The Search for The Plumber

The Plumbers’ Ball. The Plumber’s Pot. The Plumber’s Philharmonic Orchestra. The Plumber’s Faucet. The Plumber’s Pocket. The Plumber’s Ledger. The Plumber’s Station. And surely, many a plumber to come. This plumber mania, seemingly specific to McGill, has been reigning for decades. Where does it have its origins? Is it a term whose relevance has been buried in engineering history? Or is it a label concocted to poke fun at our profession which we in turn wholeheartedly adopted? Perhaps something akin to the way the Americans adopted the term “yankee.” The EUS executives and populace were as in the dark about it as we were. This month we set out to at the very least scrape the surface of the plumber conundrum.

Our search began at the door of the most notorious engineering organization, The Plumber’s Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO). Recognizable by their distinctive white lab coats and high Blues Pub attendance rates, the PPO emerged in 1950 from the ashes of two former clubs – the “Thank-God-It’s-Friday” club and the “Red and White Society” club. Despite pulling a two year hiatus in the 80s associated with a mysterious unbolting of every single seat in Leacock 132, the PPO around today is essentially the same organization created in 1950. With sixty-four years of history under their belts, and the name “plumber” branded on their title, the PPO seemed like a good place to start. The Orchestra claims that the Thank-God-It’s-Friday club started as some sort of fight band where the members sat on toilet bowls. They also share a story about engineers bringing toilets to football games to sit on. The PPO claims that this far-reaching toilet bowl history connects the dots between the engineer and the plumber. Although very possible, these stories have been passed on by word of mouth and hence are unable to be verified.

The next step in the hunt was an engineering quarterly publication known as The McGill Engineer. This magazine was very popular in its time and had a successful career, running from 1948 to 1975. Unfortunately, it appeared that the plumber theme had already been solidified by the time of The McGill Engineer’s inception. On January 1949, the editor’s note stated the following: “It is so easy to be drawn away from our books by the extracurricular activities that prevail on the campus, but we should choose carefully those in which we desire to participate. Of course the Plumbers’ Ball is a must for all Engineers.” Seemingly, despite its abundance of extremely well written and compelling articles, startlingly relevant even on today’s engineering campus, The McGill Engineer would prove useless in the hunt for the plumber’s origins. Nevertheless, it proved quite useful as a source of humorous relics – cue 1949 asbestos ad.

We realized there was only one place left that could help us in our search. Swallowing our pride and bowing our heads, we found ourselves at the microfilm section of the McLennan library – home of the archives of The McGill Daily. Scorn it as we may, The Daily was founded in 1911 and published daily for many decades afterwards. As such, it has proven itself to be an extremely detailed historical record of old McGill.

The first plumber reference we stumbled upon was “The Plumber’s Pot.” “The Pot” was a column started in The Daily in 1949. What began as an outlet for engineering announcements and news soon turned into a humorous column and an increasingly inappropriate one at that. In a little over ten years it found itself banned from The Daily and started its own engineering publication of the same title. A couple of decades in, it was banned from campus altogether. Although not legally associated with it, today’s Plumber’s Faucet carries on the legacy of The Pot.

The 1940s and 1930s were also packed with several plumber references. Annual advertisements for the Plumbers’ Ball were numerous and articles announcing intramural sport results called the engineering teams “the plumbers.”

SwiPlumber's Timelinetching gears, we decided to start at the beginning of The Daily. The years 1911 to 1923 bore no plumber references whatsoever. In fact, the faculty of engineering was not in existence at the time; it was a part of the faculty of science and later became known as “applied sciences.” After countless hours of skimming microfilm articles about imperialism, finally, on the front page of the December 16th, 1924 issue, the headline read “Plumbers’ Ball to be Inaugurated – Science Undergraduates ‘At Home’.” “The big day will be Friday January 23rd,” the column read, “and of course the place – The Macdonald Engineering Building.” It gave no indication as to why the event was titled as such but gave many details about how the building would be decorated for the dance. The article concluded: “Incidentally this will be the first occasion on which the fair sex have had the opportunity of invading the boilermakers’ lair.”
The event was advertised many more times leading up to the night. The day following the ball, the editor of The Daily wrote in his editor’s note: “The decorative genius of the ‘plumbers’ is worthy of commendation; the drab Engineering Building was very cleverly metamorphosed for the occasion.” In six months’ time the engineering sports teams were referred to in The Daily as “the plumbers” and the terms “engineer” and “plumber” were interchangeable.

But the question remains – why, “plumber?” One possibility is the one provided by the PPO; the toilet bowls scattered throughout McGill Engineering history provide the connection between the engineer and the plumber. The way I see it, however, is that the engineering executives of 1924 tried to come up with a fun name for the ball. Because engineers design water distribution systems and sewer systems (sometimes referred to as plumbing engineering), they went with The Plumbers’ Ball, and the term plumber caught fire. Just as easily, it could have been The Boilermaker’s Ledger which you now read.

Brigid Cami

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