By Suzanne Norquist
My water heater recently broke and was expected to be out of service for several days. I purchased a giant kitchen pot to heat water on the stove. As I pondered how I would carry the heavy thing to the bathroom, I considered the pioneers. On Saturday nights, someone would drag a washtub into the kitchen, and the whole family would take turns bathing in the same water. The poor last person was stuck with cold, dirty water.
How did we get from there to here? Even a few days without the convenience were too much for me.
The earliest water heaters were used in ancient Roman bathhouses. Hundreds of slaves maintained a wood fire in a furnace day and night. Above the furnace, water was heated in a metal tank (usually with lead walls and a bronze bottom). The hot water was piped into the baths.
An article about the history of water heaters in the June 16, 1927 edition of the Wray Gazette, a newspaper in Wray, Colorado, describes Roman heaters and then says,
“During the Elizabethan Age in England, the people were notoriously unwashed. Perhaps it was because the teakettle was their only source of hot water supply. In 1809 when gas for fuel and light became a public utility, the desire and need for hot water became easier to fill.”
Too bad the Elizabethans didn’t have a team of people to heat their water. The article was correct in noting the importance of gas in the availability of on-demand hot water.
Before gas was delivered to homes, cast iron stoves often provided reservoirs to heat water with the fire from the oven. Here is an advertisement for one such stove with a reservoir on the back.
The fine print in the advertisement above reads,
“This cut being the first one showing Our New Patent Reservoir we should be inclined to say something in its favor had we not already called your attention to it on page 5, but it is admitted by every one to be a great improvement in cooking stoves. We Enamel or Galvanize them as ordered, when enameled they can be kept clean, sweet and pure, for we enamel the covers as well as the Reservoir, so you have no rusty water dripping down from the covers.”
Dripping rusty water? I hadn’t even thought of that.
The stove in the pictures below has the reservoir on the right side.
Later, when homes had running water, a pipe could be installed to loop through the firebox in the stove. It was called a water-back (or a water-front).
Some stand-alone water heaters were sold. The coal heater advertised below was, “proven by actual test to be the strongest heater.” Its nickel upper section would have prevented the rust mentioned in the previous advertisement.
Once gas became available in homes, the precursors to our modern water heaters were invented. In 1868, Benjamin Waddy Maughan, an English painter, heated cool water pipes from the outside with a gas flame. There was little control of the gas or the temperature and no ventilation, making this method dangerous. Other inventors expanded on his idea, creating a more effective and safer system.
A Norwegian mechanical engineer, Edwin Ruud, developed the first storage-tank gas water heater in 1889. His invention took off.
Even into the nineteen-teens, gas companies needed to explain the convenience of a gas water heater.
The fine print reads,
“Light the burner in the Gas Water Heater and forget about it until you have enough hot water for any purpose. Not much work about lighting a match, is there? That’s all the labor about operating a Gas Water Heater.
There are Gas Water Heaters in about half the homes in Denver. That should certainly be sufficient guarantee of their usefulness and convenience.
Let us show you how easily and cheaply they operate. You can’t afford to be without this necessity in your home.”
No one has to convince me of the usefulness of the modern water heater. Thankfully, mine was repaired before I needed to haul water in pots from the stove to the bathtub. Thank you, Mr. Ruud, for your invention!
”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?