Walkabout: Let’s Talk About Bathrooms, Part 4

Illustration: Turn of the 20th century bathroom advertisement. Vintageplumbing.com

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    Illustration: Turn of the 20th century bathroom advertisement. Vintageplumbing.com

    Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 5 of this story.

    On October 12, 1897, the Brooklyn Eagle ran a large real estate section touting all of the newest neighborhoods and homes that were in development, or for sale. Part of the sales pitch for any property, be it a row house, flats building or stand-alone suburban house, was to talk up the newest in bathroom facilities.

    The description of a new row of houses on Bergen Street, between Brooklyn and Kingston Avenues is a good example. Here’s what they said regarding the new houses’ bathrooms: “The second floor, reached by a broad staircase of hard wood, consists of elegant alcove apartments, and the dressing rooms are provided with marble trimmed cabinet lavatories, spacious wardrobes and large beveled plate mirrors.

    The bathrooms are wainscoted in marble tile, and the appointments comprise a full sized bath tub, marble lavatory, etc.” Another ad boasts, “The plumbing is of the most modern, with handsome tile bathrooms.” Yet another ad lists that property’s attributes with “…all lead pipe and exposed nickel plumbing, hard wood trim, tiled bath, extra servant’s bath, dumb waiter, refrigerator, electric lighting with burglar alarm with clock attachment…” The bathroom had arrived.

    Full indoor plumbing allowed for not only the bathroom, but the dressing rooms that were built into every row house from the late 1870’s on. Most row houses had at least two main bedrooms with two back to back dressing rooms in between them, accessible through a pocket door between them.

    These dressing rooms, as described in the above ad, usually had a built-in sink, often marble clad, around a woodwork base, surrounded by mirrors. Around the sink would be cabinets, wardrobes and often built-in chests of drawers.

    Depending on the house, some of these dressing rooms were quite large and spacious, others more utilitarian and sparse. But they all had hot and cold running water. These dressing rooms were invaluable for washing up, as there was only one bathroom in an entire house.

    The bathroom itself was a wonder for Victorian eyes. Because it was all so new and impressive, it was important that the workings were seen, hence the copy, “exposed nickel plumbing,” in virtually every ad in the paper.

    Unlike today, where we like to hide the workings of everything, from plumbing to electrical cords, the Victorians exposed their pipes. It also made it easier to repair, in case of imperfections in the systems. And there would potentially be a lot to repair.

    The upper-class Victorian mindset insisted that there was a tool or an object for every function. This was not because of any kind of expediency, it was because they had money to burn, and companies manufacturing goods figured out that if they made it, it would sell.

    And they were right. Take silverware, for instance. Where the Colonial household had a fork, knife and spoon for daily service, the Gilded Age home had at least four or five of each needed for a full course meal. There were dinner forks, luncheon forks, dessert forks, salad forks, fish forks, asparagus forks, pickle forks, olive forks, and on and on, for each utensil.

    That doesn’t even include serving utensils, which were even more complicated. One was expected to know which utensil was for what dish, and how and when to use it, and servants were required to know as well, in order to set the table. Woe betides a gauche homeowner who got it wrong.

    The well-appointed bathroom was operating from a similar mindset. Manufacturers put out a huge amount of products, each designed to be used for specific purposes. The average brownstone bathroom did not have all of this stuff, but as houses grew more grand, you can often find bathrooms from the late 1880’s and after, with a multitude of appliances, in both mansions and upper-class speculative houses.

    In addition to a sink, toilet and tub, the deluxe bathroom of the era could have a bidet, a footbath, or a fancy ribbed shower attachment on the bathtub, or that same ribbed shower apparatus in the separate shower. The bathtubs came in several shapes and sizes, from a child size three foot tub, to the classic five foot size, and a highly desirable six foot size. Plumbing for these tubs included front mounted fixtures, coming out of holes in the top of the tub, as well as front or side mounted fixtures that came out of the floor and hang over the tub.

    Earlier sinks were usually flat marble tops with a drop in porcelain sink, in a multitude of sizes. The sink could be plain, or often was decorated with a painted pattern, often floral, baked into the porcelain, just like dishes. Many of these still exist, and can be quite pretty.

    The marble tops often had marble backsplashes, these also ranging from a few inches high to a huge decorative element. The sinks were wall mounted, with ornate brackets and nickel stands, allowing all of the plumbing to be displayed.

    As the 20th century approached, the marble top sink was replaced by a vitreous porcelain sink, in white. These sinks were free standing, or wall mounted, and often hid the plumbing behind a pedestal of some kind. The variety of style and size of these sinks was limited only by one’s wallet and room in the bathroom.

    The toilet had also changed. The first toilets depended on a high tank to help gravity drive the water through the system. The tanks, often made of wood, lined in lead or other metal for waterproofing, were attached to the bowl by long pipes.

    The bowls were most often plain white vitreous porcelain, but these too, were often decorated with flowers and other decorative motifs. Some very ornate bowls were sculpted with designs and shapes, all of which was fired into the bowl itself.

    Today, these bowls are extremely rare and quite expensive, but there are still a few around. Many here in the modern bathroom are European, salvaged there. By the turn of the 20th century, innovations to the flushing system enabled manufacturers to join the tank and the bowl, developing the modern toilet.

    By the beginning of the 20th century, the bathroom is as we know it today. So too is the attitude towards cleanliness and privacy. Community is now out. For the middle-class or above, the sanctity of the bathroom was established. Poor people still had to share facilities.

    Tenements in our cities were not required to have indoor bathrooms until the early 20th century, and many still had outdoor privies in the back of the buildings. If there was a toilet, there may be one on each floor, shared by several families.

    Bathtubs were also not a requirement in each apartment, and many tenements had communal tubs. Even the most “enlightened” tenements, such as the Alfred Tredway White’s Riverside Apartments, in Brooklyn Heights, built in 1890, had communal bathing facilities in the basement.

    The New Tenement Law of 1901 stated that indoor toilets had to be introduced into all new tenement apartments, as well as bathtubs. Older apartments were supposed to be retrofitted, and toilets and tubs put in. Tubs remained in the kitchen for many years, but at least they were there.

    Because sanitary facilities were so bad for poor people, especially when thousands of immigrants flocked to our cities, public baths had been established. The history of those baths was told here.

    The idea that cleanliness was of paramount importance was back in Western society. The links between disease and cleanliness was clear, as well as the more human need to be clean. But it was not a public cleanliness for those above the poverty level, in terms of sharing the facilities, either in communal baths, like the Romans, or even the communal privies of old, with several portals in one room.

    It was private. The bathroom had become a sanctum sanctorum, a private retreat. This would carry well into the 20th century, and reach its zenith today. How we got from one bathroom per household to one bathroom per person, and the modern bathroom, next time, as we wind up the history of the bathroom.

    Bathrooms, Part One
    Bathrooms, Part Two
    Bathrooms, Part Three

    House ad: Brooklyn Eagle, October, 1898

    Ornate Victorian toilet bowl. Photo: Starcraftcustombuilders.com

    Footbath in unrenovated Crown Heights North house

    Dressing room sink, Unrenovated house, Crown Heights North

    Restored Victorian canopy bathtub. Photo: crye.co.uk

    Edwardian, early 20th c. bath. Each corner pole delivers a jet shower spray. Photo: crye.co.uk

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