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Who was Lillian Baumbach?

Lillian Baumbach: “The Pretty Plumber”

The plumbing industry has changed a lot over the decades. Modern plumbing is done with various lightweight plastics that use special easy-to-use connectors or glue. But, back in the 1950s, the plumbing industry was very different. The materials of choice were heavy black iron pipes for sewers that were soldered together with molten lead, while freshwater pipes were made from galvanized steel that had to be joined with heavy wrenches. 

Many would say that plumbing work back in the 1950s was no place for a woman, but in 1951 a young woman named Lillian Baumbach proved everyone wrong. Lillian Baumbach stands as history's first woman to become a master plumber. Celebrate Women’s History Month by learning a few facts about this historic first. 

Becoming the First Female in a Male-Only Industry

woman Lillian Baumbach was the daughter of W.J. Baumbach, founder of W.J. Baumbach Plumbing and Heating in Arlington, Virginia. From an early age, she took a liking to her father’s business. Her aunt claims she was plumbing by the age of two when she unclogged one of her sinks that was backed up. 

By the age of nine, Lillian was accompanying her father to many job sites. She wore coveralls and tucked her hair under her hat. In fact, most of the people she worked with never suspected Lillian was a woman at all. She did her apprenticeship and journeyman work with her father’s company then decided she wanted to pursue her master’s license. Attending her father’s weekly night course at the local high school, she prepared for her test. When it came time to sit for it, she took it with six other men, of whom only two passed. 

The Army’s Favorite Pen Pal

letters The news of her achievement made her a national news story. With the Korean War going on in 1951, when her license was given to her, she attracted the attention of troops on the front lines. Her nickname was “the Pretty Plumber,” and several companies voted her as their pin-up girl. 

She was so popular amongst the troops that she ended up corresponding with over 250 of them. While also trying to work for her father’s company, she spent her evenings keeping up with letters from GIs that were on the front lines. Her letters included pictures of herself in overalls holding a large pipe wrench. 

The Legacy of Women in Plumbing

Plumbing continues to be a male-dominated industry, but that has the likelihood of changing. Today, women represent only 1.5% of the total plumbing workforce, many of these in management roles, similar to how Mrs. Baumbach’s career developed. 

The low number of females in the industry is likely due to poor stereotypes of the work that plumbers do. Most plumbing is not the nasty job that it is reputed to be, and most modern-day materials do not require the heavy lifting that may have been a barrier in the past.  

The truth is, the future is bright for women plumbers. All trades, especially plumbing are expected to be growing at above-average rates in the coming years as older plumbers retire. Now is the perfect time for women to consider a career in a field with a promising future. 

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