The kitchen sink, with its plentiful hot and cold running water, is a mundane feature of our daily lives that we take for granted—unless, that is, the water dries up or turns smelly, thereby inconveniencing our schedules or threatening our health, or unless we are considering a house purchase or renovation. The tap turns on, the water obligingly pours out; the tap turns off, the water obligingly drains away. Of course it was not always so. The advancement of kitchen sinks from dishpans filled with buckets of water to today’s carefully controlled municipal system—with its in/out pipes, hot water tanks, and on/off taps—reflects developments in plumbing technology, society’s evolving concerns about civic and moral health, and major alterations in expectations around women’s work. Although lavatory and laundry sinks were equally transformative, the focus of this paper is the kitchen sink, and the irksome daily cycle of dishwashing in Ontario homes of the 19th and 20th centuries.
L’évier de cuisine et son abondance en eau courante (chaude et froide) est un objet banal de la vie quotidienne que l’on prend pour acquis ; à moins que l’eau ne cesse de couler, ou qu’elle sente mauvais – incommodant ainsi notre horaire ou menaçant notre santé – ou que l’on pense à acheter une maison ou entreprendre des rénovations. Le robinet s’ouvre, il se ferme, et l’eau se déverse tout comme elle cesse de couler : obligeamment. Bien sûr, il n’en fut pas toujours ainsi. Du poêle à frire rempli d’une eau que l’on chauffait sur le feu (et que l’on transportait par seau sur des distances), jusqu’au système municipal actuel précautionneusement contrôlé par une tuyauterie, des réservoirs d’eau chaude et des robinets, le progrès des éviers de cuisine reflète le développement technologique de la plomberie, l’évolution des préoccupations de la société quant à sa santé civique et morale ainsi que les importantes modifications des attentes entretenues envers le travail des femmes. Bien que les lavabos et les éviers de service se soient également transformés avec le temps, cet article se concentrera sur l'évier de cuisine et le pénible cycle quotidien du lavage de la vaisselle dans les foyers ontariens au cours des 19e et 20e siècles.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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, 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.
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,” all problems associated with aging enamelled sinks.
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.
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. 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.
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.
Two types of food waste strainers to place in sink corners.
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].” 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.”
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.’” No one was immune. Even future Prime Minister Mackenzie King contracted typhoid in his comfortable Toronto home in the 1890s.
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.
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. 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.
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.” 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.” In 1835, young Mary Hallen of Medonte in Simcoe County was self-conscious about her father hearing her do the dishes. 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. In the 1890s the adolescent daughters in the genteel albeit servantless King household continually complained about the domestic chores.
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. 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.” 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.”
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.
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.
Frances Hoffman and Ryan Taylor, Across the Waters: Ontario Immigrant Experiences (Milton, ON: Global Heritage Press, 1999), 209, quoting Robert Forrest, letter, no date; Catherine Parr Traill, The Backwoods of Canada (London, 1836), Appendix B, 270.
Sandra Gwyn, The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of MacDonald and Laurier (Toronto: Harper and Collins, 1984), 56.
My thanks to an anonymous reader for this insight.
City of Toronto Archives, Department of Public Works Listing of Photographs, RG series 11, vols. A-B, Board of Education, 1911-13, and RG series 32, vols. H-M, Board of Health, 1911-13.
City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Housing Authority Photographs, RG 28 vol. 1.
Monel Metal advertisement from The International Nickel Company of Canada in The Wimodausis Club Cook Book, 3rd ed. (Toronto: Grand and Toy, 1934); Walter Jowers, “Countertop Options,” The Old House Journal 15.4 (1987): 38.
Hoffman and Taylor, Across the Waters, 331-2, quoting Tiger Dunlop in 1832.
Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman’s Home: Or, The Principles in Domestic Science; being a guide to the formation and maintenance of economical, beautiful and Christian homes, first published 1869 (New York: Arno Press and New York Times, 1971), 372.
Home Cook Book (Toronto: 1877), 6.
Beecher and Beecher, American Woman’s Home, 34-5.
Caroline Davidson, A Woman’s Work is Never Done: A History of Housework in the British Isles, 1650-1950 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1982), 12, 14, 16, 18-20.
Heather MacDougall, “Public Health and the ‘Sanitary Idea’ in Toronto, 1866-1890” in Essays in the History of Canadian Medicine (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988), passim; Annmarie Adams, Architecture in the Family Way: Doctors, Houses, and Women, 1870-1900 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996), passim; Mariana Valverde, The Age of Light, Soap and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1991), passim.
Anonymous, Health and Home (London, ON: 1882), quoted in Una Abrahamson, God Bless Our Home: Domestic Life in Nineteenth-Century Canada (Toronto: Burns and MacEachern, 1966), 88. According to Elizabeth Driver in Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949, (University of Toronto Press, 2008), 345-47, the author was Charles Fowler and the book was originally published in New York in 1879.
Charlotte Gray, Mrs King: The Life and Times of Isabel Mackenzie King (Toronto: Viking Penguin, 1997), 121, 127, 139.
Frederick Armstrong, City in the Making: Progress, People and Perils in Victorian Toronto (Toronto and Oxford: Dundurn Press, 1988); Bill Bailey, Stories of York, privately printed, 1980, passim; Sandra Gwyn, The Private Capital, 55.
John A. Macdonald, letters to his sister Louisa Macdonald, March 6 and June 13, 1868, in Affectionately Yours, The Letters of Sir John A. MacDonald and His Family (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1969), 81-2.
Personal communication via email, Peter Myers, February 6, 2002.
Anne Langton, A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: The Journals of Anne Langton (Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1950), 162, 89.
Unidentified woman quoted in Marilyn Barber, “Domestic Servants in the 20th-century Kitchen,” in Consuming Passions: Eating and Drinking Traditions in Ontario (Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1989), 294.
Eleanora Hallen, Eleanora’s Diary: The Journals of a Canadian Pioneer Girl, Carolyn Parry, ed. (Richmond Hill, ON: Scholastic Canada, 1994), diary entry, September 15, 1835, 101.
Sophia MacNab, The Diary of Sophia MacNab, 5th ed. (Hamilton, ON: W. L. Griffin Printing, Ltd., 1997), 24.
Charlotte Gray, Mrs King, 99.
Langton, Gentlewoman, 112-13; Catharine Parr Traill, The Backwoods ofCanada: Being the Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America, 1836, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989), 82.
Across the Waters, 255, quoting John Langton from unspecified date in 1830s.
Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop, 1923, quoted in Linda Campbell Franklin, America in the Kitchen from Hearth to Cookstove (Orlando, FL: House of Collectibles, 1978), 69-70.
Dr. Mary Wood-Allen, What Every Girl Ought to Know (part of the “Self and Sex” series of sex hygiene books) (Philadelphia and Toronto, 1897), 187, quoted in Valverde, The Age of Light, 40.
Fiona is a food historian who until recently worked for Museum and Heritage Services of the City of Toronto. She is co-founder of the Culinary Historians of Canada and the current Past President. Her award-winning first book, Hearth and Home, Women and the Art of Down Hearth Cooking, was published in 2006.
Fiona est historienne de la gastronomie et travaille pour Museum and Heritage Services de la ville de Toronto. Hearth and Home, Women and the Art of Down Hearth Cooking, son premier livre primé, est paru en 2006.