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Victorian Bathrooms : A History Lesson

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!

from the J.L. Mott Catalog

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.

via 1910 Sherwin Williams Color Catalog / pinterest



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!

via Victorian Style / Gay
via Old House Dreams

Can we all fall in love with the shower below? AND THE LIGHT FIXTURE?!?!

via Victorian Style / Gay

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.

via JL Mott Catalog

Pretty, but it seriously reminds me of a coffin.

via The Victorian Bathroom Catalogue


via Michael D Martin Flickr

Clawfoot and Cast-Iron Roll Tops were often placed on top of marble slabs – pretty awesome.

via JL Mott Catalog

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.


via zillow

Here are some more showers!

via The Victorian Bathroom Catalogue

Pull Chain Shower:

via The Victorian House Book
via The Victorian Bathroom Catalogue

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.

via The Victorian Bathroom Catalogue

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.



via JL Mott catalogue


via The Victorian Bathroom Catalogue

The pedestal sink came along, and it was so easy to clean (and is pretty beautiful, too).

via bob vila

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!

via The Victorian House Book

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.)

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!

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.

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