Imperial Flush: Crane Co. Valves in Yemen and Saudi Arabia

Valve World Image
Image from Crane Co.’s trade magazine, The Valve World (September-October 1932, 166).

In America today, showering daily is a social norm. We avoid body odor, grease, and sweat, and consider such qualities unhygienic or “gross.” We also consider the technologies behind the daily shower – bathrooms, sewers, and heating systems and the parts that construct them valves and pipes – to be commonplace. Their omnipresence makes them unlikely to warrant a second thought. Despite this, our methods of cleaning ourselves have social, commercial, and even political implications.

Mass-produced valves, showers, and water heaters have only appeared in the past century. Crane Company, an American manufacturer of pipes, fittings, and valves, boasts on its website that in the 1920s it “conceive[d] the idea of the modern bathroom,” designating the American bathroom as “a sign of affluence and social pride.” The bathrooms we use today are really only a century old, as are the norms associated with them.

Over the 1920s, Crane Co. advertisers created concepts like “body odor” to form a consumer base for their new product: bathroom fixtures. Through magazine advertisements and bathroom showrooms, bathrooms became increasingly prevalent, and daily showers more common. Skyscrapers, factories, and hospitals all began to include water supply and sewer systems.

By the 1930s, the bathroom had usurped outhouses, and gone from luxury to necessity. One 1931 article in Crane Co.’s trade magazine, The Valve World, remarks, “cleanliness has become such a fetish in America that many homes are built with a bath for each bedroom.” As bathrooms proliferated and moved from outside the home to the privacy of the bedroom, body odor – previously considered normal – became unacceptable and taboo.

In addition to transforming the aesthetics of body hygiene and cleanliness, the bathroom was also linked to the emerging science of public health. The above image from The Valve World demonstrates how public health, plumbing, the hospital, and engineering were interlinked. Through pipes and faucets, claimed 1924 Valve World, water could come inside the home or hospital, and remove “the scales of filth and disease that had become fastened upon humanity.” Crane Co. products were “furthering the idea of sanitation and thereby encouraging a finer civilization.” Plumbing, sanitary engineering, public health, and progress were one and the same.

During this time, valves, cast-steel pipes, and flush toilets began to make their way to the Arabian Peninsula. Charles R. Crane (1858–1939) was the son of Crane Co.’s founder, and leader of President Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 King-Crane Commission. While Crane had political affiliations, his interest in the Middle East was also agricultural. Crane’s papers, now housed at Columbia University, reveal that he and his friends at the USDA wanted to perfect the “science” of dry farming dates. Dry farming – a kind of scientific agriculture – relies on pipes and valves to pump and distribute underground water in arid regions, aiming to increase agricultural productivity and food production. Crane wanted to transfer this technology to the desert climate of the Middle East.

In 1923 Crane visited King Hussein in Jeddah and gifted him two bathrooms – the first flush toilets on the Arabian Peninsula. In 1927 Crane sponsored an engineer, Karl S. Twitchell, to work in Yemen and what would later become Saudi Arabia. Twitchell’s papers, held at Princeton University, detail the projects he undertook. For Imam Yahya in Yemen, Twitchell advised on wells and agriculture, installed water supply systems, built roads, and constructed a steel-truss bridge. For Ibn Sa’ud, Twitchell trained men to drill for water, and installed a windmill and pumps. Twitchell also visited Hasa, the fertile eastern region under Ibn Sa’ud’s control, to advise on harnessing the water supply and advancing agriculture. In Hasa Twitchell would later find oil.

Crane and Twitchell believed that Yahya and Ibn Sa’ud should adopt water supply systems and dry farming to increase agricultural production, further the wellbeing of their populations, and increase tax revenue. With pipes and pumps, Crane explained to Yahya, men could spend their day farming instead of hauling water. While Crane proclaimed that these projects were philanthropic, at the same time, they were creating new export markets for Crane Co. products, such as valves and pipes. Infrastructure, such as roads and sewers, would make Yemen and Saudi Arabia a partner for trade and an outlet for American goods.

Yet dry farming, like daily showers, also had social implications. According to Crane’s biographer Charles Hapgood, Crane advised Ibn Sa’ud in 1931 on the importance of sanitation, hygiene, and scientific agriculture, as interlinked programs of governance. It was through “hygiene and scientific agriculture,” Crane explained, that Rockefeller had brought prosperity to the American South. Sanitation, agriculture, and water administration were the means of social organization, economic progress, and political control.

Ibn Sa’ud welcomed these new technologies. They fit into his program to settle and control Bedouin communities, and turn them into agriculturalists. Infrastructure, such as water systems, enabled him to restructure the area socially and economically, so as to assert political authority. In Yemen, on the other hand, windmills and pumps went unused. Yahya’s method of state building was less hands-on, and he had little interest in farmers learning new techniques, or in bettering the economic circumstances of the population.

Crane’s work raises larger questions about “development” in the Middle East. A decade earlier, he had argued in the King-Crane Commission that Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine should become American Mandates. By 1930, he was engaging in diplomacy through different means – pipes, valves, and the notions of civilization and progress that came with them.

Today, the Sa’udi government still relies on water supply infrastructure as a form of political control. As Toby Jones has shown, since the 1970s, the Sa’udis have spent more on desalination than on education, in order to maintain a fresh water supply and agricultural programs. Almost 100 years later, the fetish of cleanliness persists.

About Cristina Violante

Cristina Violante is a second year Masters student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. Her work focuses on water management, corporate governance, and agriculture in America and the Middle East during the first half of the twentieth century.