Updated: Sep 4, 2022
While in Stockholm for a conference, FLUSH was honored to get a private tour of Sweden’s Plumbing Museum! Their resident plumbing expert and retired plumber, Rolf, showed us around the museum and answered our questions so we could tell you in this blog post.
Sweden’s Piped History
Sweden’s history with plumbed buildings has gone on for a long time – they had water pipes for monasteries in medieval times. The recent surge of piped systems in the country happened 170+ years ago. In the mid-1800s, Sweden’s railroads had wooden pipes – hollowed pine tree trunks – to supply the engines with a reliable water source. By 1861, Sweden opened its first waterworks system to supply water to people in a Stockholm suburb; plumbers also installed gas pipes.
The sewer system came to Sweden about 5 years later, but it didn’t include flush toilets for a while since the first legal flush toilet came online in 1883. Beforehand, Swedes popularly used dry toilets in rural areas for outhouses or bucket systems (and have remained in some of rural Sweden to this day). Otherwise, affluent households may have had flush toilets that went into whatever ditch or waterway was closest. However, the beginning of the 1900s saw plumbers plumbing more households and connecting them directly to the sewer system. With the development of sewer pipes, local waterborne disease outbreaks started to decrease.
Where did the sewer pipes drain? Into waterways that went off to the Baltic Sea. As the population in Stockholm grew in the early 1900s, the growing sewage became a problem – the point that the country had to ban bathing in the waterways in 1932 because the water quality was so bad. Two years afterward, Sweden opened its first wastewater treatment plant to treat the onslaught of sewage before hitting the sea, and continued aggressive sewage plant construction. By 1976, they opened the waterways back up for bathing because they had cleaned them up enough. They’ve continued to improve their treatment systems and standards to protect the water surrounding the country.
Much of the plumbing museum was an homage to the plumbers of Sweden who helped create a country with a high quality of life. Half of the museum exhibit celebrated the lives and workstations of plumbers.
Plumbers created a professional association in 1889 to support their efforts in creating water and gas pipes (remember, flush toilets weren’t common until the 1900s). These men (yes, all men) would get paid weekly for their hourly work. Their tool chests hold different sizes of wrenches and other tools used to make, bend, and strip pipes to accommodate different needs and geographic situations.
Assorted captured areas of the plumber workstation at the museum, including a pipe striping tool (Credit:FLUSH/K Worsham)
Our resident Rolf explained that becoming a plumber is not a quick path – it takes about 5 years to become a certified plumber in Sweden. The first 3 years are in school, learning all the theory and scenarios they may encounter; the other 2 years are as apprentices under a bigger plumbing company. While Rolf didn’t have to take a test to get licensed back in the day, it’s now custom for training plumbers to take a 3-day test in person for the license. The test includes a theoretical written portion, as well as a hands-on test where they make you build something and test your craft.
Images of our tourguide Rolf, and his old plumbers license (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)
Rolf shared that when he was working as a plumber, his tool chest was very bulky because he needed all the tools to work on new buildings.
It was helpful to remember that plumbers work on many systems beyond toilets and water. They also help with steam heat, air ventilation, gas lines…essentially anything complicated that can hurt people if poorly constructed. So we should all be grateful for our local plumbers.
Interesting Toilet Designs
We also toured the different plumbing amenities in the museum – including old water boilers, piping, faucets, baths/showers, laundry machines, and (of course) toilets. They also had a few bidets, but Rolf said they have never been that popular in Sweden.
Images of assorted non-toilet artifacts at the exhibit: painted bathtub, giant woodburning tub, and a pink bidet (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)
Some of the toilets on display are lovely, painted works of art. A couple came from the UK, but their most ornate example was from Stockholm.
Images (left to right): Ornate Stockholm toilet, IDO toilet (2), plastic German toilet, ornate British toilet, IDO toilet with the lid-flushing seat (Credit:FLUSH/K Worsham)
The toilet designs in the museum are quite unique, and many of them come from a Finnish manufacturer called IDO. The designs had lever systems we don’t typically see, including school toilets with a pole system to flush and another that only flushes once the toilet lid closes completely. The innovative designs of these toilets were very interesting. They made us wonder when we could see more departures from the plain porcelain seat.
A 100-year-old UDDT with its lid, wooden casing, bucket-like insides,
and urine container spot (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)
The museum also showcased a few dry toilets that don’t require plumbing. We saw a closedstool from the early 1800s, and several antique urine-diverting dry toilets (UDDTs) from over a century ago. The UDDTs work a lot like a bucket, and the urine drips into a container you can empty and use for gardening. As mentioned, a UDDT culture remains in Sweden, particularly in national parks, summer cottage outhouses, and other remote areas.
If you have time to visit the Swedish Plumbing Museum, it’s worth the peaceful trek for an hour to see their artifacts and learn about Sweden’s journey to becoming one of the most hygienic countries in the world.
Special thanks to Carola Runius and Rolf Levin for organizing our tour and showing us around!