in a small town, it's unlikely. I lived in a house (built in 1807) that had a 1912 addition put on for a physician who lived there and it did have indoor plumbing (but 7 years was a big difference and he was an affluent resident).

10-02-2008, 06:30 PM
Depends on where you lived and maybe how affluent you were, but I think by 1900 they were starting to fit most new homes with indoor plumbing in cities.

But you said small towns, so probably not.

10-02-2008, 07:07 PM
Some of this depends on where in the US you lived. Small town in Connecticut is a lot different than a small town in Wyoming.

Indoor plumbing requires either municipal water supply or electricity for pump, with one big exception. My house had an indoor flushing toilet way before electricity arrived (and municipal services are none existent in my town). System worked by taking the water from the gutters and directing it into a storage tank in the attic. Toilet was immediately below and by opening a valve in the bottom of the tank, you had a flushing toilet.

Kitchen sink worked by a hand pump, so, yeah, it was indoors, but I'm not sure that's what you mean.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

10-02-2008, 07:29 PM
The Living History Farm I go to on a regular basis, I think, had a outhouse right outside the house, just off the current kitchen area. You might want to email the Howell Living History Farm and ask them your question. It'll be for the local Jersey area around the farm but 1905 is their time period.

10-02-2008, 08:15 PM
Niagara Falls experienced its greatest growth between 1895 and 1910. This is when Alternating current was introduced and the falls generated electric power. Literally hundreds of two family, three bedroom homes were built during that time. All of them had bathrooms. As far as telephones, not so many.

If you live in a small city or town, go to your local library. You can look up the City/Town directory AKA Polk's directory for that period. you can see how many people had telephone numbers.

10-02-2008, 09:22 PM
Many middle class families had telephones in small towns if they could get service. The telephone was still pretty new, but if service was provided, an average family would have 1 telephone most likely mounted in a public area like the dining room or hall. It was mounted to the wall and the mouthpiece was connected to the oak phone box with the ear piece on a very short cord. All phone service was provided by one company “Bell Telephone and Telegraph.” In order to make a call, you’d pick up the phone and give the crank one short turn – “a short”. Then the operator would come on and ask you “number please?” and you’d give a three digit prefix that was encoded in a word and then the five digit house number (I believe in the very early days it was only 3). For example, in New York if you wanted to call for the time, you’d dial ME-71212 or tell the operator to connect to Meridian 71212. In those early days all phone service operated on the “Party Line” system. That meant that only one person could use the phone at a time for a certain area. You recognized a call coming into your house by the way the phone rang. For instance, your ring might be two long rings followed by a short ring- “two longs and a short.” Sometimes if you picked up the phone wanting to make a call, there may be someone else in the middle of a call and you’d have to hang up and wait your turn.

Plumbing was later in coming because many houses already had a system for dealing with it- an outhouse. Also people had funny notions about the illness caused by having a toilet in the house. They were afraid of something called “sewer gas” that was supposed to cause all sorts of illnesses from gas coming up from the toilet plumbing. If they didn’t have running water, almost all small town houses had a hand pump at the sink that just emptied into the yard. The houses that didn’t have plumbing were often retrofitted for it with pipes running on the outside of the building so that they didn’t have to tear out the walls. Also, many families had running water for sinks and baths in bathrooms but no toilet. It was quite a scandal in the White House because I believe that at the turn of the century it was fitted with plumbing and then the next president’s wife was afraid of sewer gas and had it all ripped out.

Electricity was still a fad in 1905. Almost all houses were fitted with gas fixtures but the more adventurous were installing gas fixtures with electric bulbs also. This is a dangerous combination with hot electric bulbs which can spark and an open flame or leaking gas fixture. The reason that they combined them in the beginning was that electrical service was very unreliable and most people were unwilling to spend the money installing something that would become passé. This way they had a 50-50 chance. At this time, the proponents of gas lighting came up with the gas mantle- the kind you see on old camping lanterns. That allowed the gas fixture to point down instead of up so you could read and it provided a brighter light. For many this seemed the end of electricity. In the end electricity won, but in many old houses you still see the combination fixtures. Houses with electricity at this time also had no wall plugs. You had to buy the cord for your appliances (a precious few like the toaster or a fan) separately and one end plugged into the appliance and the other end had a screw base that screwed into your light socket. This was still common into the 1920’s. Electrical service was also not common outside of town. Many farms didn’t get electricity until the end of the 1920’s.

