From lead casters to sanitary installers. The evolution of the plumbing trade in nineteenth-century Brussels

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By analysing the development of the plumbing trade in nineteenth-century Brussels, this paper aims to address two research gaps. In construction history, despite a growing attention for business actors, the focus mainly lies on large-scale firms such as general contractors, whilst little is still known on the many small-scale craftsmen that made up the majority in the building industry. Similarly, although increasing attention is paid to domestic water use and building services, little is known about the enterprises which brought these modern hygienic comforts into the home. Based on quantitative sources that provide data on the smallest of artisan firms, this paper traces the nineteenth-century evolution of the plumbing trade, illustrated through case studies of innovative firms. By taking several factors into account, such as market transformations, technological innovations and government interventions, the paper reveals that plumbers went through a transition process from the mid-I860s. Before that, plumbing was a trade in decline, due to the industrialisation of lead processing activities. By reorienting to the upcoming sanitary market however, plumbers became key actors in the provision of domestic sanitary comfort. The persistent small scale of their operations shows the enduring importance of a small-scale business organisation in the construction industry.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)87-105
Number of pages19
JournalConstruction History
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2022

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