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Short Sink Chronology

In the earliest years of European settlement in Canada, several times a day, someone—soldiers, bachelor homesteaders, pioneer women, or sons assigned the chore—had to fetch water. Heavy pails of cold water were hauled to the campfire or into the cabin, where they would be heated over the hearth fire. At first, dirty dishes were scrubbed with sand or ashes and washed with a rag and homemade lye soap in an all-purpose basin placed on a bench or table. Waste dishwater was fed to the pigs, pitched out the door, or showered over the vegetable patch. With increased prosperity came the time, money, and skill to buy or build a piece of furniture called a sink; that is, a shallow wood or stone trough either set onto table-like legs, into a windowsill, or into the top of a wooden cabinet. The cabinet style, called a “dry sink” by antique dealers, is now an iconic image of the 19th-century kitchen. The dry sink trough held the familiar dishpan, but lacked dishwater. By the mid-19th century, the more prosperous townspeople and farm families could upgrade to a “wet sink” by fitting a wood or iron pump to one end of the trough, thereby eliminating the need to carry buckets long distances. The cold water, however, still had to be lifted to the fireplace or cookstove for heating, and the dirty water emptied by hand.

Figure 1

Two tin dishpans in use during a cooking class in the circa 1850s storage room of the main kitchen on a former family farm. Early summer 2000 at Montgomery’s Inn Museum, Toronto, Ontario. Author’s collection.

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Early on, water was sourced from a pond, creek, or fresh spring. Government immigration officers included “a pure spring, or running stream of water” in the qualifications for a good farm.[1] Rain barrels and excavated wells became possible after cabins were built for shelter and crops planted for sustenance. Before pumps eliminated its necessity, the carrying of water was an onerous and frequent daily task. Some households, both rural and urban, had basement or rooftop cisterns to collect rainwater, and underground brick or wood box drains to transport waste water out to a goose puddle, cesspool, distant field, or unofficial street sewer. Starting in the 1830s and 1840s, kitchen sinks in some towns could link into the rudimentary public drainage systems starting to be dug by local governing councils and private contractors. Professional carters supplied water door to door, although it was not necessarily clean. One Ottawa woman, in 1873, “screamed horribly” at the “cat’s fur or worse” floating on one carter’s puncheon.[2]

Farmhouses usually had the sink in the big room that doubled as central family space and kitchen, rather than in a separate scullery. But estate houses and houses of any pretension had a separate room, either called a sink room or scullery, for washing up and vegetable preparation. Such properties also often had a space off the dining room called a butler’s pantry that contained a sink reserved for washing fine china, silverware, and glassware. Two Ontario examples of butler’s pantries are still seen at Dundurn Castle in Hamilton and at Spadina House in Toronto.

“If your kitchen sink is worn out, [that is, your old wooden sink] replace it with a steel or graniteware sink. They are clean and sanitary. Our price is right.” So promised Russill Hill Hardware in its Toronto Star advertisement of May 9, 1902. It was possible, by the 1880s, to replace the dry or wet trough of stone, wood, or zinc-lined wood (nicknamed the “zinc”) with an enamelled cast iron, granite, steel, or slate trough with cock-taps for running water. Factories were manufacturing standardized iron, granite, and slate sinks sealed by a glaze of white enamel that could be sterilized and wiped dry with little trouble. Like most technical improvements, these new sinks were initially installed in upper and middle-class urban homes by commercial builders and modernizing homeowners. Eventually they began to be included in up-and-coming working class suburbs and, after the First World War, in small towns and farmsteads. Basins were inevitably used for the actual dishwashing, however, because the hard surfaces could easily damage breakables. The new sinks required installation and maintenance by a plumber, one of the new career choices for men of the late 19th century.

On May 11 and June 1, 1901, The Toronto Star advertised a six-room house on Dufferin Street for $600, in which the plumbed-in sink was the only interior feature mentioned. The mention was obviously intended to attract the wife of a low-paid but upwardly aspiring breadwinner. A couple of weeks earlier, on May 11, 14 and 15, a $2,500 house on Albany Street at Bloor Street was advertised as having “all modern conveniences,” including a sink on the public water system and a water heater. A furnished cottage on Lake Muskoka in a May 31 and June 1 listing included a sink and drain pipe in its inventory of appealing amenities. Extant in-situ 1920s and 1930s kitchen sinks are still on view at Eldon House in London, Ontario, and Whitehern in Hamilton.

Figure 2

Advertisement for an iron sink showing cold and hot water taps as a status symbol, aimed to appeal to both breadwinner and homemaker.

