Read CHAPTER XIII of The House that Jill Built after Jack's had proved a failure, free online book, by E. C. Gardner, on


“Dirt is matter out of place,” quoted Uncle Harry, in one of his erratic epistles which Jack and Jill always read with interest if not profit. “When you find anything that seems unclean or offensive in any part of your house, remember this: the fault is not in the thing itself, but in your ignorant or thoughtless management. There isn’t a material thing in the universe, whatever its name or characteristic qualities maybe; not a flaunting weed nor an unseen miasmatic vapor, which is not created for some good and wise purpose. It is for us to learn those purposes. The grand secret of safe and comfortable living lies in keeping yourself and everything about you in the right place. I hear much of the dangers and annoyances that arise from modern plumbing. I am not surprised by them; on the contrary, I wonder they are not more numerous and fatal, since nothing is more inconsistent with the first principles of comfort and health than our relations to these ‘modern conveniences.’ Instead of disposing of what are incorrectly called waste materials according to nature’s modes, we persist in defying her examples and her laws, even after we fully understand them, and, in the vain hope of adding to our own case, bring upon ourselves untold calamities. ‘Earth to earth’ is a mandate that cannot be disregarded with impunity. The infinite laboratories of nature welcome to their crucibles all the strange and awful elements which we fail to comprehend and against which we wage a futile warfare. If all these miscalled ‘wastes’ that we find so hurtful and offensive when out of place in and around our homes could be consigned to the bosom of mother earth the moment they seem to us worthless, they would be at once changed to life-giving forces, out of which forms of freshness and beauty would arise to fill us with delight. They are willing to serve us whenever we give them an opportunity. The one direct and infallible mode of doing that is to put them in the ground before they have a chance to work us injury. If we bury them, or, rather, plant them, they will bring forth, some thirty, some sixty, some an hundredfold.

“It is my impression that sewers were originally invented by the Evil one. He couldn’t drag men down to his dominions fast enough, so he moved a portion of his estate to this planet, and lest its true character should be discovered, buried it under paved streets and flowery parks. We might easily and quietly put these crude materials into convenient receptacles, to be carried where they will bless the world by making two ears of corn grow where one grew before. This we could do, each one for ourselves, or more advantageously by cooperating with one another. We are too wasteful, too indolent, too ignorant. Tempted by the invisible sewers we imprison these misplaced and inharmonious elements for a time in lead or iron pipes, while they grow more hostile, occasionally escaping by violence or stealth into our chambers, and then with many nice contrivances and much perishable machinery we try to wash them away with a bucket of water. Not to carry them where they will do any good, not to put them out of existence, but simply to hide them: to send them out of our immediate sight, and very likely into some greater mischief. The system is radically wrong, and while many of its existing evils may be averted, they cannot all be removed till we make our attacks from a different base. Improving sewers, like strengthening prison walls, is a good thing if the institutions remain; to prevent the need of maintaining them would be better still. Three-fourths of the solid wastes that proceed from human dwellings scraps of food, waste paper, worthless vegetables, worn-out utensils, bones, weeds, old boots and shoes, whatever unmanageable and unnamable rubbish appears ought to be at once consumed by fire, for which purpose a small cremating furnace should be found in every house. A similar trial by fire would reduce a large part of the liquids and semi-liquids to solid form to be also consumed, and the rest, absorbed by dry earth or ashes, could easily be transported to the barren fields that await the intelligence and power of man to transform them into blooming gardens.

“Of the usual modes of bringing water to our houses to wash away these things I know but little, because there is but little to be known. Complications and mysteries are not to my taste. I find no satisfaction in overthrowing a man of straw, and am comparatively indifferent to the rival claims of patentees and manufacturers, except as they promise good material, faithful workmanship and moderate prices.

“The one thing needful, if we adopt the hydraulic method of carrying away these waste substances, is a smooth cast-iron pipe running from the ground outside the house in through the lower part and up and out through the roof. It should be open at both ends, and so free from obstruction that a cat, a chimney-swallow or a summer breeze could pass through it without difficulty. I would, however, put screens over the open ends to keep out the cats and the swallows. The purifying breezes should blow through in summer and winter without let or hindrance, and to promote their circulation I would, if possible, place the pipe beside a warm chimney. Yet if the air it contains should sometimes move downward it will do no special harm; anything is better than stagnation. Into this open pipe, which should be not only water-tight but air-tight through its entire length, all waste-pipes from the house should empty as turbid mountain torrents pour into the larger stream that flows through the valley. (Fi.) Now, unless the upward draught through this large pipe is constant and strong, you will see at once that the air contained in it (which we must treat as though it were always poisonous) would be liable to come up through these branches into the rooms, where they stand with open mouths ready to swallow whatever is poured into them. It is necessary, therefore, to build dams across them that will allow water to go down but prevent air from going up. These dams are called ‘traps.’ They are intended to catch only hurtful elements that might seek to intrude. It often happens that those who set them get caught, for they are not infallible. Whatever the form or patent assumed by these water-dams, they amount to a bend in the pipe rilled with water. (Fi.) Sometimes a ball or other form of valve is used, but the water is the mainstay.

“Theoretically, this is the whole machinery of safe, ‘sanitary’ plumbing: A large open pipe kept as clean and free as possible, into which the smaller drains empty, these smaller drains or waste-pipes having their mouths always full, and being able, so to speak, to swallow in but one direction. Everything can go down; nothing can come up. That all these pipes shall be of sound material, not liable to corrosion; that the different pieces of which they are composed shall be tightly joined; that they shall be so firmly supported that they will not bend or break by their own weight, or through the changes of temperature to which they are subject, and that they shall be, if not always in plain sight, at most only hidden by some covering easily removed, are points which the commonest kind of common sense would not fail to observe.

