Part Two of My Love Affair with Bathrooms
In “The Victorian House Book” by Robert Guild, he starts the chapter on bathrooms by saying, “To create a modern version of the Victorian bathroom we have to dream a little.”
Or, a lot. I’m going to dream a lot.
As I said in Part One, creating a period PERFECT Victorian era bathroom is pretty challenging, if you want modern conveniences. But there are SO many period-appropriate elements that you can incorporate into a bathroom that will make the room feel like it fits the architecture of a Victorian home. Disclaimer: I am not an expert in any of this, by any means, and I’m very excited and passionate about this topic, which I’m sure clouds my judgement! So take anything I say with a grain of salt (preferably a grain of bath salts, which you’ll use to soak in a vintage tub in your perfect bathroom). Grab a hot chocolate and settle in. I’ve got lots to share.
Judith Flanders says that in the Victorian Era, “men and women had different approaches to bathing.” Still true, right? Advances in plumbing changed the way people approached hygiene, and the world is a lot less smelly because of this. Three cheers for sewers and indoor plumbing! Bathing was seen primarily as therapeutic in the early part of the Victorian era – sponge baths were all the rage, and basically, if you washed you face, feet, pits, and naughty bits once a day, you were FINE. Bathing your whole body everyday? Totally a bad idea. When you DID wash your whole body, everything had a purpose – right down to the temperature of the water.
I have this AMAZING cookbook from 1892 that spells all of this out. YES, a cookbook. See, in the Victorian era, women were the first line of defense as far as medical care goes, and kitchens were used as minor operating rooms, and you had to know how to sew stitches, and solve all sorts of problems in the household. And cookbooks didn’t just have recipes for food, they had recipes for household hints, and cleaning, and medicine, and first aid, and child raising…..
I stumbled on the Columbia Cook Book by Adelaide Hollingsworth (1892), and it’s one of the most amazing books I’ve ever purchased. I was going to paraphrase the section on bathing, but I just can’t. You have to read it for yourself. And forgive me for taking pictures of the pages and not scanning – the condition and thickness of the book makes this a LOT easier and safer for the book. It’s not a perfect scan, but it is DELIGHTFUL.
Before houses had water pipes, bathing took place in the warmest room of the house – the kitchen. Water could be heated on the stove and poured in to a basic tin tub, and everyone would generally use the same bath water – and then laundry would be done in it last. Carrying water was a HUGE task. If you had a bathtub on the second floor, water had to be carried up, as well (TWICE – once to get the water up, and again to get the dirty water out! I’m certain that Laziness was actually the real reason that you were encourages not to bathe every day). If you were lucky to have a dedicated bathroom on the first floor, often, the drain went directly into the ground under the house. Toilets were outside, but eventually, sewer systems became necessary to fight disease. Sewer systems started in the cities first, and then eventually made their way into the country. To make this work, pipes and standard sizes for plumbing materials had to be a thing. SUCH a massive undertaking – which is why it took so long for houses to have indoor plumbing.
Judith Flanders had some great stats about Muncie, Indiana, which is only a couple hours from our house. I think it’s fun to know about this, so close to home, because it was probably a similar situation here in Franklin, Indiana. In 1890, Muncie has 11,000 people, but less than two dozen homes had a bathroom including and bath and lavatory. By 1925? Only 25% of the homes in Muncie had running water. You were more likely to own a car, than a bathroom! When did most Victorian houses finally have an indoor (often retro-fitted) bathroom? Not until the 1950s. Wowza. But it makes sense – we’re so spoiled these days by the convenience of water (and we’re so lucky). But when you think about Victorian or antique houses that don’t have Air Conditioning, it’s easy to think, “Man, what a mes that would be, to take the whole house apart to run ductwork.” It’s the same concept. Many houses that were connected to city water just had a pump in the back of their house. Anything else was too cost-prohibitive.
Most of the historians say that there were two types of Victorian Bathrooms – wood-filled rooms, or the later hygienic porcelain white bathrooms. I think there’s a third, which I call the hybrid.
