The Evolution & History of Sewers & Sewer Pipes

Evolution of plumbing

Homo sapiens is a poopin’ species. We eat, we poop, and some of us have jobs.

Yet only recently in human history have we effectively disposed of sewage (poop and water plus other stuff).

Philadelphians built their first crude sewer system in 1740. Ironically, Philadelphia’s system remains one of the most antiquated in the USA.

The Romans were a few years ahead of us. They engineered the Cloaca Maxima in the 6th century BCE. Those Romans — always showing off.

In the late 19th century, Vienna installed art nouveau public toilets more magnificent than modern offices.

But for much of our history, we threw waste out the window (if we had windows) and onto the heads of unfortunate passers-by.

So how did sewage treatment systems, specifically sewer lines and pipes, evolve?

They didn’t in Philadelphia, PA, but they did nearly everywhere else.

A Brief & Incomplete Timeline of Sewers & Sewage in the Western Hemisphere

(Sources: Bio-sol, Unesco, We Are Water, UCLA Public Heath,, Engineering Rome, World History Encylopedia)

  • The earliest known city was Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia, called Asia Minor by the Romans and part of modern Turkey. Here’s how you pronounce it. Çatalhöyük existed from approximately 7400 BCE to 5200 BCE. It was home to roughly 10,000 humans and their domesticated animals. Chances are it had a waste disposal problem.
  • With this new way of life — cities and settlements — accumulated waste became a challenge. You couldn’t dump it in nature because you no longer lived in nature. Plus, nature could process the waste of a few people and their animals but not several thousand. The earliest documented evidence of an organized attempt to dispose of waste is in Mosaic law, which prescribed burying it in the ground.
  • The Babylonians built a sump or cesspit around 4,000 BCE: the first “sanitation facility.” They had already developed a basic hydraulic system with clay pipes and used buckets of water to wash poop into the sump. This was also the first known instance of “sewage” — water, feces, and all that goes with them.
  • The Mesopotamian Empire in modern Iraq first solved the sewage problem in 3,500 – 2,500 BCE. Homes in Ur had connected drainage systems that carried waste into pit latrines or cesspits.
  • In 3,000 BCE, citizens of Mohenjo-Daro (modern Pakistan) connected buildings with latrines to a sewage system. When they washed down their toilets, the system collected wastewater and channeled it to the sump or Indo River, a drinking water source.
  • Those clever Greeks! They gave us Homer, Aristotle, and the Olympics and perfected the sewer system to boot! How did they find the time? A few of their intricate waste disposal systems still work today, 4,000 years later. Greek toilets drained into pipes conveying sewage into a collection basin outside the city.
  • The Romans developed the concept of hygiene, regulating wastewater and using a sewage system in the streets to separate it. However, the Roman hoi polloi (and some nobles) continued to throw waste onto the streets until 100 BCE, when all households were connected to the sewage system by decree.
  • The Romans also separated toilet sewage from bath wastewater, using gray water to wash down public restrooms, a social gathering point. Romans caught up on the latest gossip as they relieved themselves. Sadly, all waste led to the Tiber River, which degraded into an open sewer. “By the late third century, the Cloaca Maxima was releasing nearly 100,000 pounds of waste daily to the Tiber River (Gowers 1995).”
  • The collapse of the Roman Empire led to the “sanitary dark age” lasting for 1,000 years. Only a few cities, like Paris, preserved some structures of the Roman sewage system. Walled cities installed cesspits as their only sanitation and were soon overwhelmed. People threw waste onto the streets or outside city walls. Rats thrived; cholera and plague broke out, killing 25% of the medieval European population. Cities were putrid. Peasants were slightly better off — they buried their feces in holes.
  • Only the Arab cities in the Iberian Peninsula had a healthy respect for water. The Arabs came from lands where water was scarce and valued it as a divine endowment. They collected rainwater in cisterns and removed gray water via drains and pipes, while wastewater traveled in separate pipes to the cesspits to merge with gray water.
  • The plague decimated Europe in the 1500s. With it came the recognition that sanitation, or the lack thereof, was a problem. Government sprang into action, at least in France. King Francois 1 ordered Parisian homeowners to build cesspools for their properties. These cesspools remained in use until the 1700s and helped reduce contaminated drinking water. London had been building cesspools since 1189. Wastewater was collected in cesspits, treated with bacteria, and conveyed to the country for farming.
  • King Henry VIII and his entourage famously traveled from estate to estate, out of necessity as much as boredom. Several weeks of royal living at Hampton Court Palace transformed it into a fetid heap of excrement and unwashed things. Unlucky servants stayed behind for spring cleaning, which was never enough to restore the palace to its full glory. In Versaille, the glamor capital of 1600s Europe, courtiers would relieve themselves wherever they could, even in mirrored hallways. For some reason, Hollywood never captures that part of royal life.
  • The industrial revolution brought rapid urbanization and population growth in areas with inadequate infrastructure. The stench of London in the early 1800s (the famous Great Stink) was so potent that it forced the closure of Parliament and other public institutions. The Thames bubbled and gurgled with raw sewage. Years of neglect had allowed sewage to accumulate in cesspools and waterways, creating a pungent and unhealthy atmosphere accompanied by frequent cholera outbreaks.
  • Beginning in 1830, London authorities installed ceramic sewer pipes across the city to mitigate threats to public health. Ceramic pipes replaced earlier wooden structures prone to rotting and leakage. In 1854, an epidemiologist named John Snow researched cholera deaths in London and pinpointed their source as a public water pump at Broad Street — leading authorities to shut it down for good.
  • The first modern sewer systems in America grew out of the same urgency. New York City began constructing a clay pipe sewer system in 1849, followed by Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. England exported ceramic pipes to the US; cities like Milwaukee and Washington D.C. had to wait until 1870 for ceramic piping to arrive.

