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  • Introducing the BathroomSpace and Change in Working-Class Houses
  • Alison K. Hoagland (bio)

The introduction of the bathroom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was probably the single greatest change to the architecture of middle- and working-class houses. The bathroom was a dedicated space that did not previously exist. Within a few decades, it appeared in new houses and old, urban and rural, sprawling suburban cottages and tiny apartments. The bathroom did not arrive equally, of course: middle-class homeowners before working-class renters, urban houses before rural farms, architects’ plan books before real buildings. Its arrival was revolutionary, affecting—among other things—women’s work, servants’ work, standards of cleanliness, perceptions of status, circulation patterns, design, and ideas of convenience. 1 A room with such ramifications merits an examination of how it came to be, although Americans’ reluctance to discuss such a personal space makes the bathroom an understudied part of the house. Working-class American housing offers new perspectives on the desirability yet difficulty of acquiring a bathroom.

Contrary to the assertion of Siegfried Giedion, who held that the bathroom rapidly attained its modern form of a room containing a bathtub, toilet, and sink, the development of the bathroom was slow and multivalent (Figure 1).2 Possession of bathroom fixtures was a factor of money and, as such, a bathroom helped to define class. As historian Maureen Ogle has shown, in the nineteenth century the upper class attained the different fixtures at different times and tended to isolate them. The sink, replacing a water pitcher and basin, was first located in the bedroom, while the bathtub received its own room adjacent to the bedroom. The toilet, however, was placed elsewhere, in a separate room, due to odors associated with its use. Beginning in the 1870s, public health professionals encouraged the consolidation of the three fixtures into a single room in order to simplify the network of pipes and traps that ran through the house.3 Needing a name for this room, building professionals took the most innocuous function, the bath, and named the room after that. The term “bathroom,” written as two words or hyphenated into the twentieth century, was an accepted term for this multi-purpose space by the 1880s.4 By the end of the nineteenth century, most upper-class houses had three-fixture bathrooms.

Middle-class homeowners, who began to attain bathroom fixtures around 1900, also adopted the preference for concentrating the fixtures in one room. They had three avenues for obtaining a bathroom: buy a new house, add a room to an existing house, or appropriate an existing room for this new use. Most new house plans indicated bathrooms.5 Even as early as 1884, a plan book of “medium and low cost houses” stated, “no house should be without a bath-room, large and conveniently located.”6 But most Americans lived in houses that were already built, and for these two solutions presented themselves: adding a room or taking a room.7 The problem of retrofitting a bathroom into an existing house received little attention in the press, although it must have occurred with staggering frequency. Of the 16 million households in the United States in 1900, probably a quarter of them were in houses that [End Page 15] would receive a bathroom in the next quarter century.8 Surprisingly, there was no discussion of this remodeling in the professional and popular press.9


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Figure 1.

Laurium Hardware, 317–19 Hecla Street, Laurium. The three fixtures of the bathroom—sink, toilet, and tub—are exhibited in this basement showroom of a hardware store in the early twentieth century. Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Browning.

Working-class houses had constraints not experienced by the middle class. Their occupants could not afford to build new houses or add new rooms, nor could they afford bathroom-equipped houses financed by someone else. And they had no extra room to appropriate for bathroom use; crowded already, working-class houses had a minimal number of rooms. Yet these were the people who would have benefitted the most, because working-class women performed their own domestic chores...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-6832
Print ISSN
1936-0886
Pages
pp. 15-42
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-05
Open Access
No
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