The earliest Victorian bathrooms were just fitted into regular rooms. The fixtures were all fitted into wood to make the room feel equal to a parlor or a bedroom. Everything felt like furniture, and the room was decorated as such – paintings, wallpaper, wainscoting, fabrics, rugs…. everything that you’d have in a normal room, but now you had a tub, sink, and toilet.
Below, note the wicker furniture, the tableclothed tea table, and all the wood!
Eventually, the Victorians realized that maybe wood WASN’T the best choice for a bathroom – especially once hot water pipes and tanks were added to houses, towards the late 1800s. Then came this fascination with cleanliness, and rooms became tiled (or, linoleum if you weren’t as wealthy), and fixtures became made of one piece of porcelain. SO much easier to keep clean. White was considered a clean color that you would know when to clean.
Looking at pictures, though, the hybrid bathroom, as I call it, definitely exists. It uses some elements of wood from the earlier bathrooms (especially wainscoting), but has the porcelain fixtures of the “clean” bathrooms.
Here are some examples of the “Hybrid” baths, as I call them!
Can we all fall in love with the shower below? AND THE LIGHT FIXTURE?!?!
Today, bringing in some elements of wood isn’t as terrifying – using marine varnish can help keep wood protected from the steam and water, if your bathroom is heavily used.
When bathrooms became stand-alone rooms, they were often located at the back of the house, as out of the way as possible, to deal with sewer smells. Once the S-Bend was invented, and plumbing could keep the smells out, bathrooms could move around, and often were located under stairs or in former dressing rooms. The bath and sink were commonly in one room, and the toilet in another (the lavatory or water closet).
I LOVE clawfoot tubs because of their sculptural nature, but also because they are so freaking comfortable. If you add one, make sure your floors can deal with the weight! They are really heavy. No one needs this.
Also, if your water heater can’t keep up to fill it (they are DEEP) you might want to consider that as well. We have a tankless water heater, which means we can fill to our hearts content.
The clawfoot became popular by the end of the century as hot water tanks became more prevalent. Prior to this, tin tubs were more commonplace. Often, in early bathrooms, to get the furniture feel, tubs were surrounded by mahogany.
Pretty, but it seriously reminds me of a coffin.
Clawfoot and Cast-Iron Roll Tops were often placed on top of marble slabs – pretty awesome.
Showers were all the rage for the well-to-do. Some were just tanks suspended over the tub, and you could operate them with a pull-chain (a lot like a camp shower). Rib cage showers are hard to find these days (and expensive!), and they look a little like torture chambers, but they are SUPER cool.
Here are some more showers!
Pull Chain Shower:
Sinks were initially just a pitcher and basin on a washstand, usually with a marble top.
Then, plumbing was added, but the furniture feel remained.
Marble sinks with legs or brackets were also popular – this sink is VERY similar to what we’ll be putting in the first floor bath.
The pedestal sink came along, and it was so easy to clean (and is pretty beautiful, too).
The first flush toilet was invented by Thomas Crapper in 1861, but it took a while to get right. Gravity aided the flushing, so high-tanks assisted with this. It took a lot of water to make this work!
Early toilets were very decorative, with lots of patterns and florals. Like a giant tea cup!
By 1875, a more successful “Wash out” water closet was being used to flush more effectively. Newsprint and recycled magazines were used for toilet paper – the first roll came about in the 1880s.
Floors could be made of wood, or dark cork tiles. Tile (especially hexagonal patterns) became all the rage with hygienic bathrooms. These could be pricey. So many middle-class houses also used linoleum. Moveable rugs were also used – small area rugs. Even in Victorian times, people understood that you should never, EVER carpet a bathroom. Gross.
Initially, décor on the walls was no different than any other room. Painting, portraits, mirrors….all was fair game. If the walls were papered, they were often varnished to deal with water and steam. Woodwork could be painted with enamel for this issue, as well. Lincrusta and Anaglypta were also used on walls, as well. Eventually, tile took over here, as well, going all (or partly) up the walls to deal with heat and steam.
I hope this gives you some ideas of what to incorporate into a bathroom to make it feel Victorian!
I’m Not Smart! I just read things written by other smart people.
Here’s where I researched / stole everything for this blog post. (Except any sass. I’l take full credit for that.)
