Walkabout: Let’s Talk About Bathrooms, Conclusion

Kohler ad from the 1950’s. Illustration: fixafaucet.com

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    Kohler ad from the 1950’s. Illustration: fixafaucet.com

    Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this story.

    It’s now the 20th century, and every new home is now fitted with at least one bathroom. In fact, bathrooms are so cool, many houses are opting to have more than one. The manufacturers of bathroom products: fixtures, tile, lighting, accessories, plumbing fixtures, are starting to get creative in giving the customer more variety to choose from for the ideal bathroom.

    Although European, especially British, companies came out with some great bathroom products, (home of Thomas Crapper, after all) it was America that became absolutely obsessed with the bathroom. And that continues to this day.

    For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been giving you a superficial run-down of the history of the bathroom. This last installment brings us up to the present. By World War I, the bathroom of your average American home then looks very similar to the average bathroom in most American homes of today.

    It consisted of a toilet and attached tank, porcelain sink, often wall mounted, and a bathtub with a wall mounted shower attachment. Shower curtains kept the water from pooling on the floor, which was tiled in small black and white hex or square tiles. The walls were also tiled, especially from the chair rail to the floor, as wainscoting, although a fully tiled bathroom was not uncommon.

    White tile bathrooms were seen as especially sanitary, which was very good. But by the 1920’s, it became popular to start having wall paper and pattern in the bathroom, taking it from a clinical exam room to a more feminine and family-friendly place.

    By this time, the Victorian clawfoot tub was going out of style. Most homes no longer had cleaning staff to do the dirty work, and cleaning up under an open clawfoot may have hastened its demise more than any stylistic fad. First came the bathtub on a solid pedestal base, and then came the two-sided enclosed tub, resting on the floor. No more worries about cleaning under the tub.

    Other lifestyle changes were worked out in bathroom styles and preferences. The shower, which was more of a novelty than a necessity, was gaining in popularity. As the automobile allowed people to move farther away, into the new suburbs surrounding our large cities, commutes became longer, and one’s morning ablutions became more rushed. A shower is quicker and easier than a bath, and by the 1930’s, every middle-class home, and above, had a shower, either as separate fixture, or a wall mount in the bathtub.

    Some bathroom trivia here: it was during the 1920’s that the term “john” was first used for the bathroom. It derives from calling the men’s and women’s rooms in public places “johns” and “janes”, for John and Jane Doe, the American everypeople. “Jane” never resonated. The john is with us still.

    In 1927, the Kohler Company introduced the bathroom set; matching sinks, toilets and tubs. It was not only a great marketing tool, it heralded the beginning of the acceptance of the bathroom as not only a sanitary necessity, but an important room to be decorated, with care and an important expenditure of funds.

    All of the leading bathroom appliance manufacturers followed suit, and began making a multitude of products for the modern bathroom. Their Victorian forebears had multiple lines of products, and there were many kinds of lavatory sinks, several basic toilet designs, and some variations in bathtubs, but they were geared towards a higher end market.

    The modern era would mean something for every income bracket, offering a large variety products, and if white wasn’t your thing, they would offer color.

    Today we view some of the colors offered with horror. Hunter green, dark pink, burgundy, black, light pink, light blue, and tan toilets are now fodder for the dumpster or salvage yard, except to those who love retro.

    But then, they were seen as cutting edge in bathroom chic, a matching set coordinating with similar colored 4×4 inch tile walls, usually with a contrasting color as trim. We’ve all seen those pink and black bathrooms somewhere in our lives. The dark colors were especially popular in the 20’s and 30’s, and the lighter colors later in the 50’s and 60’s, but that was not a hard and fast rule.

    It seems hard to believe, but the rest of the world, including most of Europe, is way behind us in advances in bathrooms. London England only became completely indoor plumbed fifty years ago, and old privies can still be found in the backyards of row houses there. Americans are in love with their bathrooms.