“Practically, there are weak spots in the system, even if plumbers were always as honest as George Washington –­before he became a man, and as wise as Solomon before he became discouraged. A water barricade, unless it is as wide as the English Channel, is not a safeguard against dangerous invasion. A slight pressure of air, as every boy blowing soap bubbles can show you, will force a way through a basin full, and the same thing would happen if there should chance to be a backward current of air through these pipes, with this difference, that while the soap bubbles are harmless beauties, these may be filled with the germs of direful diseases. Still another danger to which this light water-seal is exposed is that a downward rush of water may cause a vacuum in the small pipes, somewhat as the exhaust steam operates the air-brakes, and empty the trap, leaving merely an open crooked pipe. Both these weak points may be strengthened by a breathing hole in the highest part of the small pipe below the trap. This must, of course, have a ventilating pipe of its own, which, to be always effectual, should be as large as the waste-pipe itself. (Fi.)

“Now, if the water that fills these traps and stops the open mouths of the drains were always clean, there would be no further trouble from this source. Unfortunately it is not; and although constant watchfulness might keep it so, the safety that only comes from eternal vigilance is an uncomfortable sort of safety if we have too much of it life becomes a burden. This particular ill might be remedied by some contrivance whereby the upper ends of the waste-pipes should be effectually corked not simply covered, but corked as tightly as a bottle of beer at all times except when in actual use. This would doubtless be more troublesome, but indolence is at the bottom of most of our woes: our labor-saving contrivances bring upon us our worst calamities. Even this thorough closing of the outlet of washbasins and bath-tubs, as they are usually made, would be of little avail, for they are furnished with an ‘overflow’ (Fi, through which exhalations from the trap would rise, however tightly the outlet might be sealed. It is also customary and doubtless wise, considering our habit of doing things so imperfectly the first time that we have no confidence in their stability, to place large basins of sheet-lead under all plumbing articles, lest from some cause they should ‘spring a leak’ and damage the floors or ceilings below them. One strong safeguard being better than two weak ones, I would dispense with the ‘overflow’ and arrange so that when anything ran over accidentally the lead basin or ‘safe’ should catch the water and carry it through an ample waste-pipe of its own to some inoffensive outlet. This would perhaps involve setting the plumbing articles in the most simple and open fashion which ought always to be done. ‘Cabinets,’ cupboards, casings and wood finish, no matter how full of conveniences, or how elegantly made, are worse than useless in connection with plumbing fixtures, which, for all reasons, should stand forth in absolute nakedness. They must be so strongly and simply made that no concealment will be necessary.

“One more danger closes the list, so far as the system is concerned. Even if the water in the traps is clean and inoffensive it will evaporate quickly in warm weather, and then the prison door is open again. This adds another vigil which we can never lay aside if we must have plumbing and water traps. The burden may be somewhat lightened since we are prone to forgetfulness as stones to fall downward by using traps made of glass and leaving them in plain sight.

“I conclusion, I wish to remind you that the lower end of the main drain must be protected from the iniquity of the sewer or cesspool to which it runs by another trap, or dam, just below the open pipe that admits fresh air from outside the house (Fi, and also, as I have before remarked, that the system is wrong. The rising tide of civilization will some time wash it all away.”

“Uncle Harry’s notion of reform,” said Jack, after the long letter had been read, “seems to be to blow the universe to pieces and then put it together again on a new and improved plan. It strikes me we had better fight it out on this line and try to straighten the evils we know something about rather than invent new ones. If we had begun on that track and tried to utilize the waste materials on strictly economical principles, perhaps by this time our methods and machinery would have been so far perfected that the real or imaginary evils of modern plumbing would not have existed. It seems a pity to throw away all we have accomplished and begin again.”

“That is a part of the price paid for progress,” said Jill. “Stage coaches are useless when steam appears, and locomotives must go to the junk shop when electricity is ready to be harnessed. But I’m afraid we cannot afford to be pioneers, and I’m sure the neighbors are not ready to co-operate. We must still ‘go by water,’ and the important question is where to send the lower end of the main drain. There is no sewer in the street, and a cesspool is an atrocity worthy of the darkest ages. The only safe thing appears to be the sub-surface irrigation plan, for which, fortunately, there is plenty of room on our lot. This comes very near to Uncle Harry’s notion of ‘earth to earth’ in the quickest time possible. If we do it and accept the architect’s suggestion in the plan of the house we shall be reasonably safe from that most mysterious of all modern foes sewer-gas.”

“I’ve forgotten the architect’s suggestions; in fact, I don’t believe my head is quite equal to housebuilding with all the latest notions. When my house was built I just told the carpenter to get up something stylish and good, about like Judge Gainsboro’s. He showed me the plans, I signed the contract, and that was the whole of it. I supposed a house was a house. Now, before the new house is begun, I’m like Dick Whittington in the days of his poverty I’ve no peace by day or night.”

“Poor fellow!”

“I shudder to think what it will he when the house is fairly under way. I can see five hundred different things at once, but when each one has five hundred sides and we get up into the hundred thousands, I begin to feel dizzy. Uncle Harry has settled the plumbing question to his own satisfaction, so far as first principles are concerned; but who will tell us what kind of pipes and trimmings and bowls and basins and traps and plugs and stops and pedals and pulls and cranks and pistons and plungers and hooks and staples and couplings and brakes and chains and pans and basins and tanks and floats and buoys and strainers and safes and bibbs and tuckers we are to adopt? If I should consume midnight oil during a full four years’ course at a college for plumbers I should still find myself just upon the threshold of the temple of knowledge.”