- Flanders, Judith. The Making Of Home
- Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home
- Goodman, Ruth. How to Be a Victorian
- Hollingsworth, Adelaide. Columbia Cookbook , 1892 (the link has the full book from the 1902 edit)
- Guild, Robin. The Victorian House Book
- Gay, Cheri Y. Victorian Style: Classic Homes of North America
- Mott’s Illustrated Catalog of Victorian Plumbing Fixtures for Bathrooms and Kitchen
- The Victorian Bathroom Catalogue (Intro by Kitt Wedd)
Where can you find reproductions or authentic victorian bath fixtures?
Ebay, Craigslist, Antique Stores, Salvage Yards, Habitat Stores, ask around if a local house is being re-habbed..
Ask your neighbors. We got a clawfoot tub from our next-door neighbors, because they no longer wanted it. We love that we have something original to the neighborhood to install sometime!
OR, try these places!
- Vintage Tub and Bath
- Signature Hardware
- This Old Toilet
- DEA Bath
- Period Bath
- Olde Good Things
- Plumbing Supply
- House of Antique Hardware
- Renovator’s Supply
Tell me other sites or stores, if you love them!
Next up, in Part Three, I’ll take you through our four bathrooms, so you can see exactly why they need help. And dreams.
A delightful read! Thank you, thank you!
I’m so glad you liked it!
You can find ORIGINAL bath fixtures at Southern Accents Architectural Antiques, Cullman Alabama.
On the contrary….you are quite smart! Excellent article. The old illustrations are fun to look through!
You’re SO NICE CHRISTOPHER. I’ll have to show you the old bath catalogs. They’re awesome – especially for identifying parts that you don’t know the name of. 🙂
I LOVE that you added links to where to get some of this stuff. That will come in handy for sure!
I’m glad it’s helpful! Sometime, in my grand master plan, I want to have a whole section of resources on here. I’d love this to be a place where people can find information to make restoring things easier! That way, more houses and buildings can get saved. 🙂
This is a great post—friendly, full of information, images, and resources I’ve been curious about. Many thanks for sharing your research. Looking forward to reading more of your posts!
Yes, I second Alison’s sentiments. That will be fabulous to have a whole resources section Amy!!! Where did you find old bath catalogs?
Amazon! If you click on the title of the catalogs at the bottom of the post, they actually take you right to the amazon link. The catalogs are really helpful for identifying parts, too!
Great Post! The Victorian era is my favorite era, except for the women’s rights thing. But hey, so fun to look at. That time was such a time of detail and craftmanship. I love it.
It was such a fun and weird era. The more I learn about it, the harder it is to believe that people survived through it. They did some crazy things.
Sometime, I need to do a post on Victorian Parlor games. It’s terrifying.
Love your blog Amy. This was a great read. Going to go through some of the links now.
Thanks, Lesley! 🙂
Sometimes when I see people commenting about how “period-correct” a kitchen or bath in a pre-1900 home is, I become very tempted to post photos of an outhouse and summer kitchen.
Seriously, though, I very much agree with your philosophy of designing renovations to these rooms with modern features, but in keeping with the architectural style of the surrounding home and era. As you say, such that they “feel right”. Architectural harmony is the foundation of good design. Even if it misleads the less-studied into thinking that the Victorians enjoyed hot showers and clean hands.
I think it’s REALLY hard to do it any other way, and be happy with it. Especially for me!
Your whole blog is fun and inspiring to read, but this particular article especially. I’m working to build a home, and though it’s going to have a pretty modern exterior, I want to do some parts of it in a whimsical Victorian decor. (Which I refer to as Victoria Moon Base.) I was completely clueless what to do with the bathrooms until you posted your articles. Thanks so much!!
What are the smaller tub things next to the bigger tub in some of the photos? Were they for quicker sponge baths?
Jane – If you’re referring to the short, wide, curved side tubs that sit close to the regular tub, that’s called a “sitz” bath, and it works precisely like it sounds – not so much like it’s spelled! It was a very therapeutic application of warm (frequently medicated in some way) water in which you sat, for your “sitter.” It’s actually STILL a very therapeutic application of warm water to your “sitter!” Especially useful in helping heal and soothe soreness after childbirth, which was frequent in times before the really effective forms of birth control we have today! (Their most effective form was separate bedrooms! Not always prudent or affordable in a family of growing size and more limited means, where a sitz bath was cheaper than building on extra bedrooms…) Other afflictions, such as hemorrhoids could benefit from this treatment as well, which could afflict either sex.