PS...thank my coworker...he's the genius.

10-02-2008, 11:15 PM
Telephone and electricity, no. Neither was really available to the general public then in small towns. Electricity would become more available in the next several years, however.

Indoor plumbing -- depends on what you mean. Indoor toilet? Highly unlikely. They would have had an outhouse. Water heaters were also not in wide circulation, so water would have been COLD. (They'd been invented, but they were definitely not in wide use.)

A cold-water faucet in the kitchen, either pumped or under pressure, MIGHT have been possible, depending on the ingenuity of the homeowner. If they, for example, lived on a farm and had a water tank above the home (on a hill, or perhaps a windmill filled stock tank) gravity fed water would be possible.

I know of the remains of a 1900's era ranch house in Arizona -- all that's left is the outline of the house's walls. However, over a century later, there's still running water at the house from a pipe that comes out of the ground, because the rancher had found a spring on the hillside above the house, built a springbox, and then used gravity to feed water to the house. I don't know if there was originally water plumbed inside the house or if they just had a tap in the yard.

The period between the late 1800's and the 1930's is FULL of technological developments. If you're writing a story set 1905, plan on doing a ton of research -- you'll need to figure out if something is (a) invented and (b) if your characters would have actually used/owned/known about it.

10-02-2008, 11:29 PM
The general time period predates 1905, but it might have some useful info for you or someone else. There is a great book out there called Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders.

It describes the home of that general time period room by room and is a very informative read.

10-03-2008, 12:18 AM
Rural electrification:

These were common through the 1950s in parts of rural America.

I knew people in our Iowa town of 35,000 people who had outhouses up through the 1960. (These were low income people.) Some farm families had outhouses, but anyone with even a little bit of money had indoor plumbing. In college in the early 1970s, one of my friends from the hillbilly part of Missouri had no indoor plumbing at his family home, even then. His family still hunted for their food, had no electricity (no tv or radio). I don't know his my friend's father could read, but my friend got a full engineering scholarship, so I'll be he has electricity now. LOL.

Mike Martyn
10-03-2008, 01:13 AM
The house my family lived in had no indoor plumbing. So we had an outhouse with a nice view of the Bay of Fundy.

We had well water and a hand pump by the sink. In the winter we'd often find water frozen in the sink.

In a little curtained alcove on the second floor was toilet seat mounted on a bucket for night time use or if there was a blizzard. We emptied it every morning. My mother dumped bleach in it to take away the stink.

The house was heated by a large wood stove in the kitchen. A grate over head let a bit of heat seep to the upper floor but not much.

The stove had a big water resevoir on the side and that's where we got our hot water. Baths were done in a big wash tub in the kitchen. A little kid would fit in it laying down but an older kid or an adult just sort of stood up in it and ladled warer over themselves. Needless to say, baths were a once a week Saturday night thing.

We had a phone and it was a party line. We had our own distinctive ring as well as the permanant suspicion that old Mrs. Perkins always listened in.

In 1973 we moved in to a brand new house with indoor plumbing! I was the first one to use that fantastic flush toilet!!

10-03-2008, 03:44 AM
Our farm in North Dakota didn't get electricity until 1948, but about a year earlier, my dad put in a wind charger that used several auto batteries to provide enough power for a few electric lights. If the wind didn't blow for a few days, we had no lights.

We didn't have a telephone until the late 50s, but my grandparents, who lived across the road, had a party line, crank-style phone in the early 50s.

We didn't get indoor plumbing until the late 50s, and then the toilet used cistern water that had to be hauled from a well a quarter-mile away. In winter, we shoveled snow into the cistern and melted it with light bulb hanging inside. Drinking water was kept in a five gallon can that we filled at the well nearly every day.

Until the house was sold to be moved in 1967, it was heated with a coal furnace.

To answer your question...no, not many small towns would have any of those luxuries, but plumbing would probably be the first they would have.

10-03-2008, 04:07 AM
My old place, built in 1904, and this town didn't get electricity until 1958.

Indoor plumbing didn't come to the house until the 1960s. The outhouse was across the creek and the creek was the bathtub (and that water is COLD). This town has no public sewage systems, only private wells and septic tanks (or outhouses in a couple cases).

There was a public phone in the building, but I have no records of when it was installed or removed.