Avon Chapter, International Order of the Daughters of the Empire, Cook Book (Stratford, ON, 1922), 24

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By the 1880s, in most Ontario towns, an up-to-date kitchen sink was no longer a moveable piece of furniture but a domestic wall fixture that, despite its placement in the interior, private, and mostly female section of the home, functioned as a status symbol.[3] Yet many families had not yet acquired one of the new fixed sinks, either because their houses lacked the necessary plumbing or because the purchase price and installation costs were prohibitive. To compensate, working-class neighbourhoods often held a single communal tap provided by the town council. Toronto slum photographs from about 1910-12 show broken zinc sinks and cold-water spigots that yielded malodorous, cold, rusty water,[4] conditions which in some areas remained a reality into the 1940s. In 1947, contrasting promotional photographs taken by the Toronto Housing Authority show a family named the Bluetts in their decrepit Cabbagetown and brand-new Regent Park kitchens. In a smart, modern kitchen, smilingly doing dishes at their metal counter sink attached to the rebuilt community pipe system, the women proclaimed their move up the social ladder.[5]

The Bluetts’ sink was possibly made of the new product called “Monel Metal” (an alloy of nickel and copper), which began as a material for sleek futuristic kitchens in the 1930s (Figure 3). Its manufacturer, The International Nickel Company of Canada, campaigned with the assertion that the product “lessens dish breakage and dish clatter,” is “rust-proof” and “easy to keep clean and sanitary,” and is resistant to “the corrosive attacks of fruit juice,”[6] all problems associated with aging enamelled sinks.

Figure 3

In the 1930s and early 1940s, advertisements for Monel Metal sinks appeared regularly in ladies’ and architectural magazines, plumbing supply catalogues, and cookbooks.

The Wimodausis Club Cook Book, 3rd edition (Toronto: Grand and Toy, 1934), 539

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The newfangled metal sinks of the 1930s abandoned the traditional rectangular trough shape in favour of a smaller square design, only somewhat larger in volume than the familiar dish basin. These were dropped directly into holes inside built-in counters, sometimes in pairs. Water flowed directly into the sink and the drain holes could be plugged with rubber stoppers. The ongoing and increased mass production of kitchen sinks in the 20th century enabled more women to have time and labour-saving amenities in their homes. Not having them indicated poverty, as the Bluetts and so many other families knew.

Sink Stuff

For an early kitchen sink to be useful, a list of related items was required. Foremost was the dishpan. Of various sizes, qualities, and materials (tin, wood, earthenware), dishpans were ubiquitous and multipurpose. Besides washing dishes and collecting slops, they were also utilized for laundry, personal ablutions, bathing babies, packing items for transportation, and cooking (boiling a cloth-bound pudding, for instance). In the 1820s, famous military physician and politician Tiger Dunlop used a dish basin to boil green peas.[7] The early wet sinks continued to require the age-old dishpans because they minimized water usage and helped curtail breakage. And while Monel Metal was promoted as easy on breakables, other manufacturers took the opposite track and started making unbreakable dishes with the new material of polythene. Most famous was Tupperware, started in 1942.

Figure 4

A simple modern sink with an air-drying dishpan, dishrack and mat, blue dishcloth, hanging bottle brush, dish and hand soaps, spray nozzle, and a little ceramic bowl holding an SOS pad and an unseen plastic pot scraper. Author’s collection.

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Since the Victorians and Edwardians loved to invent things, accoutrements for washing dishes proliferated: wire soap savers and shakers, towel racks, scouring brushes of various sizes and shapes, wooden skewers to get inside corners, nickel-plated strainers, and a myriad of other items. Textiles included dishcloths, teacloths, roller cloths, chamois skins, and rag swabs. As for soaps, a well-equipped kitchen sink of the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries required hard soap, soft soap, washing soda, borax, alum, vinegar, whiting, and bleach, as well as a choice of fuller’s earth, bath brick, bran, salt, sand, or wood ashes to scour pots and pans. By the 1940s, however, proprietary soaps had replaced many of these items. Mid-20th-century sinks were often accompanied by a plate rack on the wall above and a wire dish drainer placed next to the sink on an absorbent cloth.

Figures 5


Hudson’s Bay Catalogue, Winter and Autumn 1910-11, 191, 192


Hudson’s Bay Catalogue, Winter and Autumn 1910-11, 191, 192

Two types of food waste strainers to place in sink corners.

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All of that equipment and all of those cleansers required supervision. It was initially the role of the housewife to instruct the servant or her daughters about proper dishwashing techniques. Back in 1869, American reformer Catherine Beecher informed her readers: “No item of domestic labour is so frequently done in as negligent manner as [washing dishes].”[8] From then on, increasing numbers of household manuals and domestic science textbooks itemized the proper procedure: a) first sort, then scrape the plates, b) start with the least dirty dishes and move to the most, c) wash in hot suds, rinse in hot water, and d) set to drain. The Home Cook Book said in 1877, “no utensil should be suffered to be put away dirty. … No good cook or servant would be guilty of such an act.”[9]

Until the early 1990s, many young women (and later, men) in high school home economics classes received lessons in proper dishwashing. Even today, Boards of Health have pictorial instructions for the correct washing and sterilization of dishes that must be posted by sinks in restaurants, seniors’ homes, and daycares. Arguably, dishwashing is a skill that needs to be taught, as parents expecting children to wash the dinner dishes (or, today, load the dishwasher) in return for an allowance know well.

