The most impressive technological feature of the Owens-Thomas House is its original indoor plumbing system. Construction of the home, designed by English architect William Jay, was completed in 1819. To feed its indoor plumbing system, gutters on the roof collected and transmitted water through a series of cisterns. These cisterns, or water containers, were located throughout the house and fed two water closets (toilets), multiple sinks, three bathtubs, and at least one shower.
An original sink remains in the basement’s laundry room, and the shower is still present in the basement’s bathing chamber. Presumably, only the white members of the household were permitted to use the baths and water closets. The enslaved members of the residence used a two-seated privy, or outhouse, located at the back of the garden. The Owens-Thomas House is the first known house in America to have a water closet on two floors.
The largest cistern in the house held nearly 5,000 gallons of water and was located in the basement. The attic cistern held approximately 2,500 gallons of water, and the second-floor cistern held approximately 800 gallons. The city of Savannah did not have a water supply system until the 1850s. Until that time, most people relied on public pumps for their water needs.
The first water closet known to exist in the United States was in Annapolis, Maryland, in a home called Whitehall built for the colonial governor Horatio Sharpe around 1765. In 1804, Thomas Jefferson had architect Benjamin H. Latrobe install two water closets flushed by water-fed cisterns in the White House. Running water for drinking and bathing was not installed in the White House until 1833, fourteen years after the Owens-Thomas House was built.
To emphasize the rarity of indoor plumbing in the early 19th century and into the 20th century, note:
- In 1856, only 9% of New Yorkers had an indoor toilet and even less (1%) had a tub or shower.
- In 1859, only 2% of the population of Baltimore had an indoor toilet, but 7% had a tub or shower.
- In 1940, only 55% of the United States population had at least one complete private bathroom.
This makes the fact that the Owens-Thomas House had indoor plumbing complete with two toilets, three bathtubs, and at least one shower in 1819 all the more impressive.