10-03-2008, 04:54 AM
You'd have to name the area, because it varied hugely from state to state and region to region.

10-03-2008, 05:07 AM
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Party_line_(telephony (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Party_line_%28telephony))
These were common through the 1950s in parts of rural America.

1950s, ha!

My family, living in a rural area within easy commuting distance of a good-sized city, still had a party line in the late 1960s.

My uncle, living just up the road in an old house that originally belonged to my grandparents, had an old phone line that had something to do with the railroad phone system. There wasn't any phone number. To call him, we dialed the operator and asked for "the L-- P------ toll station". (Actually, towards the late 1960s, we just told the regular operator we needed to speak to a supervisor, then asked the supervisor to put us through. By then the regular operators had no idea what we were talking about.)

Also, regarding water, most of the older houses in the area had wells where the pump was powered by a windmill. I heard stories from the 1930s about the indoor plumbing being cold water only. This wasn't really a small town setting, though. It would have been truly rural then.

10-03-2008, 05:19 AM
Did small town American homes typically have telephone service in 1905?
What about indoor plumbing and electricity?
In rural areas, I would say not.

During the Great Depression, my grandfather made part of his living running power lines for Rural Electric in Wisconsin. (circa 1930?) That was five days a week, then on weekends, they'd drive the truck to a town about fifty miles away where they were re-doing the railroad lines and load the old ties onto the back, then drive to a town twenty miles south of the farm near the river where the ties would be used as support for the levee walls. They'd get $6 a tie. (oh, and he farmed too.)

I don't know about telephone service.

Indoor plumbing...maybe, but they had an outhouse when Dad was little. He locked his twin in. :)


10-04-2008, 12:37 AM
Did small town American homes typically have telephone service in 1905?
What about indoor plumbing and electricity?

Typically, no on both, but there were exceptions. The more affluent even in small towns had access to both. I write for a local paper, am a member of the local historial society, write history articles, and have also done a lot of research for my WIP set in 1904-05. I was also a dual history/english major in college.

In the small town where I live, both electricity and phone service existed by 1905. Most people didn't have it but the services were there.

10-04-2008, 12:40 AM
The more affluent even in small towns had access to both.

It depends on the area. The services had to be laid on in the community before anyone could get their houses connected to them. There was so much regional variation that there's no point speculating without knowing what community (or what area, if it's a fictional community) the OP was talking about.

10-04-2008, 10:19 PM
You guys rock! Thanks so much for your responses.

I'd done some research and came to the conclusion that the home would not have had these modern conveniences, but I still felt uneasy and wanted a little more verification.

Thanks again.

Tsu Dho Nimh
10-06-2008, 12:03 AM
Keep in mind that you can have indoor plumbing without public utilities. It's called a septic tank, and house plumbing that uses a water tank in the attic (pumped in by hand or wind power) for pressure. they even sell water heaters (wood, coal or gas fired). If you had steam heat, hot water was easy.

The 1895 Sears catalog has a full selection of plumbing parts: wash basins, faucets, drain pipes, stationary (as opposed to folding) bathtubs ... and the Moseley Self-Heating, folding bath tub and water heater that folded down from a furniture-grade cabinet. Water heaters were installed in the bath room.

the 1900 catalog has a larger selection, and includes some gasoline-fired :instant water heaters" for the bathroom. The familiar claw-foot tub makes its appearance, as does a kitchen range with a tank that could be tapped to provide hot water to an adjacent bathroom.

10-07-2008, 07:42 PM
I lived in a house in Hollywood, Florida that was built in 1905 for John and Guilda Bryan, local pioneers. I lived there around 1975 off and on for several years. (it was my best friends house and I lived there during recessions and when I got in big trouble – which was frequently)
It was built with interior bathrooms and plumbing but the original water supply has been replaced by an electric pump. I imagine there was a water storage tower and hand pumped daily by servants to allow gravity to do the work of distribution.
I don't know if they had electric pumps back then.

The waste drained to septic tanks.

I don't think the original fixtures were the ones we used when I lived there but they were very, very old.

The Bryans were wealthy and influential; they could afford these commodities. When I lived there it was quite run-down – far from the eloquent mansion that it was back then.
It is now considered for a spot on the national register of land marked homes. It was sold when the owner I knew died but the new owner failed in his attempt to raze it and build condos.

But I remember every square inch and every nail and blemish.