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A Brief History of Bathrooms

Updated: Nov 15, 2018

The history of the decorative plumbing showroom is closely linked to the evolution of the kitchen and bathroom as the most popular rooms in the house. Bathrooms as we know them now have only been around since the last part of the 1800s. In earlier centuries, bathing happened in public spaces (let's face it, sometime it didn't happen at all) and although flush toilets had been invented in the 16th century, people still used privies in out-of-the-way closets or went outside. With little to no indoor plumbing to speak of, having a room dedicated to bathing and hygiene simply wasn’t plausible.

It took shifts in technology, science and culture to make bathrooms an indispensable part of the home. First, as people began to understand more about bacteria, they saw the importance of keeping the body consistently clean and eliminating sources of germs from the house. The understanding of how germs and disease spread also led to better sewage infrastructure and the need to treat sewage before it was released back into the water supply. The first sewer systems were built in Chicago and Brooklyn in the 1850s; the first waste treatment plant appeared in Worcester, MA in 1890.

You can see from this early advert that bathrooms were for the wealthy- the maid is the one giving the children their baths!

These advances in technology and the growing importance of personal hygiene paved the way for a room dedicated to bathing, grooming and hygiene. By the turn of the last century, bathrooms became something people did not want to live without. At first, it was only the wealthy who could afford these luxuries in their homes, but the middle classes caught on quickly as cities made it easier for homes to have indoor plumbing.

So what did these new bathrooms need? A toilet, a sink, a tub and a shower- the basics haven’t really changed since then. Where did people go to find these items? At first, they pored through catalogues.

Sears started selling showers in its ubiquitous catalogue in 1915, but you can find earlier advertisements for showers and flush toilets; early ads focused on hygiene more than luxury. Companies like Standard Plumbing Fixtures (still going strong as American Standard) and Kohler saw a new market opening up for plumbing hardware and began to use advertisements to show people of all different income levels how much easier (and cleaner!) life could be with the addition of the right technology.

A 1922 ad from Standard Plumbing. Bathroom ads started targeting women early on, making the bathroom a place of retreat and relaxation.

A cool 1922 ad from Standard promotes a bathroom built in 5 square feet. It sounds tiny, but it certainly lets people know that a bathroom is possible in almost any space!

As the first decades of the twentieth century marched on, plumbing companies began tempting buyers with more design-focused bathrooms. Feminine touches were everywhere, in powder pinks and mint greens, with plush rugs and elegant sconces turning a functional space into a luxurious one.

It was really the rise of the middle class after the wars and the Depression that forced bathrooms into the retail spotlight. Middle-class homeowners, housewives especially, wanted a bathroom (often more than one) that had all the latest gadgets and was decorated like the ones advertised in the ladies magazines. They needed space for hair dryers, proper ventilation, new toiletry products, makeup and hair supplies and all the decorative touches those 1950s bathrooms were full of (shell-shaped soaps and towels only put out for company, to name a couple). Homes were also built with more than one bathroom, ensuring privacy for parents and a space for the children.

A 1950s Kohler ad features bright, bold colors and encourages viewers to think of the bathroom as a place for family (and birds, apparently)

In the 60s, tubs got bigger as the Jacuzzi wave caught on. Consumers still shopped from catalogues, but with the advent of enormous department stores, decorative plumbing items were purchased in-store.

An extravagant turquoise American Standard bathroom from 1968 tells us a lot about the style preferences of that decade.

In the decades that followed, bathrooms remained a focus for most homeowners’ interior decorating dreams, second only to the kitchen.

1970s bathrooms were not afraid of playing with color!

The bathrooms of the 70s were intensely colored with oranges, greens, yellows and browns; the 80s saw some questionable design decisions as well (pink tub and mirrored walls, anyone?), many of which homeowners are still getting rid of today in favor of newer, cleaner and more neutral styles.

People love their bathrooms, spending thousands to renovate master baths and even guest baths to keep up with trends. Last year, the average spend on a master bath renovation was $11,000, which shows just how much homeowners prize bathroom as tranquil retreats that deserve the best fixtures and hardware.

A typical blush pink 1980s bathroom with some impressive mirrored walls.

It is a lot of fun to look at these photos and see how much things have changed over the past century, more so for the people at the front lines of the decorative plumbing industry- owners, managers and sales people of showrooms.

How about some modern bathroom trends?

Next week, we will take a look at the history of the kitchen- if you think the bathroom has changed over the years, you'll be amazed at how a dark, smoky, hidden room became the crown jewel of the house!

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