by Johanne Yakula
It is somewhat difficult to believe that the bathroom today with all its technological marvels has changed very little in over a hundred years. The modern bathroom was a Victorian innovation, and although its use was not widespread until later (owing to municipally imposed health regulations), it nevertheless incorporated all the elements we take for granted today – and more. According to author Helen Long in The Edwardian House, the well equipped bathroom at the turn of the century included: a bath, a shower – bath, a wash basin, a hip bath, heated towel rail, mirror, clothes hooks, a shelf for towels, and a receptacle for used towels. However, this was not always the case.
The development of the technology used to make running hot and cold water and sewage disposal available to society was ahead of its time. It was not only due to the high cost of such systems that people did not install them but because of the accepted notion that the best place to perform one’s daily ablutions was in the privacy of one’s bedroom. People, on the whole did not bathe very often. Soap was used to wash clothes, not the body – that is, until in 1882, when Proctor and Gamble introduced “Ivory” soap.
Bathroom equipment of the time could be as simple as a bowl and pitcher and a chamber pot. Or, it could be a “commode” (a fancy chair with a hidden chamber pot inside) and a set of elegant porcelain or earthenware pieces that , apart from the bowl and pitcher, might also include a lidded urn for hot water, a toothbrush holder, an open vanity dish and one of the more unusual, a hair receiver. This was small container with a hole in the middle of the lid. Once the lady of the house had brushed her hair the required one hundred strokes, the hair left on the hairbrush was placed into the receiver and saved in order to make into jewelry. Victorians loved the intricate jewelry made from human hair.
Servants, for those who had them, were charged with carrying hot and cold water for the pitchers as well as for the “portable” cast iron hip baths. Those who could not afford the help did it themselves.
The discovery of germs and their impact on health and disease as the 19th century drew to a close made municipalities understand the need for affordable and consistent access to fresh water and sewage disposal in urban centers. Victorian bathrooms had a separate ventilated “water closet”, so constructed because of the phobia surrounding sewer gas. The many water pipes coming in and out of the house were hidden behind woodwork and bathrooms were treated and furnished like any other room in the house. Freestanding or wood encased tubs, showers, fancy hand painted porcelain toilets with the water tank close to the ceiling, brass faucets and pedestal or cabinet encased sinks completed the fixtures. There were stained glass windows for privacy, lace panels, fancy woodwork and tongue and groove wainscoting. A rug over plank flooring, plants and wallpaper , all created a room that was indeed a status symbol for those who could afford it.
The 20th century brought with it changes in technology and attitude towards bathrooms. In 1903, Edmonton passed a bylaw stating that pipes needed to be made of cast iron, and not of lead. More efficient placement of pipes within the homes themselves were created by having the kitchen and upstairs bathroom share the same “stack” and other main pipes. Homes became smaller, servants became scarce, and homeowners had to fend for themselves. The Victorian ideal of a separate water closet fell by the wayside, and instead the toilet joined the pedestal sink and the shower – tub. Plumbing was exposed. It was argued that leaks would be better seen and dirt be better cleaned with exposed pipes.
Fancy, dark woodwork was replaced by painted walls, wainscoting by tiling and plank flooring by mosaic tiles in intricate geometric designs. Lace was still in demand, but the designs were simpler, and etched glass for the windows became popular.
Urban bathrooms of the middle and upper classes sported many of the features above, however many poorer city dwellers and rural inhabitants did not get indoor plumbing until the 1950’s! Today, there is a renewed interest in the decorating styles and fixtures of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, albeit with all the modern conveniences. Once again, the elegant bathroom is poised to become a status symbol all over again!
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