The History of Sewer Pipes: More Than You Ever Wanted to Know

Wooden sewer pipes prevailed up until the 1800s. The Romans, ever on the vanguard of engineering, began using ceramic fired at high temperatures, giving it strength and durability.

Ceramic technology has come a long way since the Romans. Modern ceramic sewer lines are stronger and lighter. However, other materials are more common today.

Wooden Stave Sewer Lines

Wooden sewer pipes were made like barrels: planks bound together by a hoop. Unlike clay or cast iron pipes, staves were easy to transport, and pipes were built on location. Wood is excellent for wine and whisky aging but has obvious limitations for transporting sewage, among these the tendency to leak and rot.

In the US, ceramic pipes replaced most wooden sewer lines in the 1800s.

Redwood was resistant to insects, acids, weathering, and fungus, making it the wood of choice in California. Even Los Angeles had redwood sewer and stormwater pipes. They stayed clean longer than clay or cast iron and didn’t expand or contract as much when the temperature changed.

Clay (Ceramic) Sewer Pipes

Clay is one of the oldest piping materials, dating back to 4,000 BCE. It’s still in use today.

Clay pipes are made of ceramic, fired at high temperatures, and reinforced with steel bands or frames. They’re strong and durable but hard to cut and prone to breakage when installed incorrectly. Clay doesn’t corrode or rust like metal, so it’s well-suited for underground applications.

On the downside, clay is more expensive than many other materials. Plant roots can work their way into joints and cling to the outer surface of the pipe. Pressure build-up can make joints leak. Pipes can shift over time and sag, come apart, or collapse.

In the United States, clay was the material of choice in the 19th century. Since clay pipe is heavy and difficult to transport, many towns had clay pipe plants for local installation.

Modern clay pipes can hold over 2,000 pounds of water pressure. They’re resistant to chemicals like their historical counterparts. Often, they’re encased in concrete to protect against root infiltration and ground shifting or placed on a cement cradle for extra support.

Fiber Conduit (Orangeburg) Sewer Pipes

Fiber conduit sewer pipes, called Orangeburg pipes, had a 100-year run from the late 1870s to the 1970s. They were cheap, easy to cut, and weighed less than clay pipes.

They reached their zenith during WWII when metal was scarce. Made from wood pulp and pitch, they often failed within a decade, despite their billing for durability. Orangeburg pipes are no longer sold, but some older buildings may still have them in their sewer systems.

Cast Iron Sewer Pipes

Cast iron pipes have been used in the United States since the early 1800s. Initially reserved for water distribution, by the 1890s, cast iron sewer pipes provided a reliable and durable alternative to clay or wood stave pipes.

Quality cast iron pipes can last 75 to 100 years, but like clay pipes, they’re heavy and hard to transport. Installing them is labor intensive; they’re difficult to maintain. Old cast iron pipes can vary in thickness and quality. They’re resistant to the elements, but shifting soils, tree roots, and chemicals inside the home can damage them.

Stainless Steel Sewer Pipes

Stainless steel pipes became available in the US in the 1950s. They offer superior corrosion resistance, are easy to transport and install, and don’t expand or contract when temperatures change. Stainless steel has a long life span; according to some estimates, it lasts up to 100 years.

Like ceramic sewer lines, stainless steel pipes have a hefty price tag. And despite their durability, they’re vulnerable to tree roots or shifting soil damage.

Copper Sewer Pipes

Copper pipes have been around since the early 1900s, but they didn’t gain traction until the 1960s, when plastic was still new, and ceramic pipes were too expensive. Copper is lightweight and pliable and carries a relatively low price tag.

It’s resistant to corrosion and breaks or cracks less than other materials. But chemicals in wastewater or chlorine from municipal water systems can damage copper pipes.

Plastic (ABS, PVC) Sewer Pipes

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, plastic sewer pipes became the best choice for new lines. Plastic is cheap and easy to install and transport. Because plastic pipes fit tighter than cast iron or clay pipes, tree roots rarely get into the joints. ABS and PVC pipes have longer sections and fewer joints; they’re less prone to leakage.

ABS is easier to install than PVC but can deform if exposed to sunlight. Some cities mandate UV protection for ABS pipes — either protective pigments or a coat of latex paint.



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