Walkabout: Let’s Talk About Bathrooms, Part 3

Photograph of a bathroom in a Second Empire Pittsburgh mansion, 1870’s


    Photograph of a bathroom in a Second Empire Pittsburgh mansion, 1870’s

    Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, and Part 5 of this story.

    Like a cosmic event where all of the stars and planets line up, the phenomenon that we know as the modern bathroom all came together in the late 1800’s. The city sewer systems, central heating and hot and cold running water, the perfection of indoor plumbing and pipes, the invention of the flush toilet, the invention of the stationary bathtub and sink, and the realization that all of these things could best be utilized in one room, added to the new social programs promoting personal cleanliness and hygiene gave us the bathroom.

    And what bathrooms they were! Part One and Two of our history of bathrooms can be found here, if you’d like to catch up on sanitary history.

    When the Victorians got an idea right, they ran with it. Money and manufacturing was easy to come by, and soon hundreds of companies were turning out all kinds of things for the new bathrooms.

    Necessity was indeed the mother of invention here, and as the idea of an indoor bathroom became not just a novelty for the rich, but a necessity for everyone, new innovations and inventions were coming fast and furious. New companies, many of which are still in business, started in the second half of the 1800’s.

    Take Kohler, for example, one of the largest makers of toilets, tubs and sinks. They started in 1873, when an Austrian immigrant named John Michael Kohler bought the Sheboygan Union Iron and Steam Foundry.

    They were making farm implements and castings for ornamental fencing, urns and cemetery crosses. In 1883, Kohler had the idea to bake an enamel coating to one of his horse trough/pig scalders, and the first Kohler bathtub was born. They never looked back.

    The Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company, founded in 1875, was a small company making plumbing fixtures. In 1899, they merged with several other similar companies, and became the foremost makers of plumbing fixtures, bringing such new innovations such as hot and cold water mixers, the one piece toilet, and corrosion-free bath plumbing fittings.

    By 1929, they were the largest maker of bathroom fixtures. They became American Standard in 1967, after a merger with the American Radiator Company.

    In 1857, New Yorker Joseph Gayetty produced the first packaged toilet paper. It was called “The Therapeutic Paper”, and had aloe mixed into the paper mixture. It was not on a roll, but stacked sheets folded in a box, and each sheet had Joseph Gayetty’s name printed on it.

    In 1890, Scott Tissue came out with the first toilet tissue paper on a roll. They had a hard time selling it, as it was an “unmentionable” that couldn’t be advertised. Chemists sold it by bringing it up from under the counter, as people were too embarrassed to ask for it, or be seen picking it up from the shelves. They sold both small rolls, and folded tissues. As far forward as 1935, Northern Tissue advertised its tissues as “splinter-free.” Ouch.

    There were many more success stories, all making money from the bathroom. There were the people who invented the white toilet seat, a wood frame coated in hard rubber, a change from the natural wooden seat of old.

    This was in 1904. Another company, the Olsenite Company, was in the plastics business, manufacturing steering wheels for vehicles. Right around World War II, they came up with a coating process that used plastic instead of rubber, and they became one of the first companies to make plastic toilet seats. The list goes on. But I digress slightly.

    For many old house lovers, the Victorian bathroom is the quintessential bathroom, bar none. There aren’t too many period photographs of actual bathrooms from the Victorian era, because it was seen as terribly gauche and unrefined to take pictures of this room. But lots of examples remain in our homes, and manufacturers of bathroom fixtures and features had illustrations galore in their catalogues, and from them we can get a lot of information.

    Let’s talk about the room itself. In wealthier homes, the toilet was often in a room by itself, in a corner, or an anteroom with a door. This was the ideal, still a water closet, and for many people, then and now, the only way to have a proper bathroom. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out too well with the smaller spaces of our cities. Very few bathrooms in our row houses have separate toilet closets.

    The room itself was always relegated to the bedroom floor, above the parlor floor, away from the public rooms of the house. Many houses had a servant’s toilet off the kitchen, often outside in a shed, or in an attic. The modern powder room was pretty much unheard of in the beginning.

    The bathroom usually had wainscoting made of either tile, or beadboard. As the Victorian age progressed towards the 20th century, tile became the wall covering of choice, heralding a rage for sanitary-ness, and tile, especially plain white tiles, were the best sanitary materials available, the glazed surfaces perfect for frequent and relatively easy cleaning. So-called “subway tiles”, as well as other size tiles were very popular, and still are.

    Often the tiles were matched with decorative bands of colored or embossed tiles in pastel colors, as accents. These can still be found in period brownstone bathrooms today. In the homes of the rich, a combination of tile and white marble was often used, with wall panels of marble, marble sinks, and even marble floors.

    The toilet was often on a marble slab, as was the tub. If there was a separate shower cubicle, it could be marble, or tile. In more middle-class homes, unglazed white tile, often hex tiles, or square tiles, sometimes with black accent tiles, was the material of choice for bathroom floors.

    If the bathroom did not have tile from ceiling to floor, the walls were usually painted or wallpapered above the chair rail. The ceiling was plastered as well. The Victorians were hyper sensitive about privacy; so many intact Victorian bathrooms have stained glass windows, often really beautiful and intricate ones, for privacy. Opaque patterned glass was the other glass of choice, especially in more modest homes.

    The earliest Victorian tubs were not clawfoots, as most people think. They were oval tubs, some with wooden rims, some made of zinc, tin, or copper, and inset into wooden casings. It wasn’t until John Michael Kohler began marketing his enameled pig scalder that the idea of enameled cast iron tubs came about, and Kohler made the first in 1883.

    Other manufacturers soon followed, and by 1885, the cast iron clawfoot tub was the tub of choice for the Victorian bathroom. It would last until the 1920’s, when the double walled enameled tub became the next new thing.

    By that time, there had been many innovations to the clawfoot, including the installation of shower heads and shower curtain rods. Half tub enclosures that came up like a clamshell around one end of the tub, with shower heads had a run of popularity, and today those are rare and highly prized.

    The fancy ones in catalogs and illustrations are almost never seen today. They just didn’t survive the constant change for the newest thing.

    Bathroom fixture companies came out with all kinds of fancy carved tub enclosures, feet for cast iron tubs, shower enclosures, and all kinds of goodies to make the bathing experience longer and more enjoyable. The days of avoiding a bath were over.

    Next time: All kinds of sinks, toilets, bidets, foot baths, ribbed showers, and more were developed. The innovations of the Victorian bathroom, and its evolution into the modern 20th century bathroom. More bathroom history next time.

    Photo: Vintage Plumbing

    Photo: Starcraftbuilders.com

    Victorian bath: upscale edition

    Illustration: Vintage Plumbing

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