    By the 1950’s and 60’s, the new suburbs were being developed, the Levittowns of America. The smaller houses may have had only one full bathroom, but as houses began to get bigger, so too did the number and size of bathrooms. New terminology had to be developed.

    The ensuite bathroom and the master bathroom became de rigueur in many circles. As the housing boom of the post-World War II generation continued, it was no longer acceptable to have only one full bathroom. A powder room was needed for downstairs, and for guests, with a toilet and sink.

    Now the master bedroom, that is, the parent’s room, needed their own bathroom, with another for the rest of the house. Ensuite bathrooms are those that are only accessible from a bedroom, perfect for the master bath. A proper master bath had everything; a tub, separate shower stall, toilet, and a double sink.

    A shower room is a bathroom with only a shower. It is sometimes called a ¾ bath in real estate parlance. Today, many apartments no longer have tubs, just shower stalls, and are technically ¾ baths. A Jack and Jill bathroom is one that has two doors; usually accessible to two bedrooms.

    Some larger J&J bathrooms have a separate toilet cubicle, and many have double sinks. A wet room is a bathroom that becomes a shower stall. These used to only be in very small apartments, but are becoming popular again.

    A floor drain allows the water to drain away, and most are designed to spare at least one side of the room in order to hang towels, accessories and toilet paper without them getting soaked.

    The modern era has seen a remarkable plethora of bathroom goodies. Cast iron has been replaced by acrylic and fiberglass, making today’s tubs much lighter, and some would argue, much cheaper in quality. If you have the money, a bathtub can be a modern glass egg, a Japanese wooden bath, or an ancient Italian marble soaking tub.

    Even Victorian clawfoot designs are back. Jacuzzis, whirlpool tubs and massaging baths make cleanliness an experience. Sinks have gone from the white vitreous china or enameled porcelain to glass, metal and stone vessels that sit on top of a table. Non-traditional materials abound, as anything that can hold water has become a sink or a tub.

    Fixtures have changed as well, with all kinds of shapes and materials imaginable, from vintage Victorian to ultra-modern. Toilets are now space-aged devices, springing from walls, or perched like sculpted objects. Showers can be double and triple sized spaces, with hundreds of directional jets, or an overhead waterfall or shower.

    Tile is no longer just tile, you can line your bathroom with all kinds of stone, metal or coated surfaces. The possibilities are only limited by budget.

    Today, it seems that it is expected that every bedroom in a house is now supposed to have its own bathroom, plus a couple extra for downstairs, and real estate listings that have more bathrooms than bedrooms are not uncommon.

    This is not feasible in most of our brownstone homes, there just isn’t the room. Yet we try to squeeze another bathroom wherever possible; in a bedroom, a closet, or under the stairs.

    The highest form of bathroom chic is to be able to devote an entire room to the bath, with a large tub in the middle of the room, often in front of a fireplace, for that ultimate, private bath experience. We’ve come full circle. Except now we don’t have time to enjoy it.

    For many, Victorian bathroom fixtures are the only way to go in outfitting a period house. Period tubs, sinks, and even toilets, as well as accessories like towel bars, soap dishes, and the like are still available. Try salvage places, EBay, and antique stores. Unless you luck out, be expected to pay dearly. Reproductions also abound. A list of vendors can be found here, and here. Good luck.

    Bathrooms, part 1
    Bathrooms, part 2
    Bathrooms, part 3
    Bathrooms, part 4

    1919 Bathroom. Illustration: Thomasagner.com

    1912 bathroom. Illustration: 1912 bungalow.com

    Bathroom catalog, from 1912-15. Illustration: 1912 bungalow.com

    Another catalog page, 1912-15. Illustration: 1912 bungalow.com

    Intact 1920’s rib shower in Crown Heights North house.

    Art Deco bathroom. Illustration: 1912 bungalow.com

    1930’s bathroom suite, Crown Heights North house

    1950’s formica countertops! Photo: midcenturystyles.com

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