AND – depending on need, it could easily be transformed into a FOOT bath, with the simple addition of a chair!
I work in a 1893 Victorian Mansion, modern at the time with 5 bathrooms. Often the visitors ask, during large receptions where did the 250 invited guests GO. I have wondered this myself. For outside events did they have ‘portapottys’ I can imagine hastily made out-houses. But for indoor fetes that’s another story, the mystery remains.
Amy – I stumbled on your blog while seeking information on how to answer a question accurately regarding Victorian Era plumbing! It happens that it was at the top of the list!
(I know that is pretty important for bloggers to know, so I thought I would throw that in!)
I was also surprised and quite pleased to find out that I am approximately halfway between you and Muncie, which you mentioned in this blog post, as I live just outside of Greenfield, in Hancock County! I attended IVY Tech in Indianapolis proper in 1991-93 to get my Technical Certificate in Surgical Technology, and at the time, one of the other students, who became a very good friend at the time, was also from Franklin. And I also attended in Lawrence, on the northeast side of Indy, for one semester in 2009 to finish up my Associates Degree, which wasn’t offered in that program the first time I went. I think I took five classes, one each night after work for four nights, plus one online class I usually worked in on Friday night after work, leaving the weekends and later evenings during the week for homework and reading assignments! Fortunately, I managed to find a very supportive, helpful and understanding husband 43 years ago! I couldn’t have possibly graduated not only in one semester, but with a Magna cum Laude, and membership in Phi Theta Kappa as well, without his help. And I did it primarily for me, not because my job required it (but it didn’t hurt me a bit! 😉)
ANYWAY, back to YOU! I’m definitely going to look at your blog posts a lot more! This one was very, very interesting and informative, and I love the pictures you included! Those are simply wondergul, and it sure gives you an idea of what the average housemaid had to deal with in cleaning up all that stuff, doesn’t it? That’s really my area of study at the moment, among others. Domestic Staff and their lives – work and beyond that! It looks as if you’ve taken on quite a task yourself, in restoring your own home! That’s always SO MUCH work, and seems to multiply with every job, ìn and of itself! I wish you much luck, and hope to chat with you soon!
What a terrific piece! Thank you for your research and pictures. My husband and I have just started renovating one of our bathrooms in our old house (c. 1821), and I’ve done quite a bit of hunting for ideas and fixtures to fit the small space.
Sometimes I think restoring an old Victorian is best when you go the Steampunk angle. Sure kitchens didn’t have built in cabinets back then but in modern times we need them so put them in. Bathrooms weren’t common but we need them too.
“Water closets” are still a thing here in Australian though. A flushing toilet has a 6 foot square spray of micro-mist when it flushes. I don’t like the idea of a toilet being in a room for cleaning.
Amazing post, thank you so much for sharing this! I am currently doing some research for a historical fiction and this has been so helpful. I really appreciate the images you have used, along with the page scans! Very very helpful. What a wonderful book.
Such a great and educative read! thank you for this article! I learned so much
This is so interesting, thank you. However I don’t think Crapper did invent the flushing toilet, it was patented in England by Alexander Cummings in 1775. There were flusing toilets at the Great Exhibition in 1851.
Thank you, Susan!
A great read that explains a lot about our home. Our house is a 1857 in rural Upstate NY. We know that there was some form of bath on the second floor orginally that was later expanded. We have a newspaper article from 1877 documenting the installation of the downstairs bath made of cherry & ash with a copper tub and the first indoor toilet in our area (all still present). Our house was built for a doctor and his son (a druggist) had the bath added along with many other updates.
That’s so interesting!
Love It, thank you so much for sharing this! I am currently doing some research for a historical fiction and this has been so helpful. I really appreciate the images you have used, along with the page scans! Very very helpful. What a wonderful book.
You’re welcome – good luck with the book! How exciting!
Thanks for the excellent article! this is exactly the kind of information I was searching for for my 1898!