The image on the right is from the patent for one of the most innovative changes to handwashing ever. On the patent, awarded to Harry Bradley in 1919, the fixture is just called “Lavatory”. It quickly became known as the washfountain.
During the heart of the industrial revolution, just a few years after the Ford Motor Company fully developed the first assembly line, millions of men and women all over America were working in factories. The introduction of timed work breaks and lunches at these factories meant that large groups of people all needed to wash their hands during the same short period of time. Factories at the time addressed the issue in a number of unsatisfactory ways. Some places just had the workers wash their hands in the same buckets or troughs full of standing water. This was obviously unsanitary and facilitated the communication of disease and infection. Some factories took more care of their workers and installed banks of 20-50 china sinks in a single washroom. This was a significantly larger investment for the factory owner as it required installing waste and supply lines to each of the many sinks, not to mention the costs of maintaining that many fixtures.
The introduction of the washfountain provided a unique new solution to this problem. Its efficient use of water, space, and workers’ time was a cost savings for factory owners and provided a healthy workspace for employees. As a side effect of the design, the water savings made it an early example of a ‘green’ product, though it’s unlikely that many realized the environmental benefits at the time.
One of the main reasons for the product’s success is the fact that a washfountain can take the place of 10 sinks. A single fixture with one set of water supply lines and one waste line, replaced what would have been 10 individual units to plumb, maintain, and devote floor space to. Additionally, when the washfountain was first introduced, sinks customarily had separate faucets for hot and cold water. This meant that one washfountain actually replaced up to 20 faucets while using less water.
The washfountain in the image from the original patent image doesn’t look much like it’s modern counterparts. The image below shows a modern washfountain that has undergone many improvements over the last 90 years. We’ll go more in depth with those changes in future blog posts.