Chappell Ellison | Essays

Ultraflo: Plumbing of the Future

Ultraflow Push Button Plumbing. Photo: Chappell Ellison

In 1870, Mark Twain sat down to his desk to write an essay entitled, "Political Economy." It was to be a serious sort of thing. “Political economy," Twain began, “is the basis of all good government. The wisest men of all ages have brought to bear upon this subject the — ” Twain was interrupted by a stranger at the front door. The rest of the essay continues as Twain’s account of interacting with the stranger. "Privately I wished the stranger was in the bottom of the canal with a cargo of wheat on top of him." As it turns out, the stranger was a salesman, a person whose presence was no more welcome then as it is now. “I was all in a fever, but he was cool. He said he was sorry to disturb me, but as he was passing he noticed that I needed some lightning-rods,” Twain explains in utter exasperation. By the end of the derailed essay, Twain was no closer to finishing his political essay and he had 250 feet of zinc-plated lightning rods on his roof.

I thought of Mark Twain’s angry lashing of a traveling salesman while spending time in an Ohio farmhouse over the holidays. After receiving directions to the bathroom, I stepped in, closed the door behind me and approached the sink to wash my hands. Out of habit, I reached to the right of the sink. My hand grasped at air as I realized there was no cold water knob. I stared for a moment, then saw a small electrical panel on the backsplash of the sink.

Tappan Ultraflo plumbing. Photo: Popular Mechanics, 1963, courtesy of Retro Renovation.

I knew the farmhouse was built in the 1970s (linoleum kitchen floor, wallpaper borders), so I hardly expected a push-button plumbing system. I tried to imagine the pestering salesman that sold such a system to a rural household. I assume his bravado was similar to Twain’s unexpected guest. As I toyed with the system, which was in perfect working condition, I pressed buttons with glee, clicking from hot water to cold. But as time passed slowly (very slowly) at the farmhouse, I understood why Ultraflo plumbing failed to sweep the nation. Not only is it impossible to control the flow of water, the user is locked into only three temperatures: hot, warm and cold. I can only assume that water conservation was not a paramount concern when push-button plumbing was invented. I have not seen Ultraflo in any other house, nor do I expect to.

When I traveled back to my Brooklyn apartment (traditional plumbing, though sometimes a lack of hot water), I found that aside from a few part replacement sites, very little documentation of Ultraflo exists on the internet. So, on this week, one that finds a whole new crop of cell phone users preparing to switch to an iPhone, it’s a nice reminder that sometimes, the push-button aspirations of the future don’t always pan out as planned.

Posted in: History

Comments [2]

My dad had a powder blue 1962 Valiant that had a push button shift on the dash. Very futuristic. Imagine how cool we would have been with a push button sink!
Mark Duran

In Japan, the bathtub fills at the push of a button, with automatic level shut-off, and accurate thermostatic control.
Your Ultraflo obviously just needed a bit more work.

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