It would be quite easy to imagine our century without carpenters; we would simply use iron furniture. We could just as well without the stonemason; the cement worker would take over his work. But there would be no nineteenth century without the plumber. He has left his mark and become indispensable to us.
We think that we have to give him a French name. We call him the installateur. This is wrong. For this man is the pillar of the Germanic idea of culture. The English were the keepers and protectors of this culture and therefore deserve to take precedence when we are looking for a name for this man. Besides, the word “plumber” comes from the Latin—plumbum means “lead”—and thus for the English as well as for us not a foreign word, but a borrowed word.
For a century and a half now we have been receiving our culture secondhand from the French. We have never rebelled against against the leadership of the French. Now that we realize that we have been duped by the French, now that we realize that the English have been leading the French around by the nose for a long time, we are setting up a front of German culture against the English. We do not mind being guided by the French; it was very pleasant. But the thought that the English are really the leaders—that makes us nervous. (Neue Freie Presse July 17, 1898 p.45)
There are two major themes in most of the writing of the gilded age that never cease to astonish me: a belief in the transformative power of technology (for both good and ill), and fervent concerns about nationalism. That is one of the reasons that I have re-checked Spoken into the Void by Adolf Loos about four times now. The architectural library keeps it on a short leash. But I press on, attempting to extract as much as I can without simply copying the essays. There’s a lot of cultural context that is complicated to unpack.
The current cultural obsession with foreign manners, e.g. Downton Abbey, is nothing new. Adolf Loos was on it:
. . .The Englishman is unacquainted with the fear of getting dirty. He goes into the stable, strokes his horse, mounts it, and takes off across the wide heath. The Englishman does everything himself; he hunts, he climbs mountains, and he saws up trees. He gets no pleasure out of being a spectator. . . .Charles VI would never have been allowed to climb to the top of mountains like a simple hunter! He would have had to be carried up in a sedan chair—if, that is, he had ever expressed what would have been a strange desire for the times. (45-46)
It’s hard, as a modern American, to realize that sorting things out into national identities was a way to make sense of the complex web of customs of diverse ethnic groups. Stereotyping is the gateway to classification.
It’s not necessarily prejudice, but rather a strategy of sorting by habitus, as Bourdieu would say—habits of consumption are culturally, economically, and temporally situated.
In such times the plumbers had nothing to do and lost their name. Of course there were water supply systems, water for fountains, water for looking at. But baths, showers, and water closets were not provided. Water for washing was very sparingly rationed. In German villages that preserve the Roman culture, you can still today find washbasins that we Anglicized city dwellers wouldn’t know how to begin to use. It was not always like this. Germany was famous for its water use in the Middle Ages. The great public baths (of which the so-called bader, the barber, is the sole vestige of today) were always crowded, and everyone took at least one bath a day.
Although they are generally no baths to be found in the later royal palaces, in the house of the German burgher the bathroom was the most splendid and sumptuous room. Who has not heard of the famous bathrooms of the Fugger house in Augsburg, that crowning jewel of the German Renaissance! When the German view of the world was standard, it wasn’t only Germans who indulged in sport, amusement, and hunting. (46)
This is the first time I’ve met the Fuggers. It’s was a big surprise that they, beyond being bathers, were also the developers of the first public housing projects in the Renaissance, the Fuggerei.
By 1523, Jakob Fugger built 52 houses for laborers, charging them only one symbolic guilder per year (about 88 cents) and three prayers a day. It still, apparently provides exactly the same sort of deal, though the rent has gone up to $1.20 per year. But, back to the Fuggerhäus bathroom. After much deep digging, I located an engraving from the 1880s:
As I previously explored, English royalty beginning with Eleanor of Castile had baths in their residences. Though Germans royalty apparently lacked this innovation, German burghers did not—and of course, they were grand. The mass of the German people however, were missing out according to Loos:
We have remained backward. Some time ago I asked an American lady what seemed to her to be the most noticeable difference between Austria and America. Her answer: the plumbing! The sanitary installations, heating, lighting, and water supply systems. Our taps, sinks, water closets, washstands, and other things are still far inferior to English and American fittings. What must seem most remarkable to an American is that in order to wash our hands, we must first go down the hall for a jug of water since there are toilets that do not have washing facilities. In this respect, America is to Austria as Austria is to China. It will be objected that we too already have such accommodations. Certainly, but not everywhere. Even in China there is English plumbing, for the wealthy and for foreigners. But the majority of people haven’t heard of it. (46)
There is much evidence that most of the reformation in design apparent as we turned from the nineteenth to the twentieth century revolves around improving the conditions for everyone. The Swedish propaganda from the 1939 World’s fair continues that trend. What to do about the great unwashed? Of course, for Loos, we must look to America:
A home without a room for bathing? Impossible in America. The thought that at the end of the nineteenth century there is still a nation with a population of millions whose inhabitants cannot bathe daily seems atrocious to an American. Thus even in the poorest sections of New York it is impossible to find dormitory accommodations for ten cents which are cleaner and more pleasant than our village inns. This is why there is only a single waiting room for all classes in America, since even in the largest crowd the slightest odor is not noticeable. (46)
. . .The state does have a certain interest in increasing the desire for cleanliness in its people. For only that people which approaches the English in water use can keep step with them economically; only that people which surpasses the English in water use is destined to wrest from them the sovereignty of the world. (49)
But the plumber is the pioneer of cleanliness. He is the state’s chief craftsman, the quartermaster of culture, that is, of today’s prevailing culture. Every English washbasin with a spigot and drain is a marvel of progress. Every stove with its fittings for frying and roasting meat over an open flame is a new victory of the German spirit. Such a revolution is also apparent on Viennese menus. The consumption of roast beef, grilled steaks, and cutlets increases constantly, while that of weiner schnitzel and roast chicken (those Italian dishes), as well as of stewed, boiled, and steamed French specialties constantly decreases.
When I first started exploring Loos, I noted that the Germans, Hermann Muthesius specifically, of the late nineteenth century were strangely obsessed with roast meats. Now it seems that this drive is also partly technological. Being able to cook meat indoors altered menus. Despite the improvement in palates, the plumber was falling prey to the bad taste so common among the masses: these new indoor fittings were being decorated in ways that offended Loos’s functional sensibilities:
Even those good folk who still see things from the Indian point of view (as everyone knows, the Indian decorated everything he could lay his hands on) are well provided for. There are Rococo flush valves, Rococo taps, even Rococo washstands. It is truly lucky that a few firms also undertake to provide for the non-Indians. Thus, at M. Steiner’s we see excellent American style overhead showers, a new invention, all smooth and thus very elegant. H. Esders produces fixtures that are efficient and correct in both form and color. It is worth mentioning from a purely technical point of view that the continued use of the crank valve in plumbing can no longer be justified. It is old hat, an old hat that ought to be thrown away. . . .(49)
Ever the master of the clever transition, the next article Loos published was on hats. But I’ve got a few more thought-beads that I need to string together before I get to that.
An increase in the use of water is one of our most critical tasks. May our Viennese plumbers fulfill their task and bring us closer to that most important goal, the attainment of a cultural level equal to the rest of the civilized Western world. For otherwise, something very unpleasant, very shameful could happen to us. Otherwise, if both nations continue to progress at their present rate, the Japanese could attain Germanic culture before the Austrians do. (49)
As a sidebar, I was very much taken by this English campaign shower. You need to keep it clean while you’re out conquering the world.