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Science of Flynn, Part II: Indoor Plumbing

September 30, 2014

indoor plumbing

In our last post, we mentioned an Iowa State Register article from 1871 that spoke of the modern comforts and conveniences Martin Flynn used to create his ideal country home. One of these luxurious features was indoor plumbing. Many of our visitors at Living History Farms are very surprised by this amenity, particularly since many Iowa farms didn’t have indoor plumbing until decades into the 20th century. Though the house did not have the number of bathrooms we would consider necessary for a large household today, for the time period, it was considered to be well appointed. Today, visitors to the Flynn Mansion can see three sinks in the house: two upstairs in bedrooms and one in the front kitchen. In addition to the sinks, the home had one bathroom with a sink, bathtub and a toilet. The bathroom was located between the master bedroom and the girls’ bedroom on the second floor at the head of the front stairs. The bathroom is not open to visitors at the present time.

sink in the Flynn Mansion

Private water systems and city plumbing were appearing on the East Coast and in large Midwestern cities like Chicago during the two decades prior to the construction of the Flynn House. What makes the Flynn’s water system significant is its location in central Iowa. At that time, a few of Des Moines’ largest and most expensive homes, such as B.F. Allen’s Terrace Hill, were designed to have indoor plumbing; this, however, was the exception and not the rule. It should be noted that the Des Moines Water Company (now the Des Moines Water Works) was not even founded until the year 1871, the year that construction on the Flynn House was completed. Though Valley Junction, now West Des Moines, first attempted to establish the Valley Junction Water Works in 1899, action was not taken on the matter until the 1910s*.

Since public water was not available to the Flynns, the home had a private system. The house’s design incorporated tanks, cisterns, and pumps which were supplied with water from springs on the property (these springs also provided water for the farm’s animals). The water from the spring was gathered in a cistern below the house and forced to a collecting tank in the third-floor attic by a steam-powered pump. Gravity would then carry the water through the pipes to the sinks and fixtures throughout the house. We also believe the Flynns had hot water, which would have been heated by a boiler located somewhere in the kitchens.

pitcher and basinToday the fixtures we have in the house are representative of plumbing fixtures that would have been available to a family in the 1870s. While it seems possible that all four bedrooms in the front of the house would have had sinks, work during the home’s renovations found surviving pipes in only two of the front bedrooms. Instead of speculating, staff decided to put pitchers and basins in the other rooms instead.


Historic Quilt ShowThis week is the perfect time to visit the Flynn Mansion and learn more about its modern amenities! In addition to learning about the Science of Flynn, visitors to the mansion have the opportunity to view seldom-seen textiles and quilts from the museum’s collections as part of our Historic Textile and Quilt Show. We’d like to give a big “thank you!” to everyone who voted for us in the first round of the Iowa Icon Challenge, and urge you to continue your support in the second round!

Vote here: (we’re in the Science category).


*For more information on the history of the Des Moines Water Works or the West Des Moines Water Works, please visit their websites at and


Read more posts on the LHF Blog


Flynn Mansion   Science of Everyday Life

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