Figure 6

“There is a right way to wash dishes; and a wrong way”—thus proclaimed the first line of this Ivory Soap ad. This magazine was read by Canadian women, too.

The Ladies World, a Monthly Magazine, New York, February 1908, 3

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When early female reformers began to advocate for kitchen efficiency, the sink was a particular target. Catherine Beecher and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe suggested a compact arrangement of the work area, with shelves surrounding a built-in sink, plus separate pumps for soft rainwater and hard well water.[10] Although the Beecher sisters’ ideas were also advocated by other writers, many kitchen sinks continued to be inconvenient until the industry of kitchen efficiency arose in the 1930s. Influenced by the domestic science and sanitation movements, the concepts of kitchen labour efficiency solidified, leading to more available time for homemakers to address the rising standards of cleanliness. This newly-found time, however, was to be used for even more housework. The new sinks with hot and cold running water taps, as well as the inventory of supportive sink stuff, therefore simultaneously reduced and increased a housewife’s and servant’s daily work load.

Figure 7

The promise of an efficient, clean, and affordable “dream kitchen” included this pale yellow countertop with a matching sink and pale blue under-cupboards. Advertisement for Youngstown Steel Kitchens.

Canadian Home Journal, August 1955, 65

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Caroline Davidson, in A Woman’s Work Is Never Done, discusses the quantity and time British women spent transporting water depending on individual proximity to water source, size and type of vessel, individual strength, and household size. Summarizing many primary documents, Davidson concludes that before a piped water supply was common, the average single load was three gallons (which is consistent with a 1977 study about carrying water in developing countries). She also states that those living in rural areas used only one to two gallons per head daily, while town and city dwellers consumed about five gallons per head (which again compares to a modern study). For a five-member rural family, then, a woman carried about ten gallons per day, which is about three trips to a water source, and likewise, a five-member urban family used 25 gallons per day, about eight trips to a water source. And that was only the clean water.[11]

Sinks and Sewers

Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, the serious health problems resulting from contaminated water sources and sewers led to the prioritization of the provision of clean water and the removal of dirty water by the developers of civic infrastructure in burgeoning Ontario towns and cities. Midcentury advances in plumbing technology were coincident with an increased understanding of disease transmission, and were encouraged by medical authorities, sanitation reformers, religious reformers, domestic scientists, social scientists, and manufacturers alike. In 19th-century Toronto, a battle occurred between members of the Board of Health, who wanted to create a public waterworks system as preventative medicine, and the city councillors and citizens who ridiculed the idea of a connection between health and contaminated water. The conflict began following the first cholera attack in the summer of 1832, continued through numerous epidemics of cholera, typhoid, and diphtheria, and was not won until the 1880s, by which time the knowledge of bacteria as a cause of communicable disease was starting to become generally accepted.[12] Clearing up the source of bacteria—that is, inferior drainage—was a difficult municipal challenge, and typhoid fever in particular continued to be a threat through the 1920s. Making the link between disease and the kitchen sink, the author of Home and Health (1882) wrote, “I have smelled a whole house full of typhoid in one ‘dishrag.’”[13] No one was immune. Even future Prime Minister Mackenzie King contracted typhoid in his comfortable Toronto home in the 1890s.[14]

Construction of a sewer system in Toronto started in 1835, and was in place along the main roads by 1849, but it never kept up with the city’s growth. Outside the city limits, areas like St. Clair Avenue and Dufferin Street did not get public systems until after the First World War. Ottawa started building its own sewer system in 1874, but the small town of Hanover, near Wiarton, did not get a municipal system until 1950. In York Township, as late as the early 1920s, a Mrs. Blackmore said she was still throwing her dishwater into the roadway, a practice much despised by downtowners.[15]

Ingress taps and egress pipes meant the water’s source and destination were desirably concealed, but noxious fumes rising into the house from smelly drains were often problematic. Early Victorian innovation had solved this ancient and common dilemma by trapping the fumes in water-filled stench or stink traps. S-traps—so called because the egress pipes were literally bent like an S—were designed to remain filled with water that blocked smells. These S-shaped bends were prominently exposed under the iron wall sinks of the 1880s onwards, and are still found inside the cupboards under modern kitchen sinks today. In spite of this development, Sir John A. MacDonald’s Ottawa household experienced “offensive and insufferable” smells in spring 1868, causing him to move into temporary lodgings.[16] Likewise, in the early 1950s, in Thunder Bay, a friend “recalls dimly” that

the kitchen of the boarding house that I lived in for a year in university … was run by little old ladies who were doing their duty to the young by providing cheap living. The kitchen, that I only peeked into once or twice, was dimly lit, and the sink stank of flesh rotting in the drain.[17]

Clearly some houses did not have successful stench traps.

