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The following discourse on bathroom plumbing is from Heidi Harendza from the OLD-HOUSE list. We are seriously worried about her.

When did indoor bathrooms in middle-class homes become common?

The first written account of indoor plumbing is documented to the 1840's. It remained pretty much a luxury for the next 20 years. There is one major element that keeps sanitary facilities outside: smell. Once you have running water inside the house to flush away debris, toilets get closer and closer to the house. First they were usually attached to the house, but only accessible from outside; then, they become additions, usually appended to the back end of the house near the service areas to keep the smell away from the living quarters.

In cities, once water and sewage systems become municipal improvements, then you start to see a gradual development toward indoor plumbing. Once the toilets can be connected to a sewage line and the house is piped with water, things get moved indoors. In the rural areas water could be pumped by hand for limited amounts of water; or if the family could afford, they could connect the plumbing to a "hydraulic ram" that would pump water in the house into cisterns in the attic using the pressure of running water from streams.

When did the porcelain/cast iron clawfoot bathtubs become common?

By the 1870's high end new home designs include "bath rooms" that contain a tub, sink and toilet. Up to this point the mechanical elements of the bathroom were often hidden with paneling and wainscoting, to try and disguise the function. However, once the S-curve in the toilet pipe is developed to provide a barrier for sewer gases, indoor plumbing becomes VERY popular. No more smell meant that your bath room could be "sanitary." This is when the paneling that hides the fixtures gives way to the all white bathroom, to give the sense of cleanliness and sanitary conditions. The bath room is clean: no smell, no dirt, and companies like American Standard and Mott & Co. develop lines of "sanitary" bath room fixtures. The claw foot tubs etc. are remanants of treating the bathroom as a "room" with furrniture, using elements from popular furniture design, and bringing it into the bath.

By 1900 almost all the new home designs are being offered with indoor plumbing. Many of the older homes still have not been retrofitted with plumbing, but almost all new construction will have indoor plumbing as an amenity. At this point almost all bathroom fixtures are white. Claw foot tubs have begun to be replaced by pedestal tubs and tubs resting on the ground because they are perceived to be more "sanitary."

I've seen photos and period drawings of old bathrooms-- tile is usually white if it exists at all. Was colored tile ever used prior to the 1930's?

By the end of the 1920's manufacturers start offering lines of colored bathroom fixtures, but the depression really limited the effect of this new trend. Only by the end of WWII did the construction industry rebound. Colored fixtures became hugely popular, 25 years after they were introduced, and this may explain in part why Art Deco colors seemed to dominate the bathrooms of every 1950's split level home.


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Last updated 03/05/2009