University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

American Farm Families Transition to Running Water

Wash Tables on the Farm

Washstand in the dog run of Floyd Burroughs’ cabin. Hale County, Alabama. Walker Evans, photographer. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Collection.

In the 1800s and often as late as the 1950s and 1960s, many farm families used a wash table, often set up on a back porch near the kitchen.  A rough table held a water bucket, a tin wash pan, a water dipper for drinking fresh water or to ladle water into the pan, plus soap and an old cloth or feeds sack as a towel.  The water was pulled up in buckets from the well and brought to the wash table.

Family members could come in from the fields to the porch and wash up before going into the house.  Water could be taken from the porch into the kitchen for cooking and cleaning.

Once the family had running water, the pail could be filled from a spigot rather than the well.  Later, the water could have been piped into the kitchen and into a bathroom converted from a bedroom or hallway or built onto the back of the house.

In poorer rural areas, many families did not get running water until the 1950s and 1960s, although they may have gotten electricity through rural electrification projects begun in the 1930s as a result of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.  (Half of all U.S. farms had electricity by 1942 and almost all by the 1950s.)


Dicky Gaynor washing his hands on his family’s farm near Fairfield, Vermont, 1941
(Photographer: Jack Delano) Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Collection.


Son of sharecropper washing hands, New Madrid County, Missouri, 1935
(Photographer: Lee Russell) Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Collection.


Jack Whinery’s daughter washing her hands before dinner, Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940
(Photographer: Lee Russell) Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Collection.