Sinks, Servants, and Spirituality

Among the relatively wealthy Canadian colonists, attitudes toward dishwashing often varied based on the availability of hired help. Transplanted to the Bobcaygeon bush in the 1830s, English gentlewoman Anne Langton believed that dishes were a servant’s job. Although she undertook the task when she was without assistance, she was also pleased to report that the neighbour’s wife “comes up every evening to wash up.” Langton testified that “the pump is put down in the kitchen, a perfect luxury after the slopping of buckets up and down the well.”[18] A century later, a servant woman who was used to her employers’ comfortable city kitchen said of their cottage, “And I had to pump the water. They had a tank in the kitchen but you had to pump that water up from the lake by hand. I worked like a slave there in that house.”[19] In 1835, young Mary Hallen of Medonte in Simcoe County was self-conscious about her father hearing her do the dishes.[20] Sophia and Minnie McNab, on the other hand, were forbidden to go into the basement kitchen offices of their Dundurn Castle home, and would not have dreamed of doing dishes.[21] In the 1890s the adolescent daughters in the genteel albeit servantless King household continually complained about the domestic chores.[22]

Men’s varied attitudes towards dishwashing are also recorded in Canadian colonial narratives. Several immigrant writers from England refer to boy-servants fetching water, perhaps to point out to English readers the different custom in Ontario.[23] Even in Canada, however, men rarely did the washing up after meals unless circumstantially required to do so. John Langton, while still a bachelor in his bush cabin, wrote that, “the other bore, the washing up … I do all in a lump when I have used up my stack of plates.” “I never could overcome my aversion to washing up dishes,” he explains, and instead assigned that task “to my boy Willie.”[24] Another man claims that his spiritual philosophy of dishwashing arose from personal experience, because his wife was often away from home. At first, dishwashing was to him an “ignoble chore … undergone with knitted brow and brazen fortitude,” but eventually he decides to “spiritualize” the experience, to make it his “balm and poultice.”[25]

By the end of the Victorian era, washing dishes had become a moral imperative for self-respecting girls who valued physical and spiritual cleanliness, especially girls experiencing menstrual cramps. Dr. Mary Wood-Allen suggested in 1897 in What Every Girl Ought to Know that:

Dishwashing is especially beneficial, as the hot water calls the blood to the hands and so helps to relieve the headache or backache. This hot water represents Truth, heated by Love. The soiled dishes represent myself, with worn-out thoughts and desires. I plunge them in the loving truth and cleanse them thoroughly, then polish them with the towel of persistence and store them away in symmetrical order to await further use. So I myself am warmed and interested, and my work is well done.[26]

Many public health officials, domestic scientists, and religious reformers such as the Salvation Army believed in the moralizing effect of clean water, clean sinks, and clean kitchens. Soap was a physical and spiritual cleanser, cleanliness a barometer of personal morality.


For many Ontario people before the Second World War, indoor plumbing with hot water, effective stench-traps, and sewers were merely an urban dream. Even today, some cottagers and farmers still rely on well water. The shift from pouring buckets of heated water into a dishpan to having access to a readily available supply of municipal hot water did not fully happen in Ontario until the 1960s. Basins set on tables, tin dishpans set into stone troughs, zinc-lined troughs with pumps, cast-iron sinks with coldwater spigots, stainless steel sinks with blended hot and cold water faucets—all sorts of sinks coexisted for decades, depending on geographical location, proximity to public water, financial status, and personal inclination. No matter its type, the kitchen sink required women—whether housewives, daughters, or servants—either to go into a separate room or to turn their backs on the main part of the kitchen in order to fulfill a task usually perceived as annoying, boring, or morally necessary. Whether anyone enjoyed washing the dishes was beside the point; they had to be done.

The technologies of transportation, telephone, electricity, gas, refrigeration, and indoor plumbing, as well as the fight for women’s suffrage, were all transformative in the decades around 1900, and were linked to civic and personal prosperity. The kitchen sink was part of this radical change.

Today the mundane modern kitchen sink is part of a computerized water-carriage system. Its development and evolution has played a role in reducing epidemic disease, freed women from a particular level of drudgery, and enabled the high level of household cleanliness we now consider desirable. Women could stand at their kitchen, laundry, and lavatory sinks and simply turn the taps to get inexpensive, clean, hot water, whenever and however much they wanted, and then pull the plug to see it gurgle away. That was a profound social change of which we are the happy and heedless recipients in the 21st century.