The Bathroom: An Epic

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What an extraordinary bit of evolution, then, to have these wholly unrelated functions of bathing and elimination coming together in one room, a place that almost from the start (A.J.Downing’s Architecture of Country Houses , 1850. for example)—and ever since—has been called the bathroom. From a latter-day perspective this union has acquired its own accepted logic, yet as we have seen, it was never foreordained. What chiefly located bathtub, sink, and water closet in the same room was economy and practicality. To have a water closet, it was necessary to install a pipe to conduct water to the device and another to empty it; a tub, similarly, needed not only a drainpipe but two pipes leading in (if it was really up-to-date at mid-nineteenth century), one for hot water and one for cold. Likewise a sink. It was as obvious then as in retrospect: Run all those pipes and drains into and out of the same room. And so the inventing of the bathroom, a monumental event in the evolution of modern life.

Bathrooms tended to be located on the second floor, for several reasons. As the bedroom floor of the typical nine-teenth-century house, it provided continuity: The bedroom was the primary place for using a chamber pot as well as a washbasin. So it was logical to make this new “bathroom” almost an extension of the bedroom. The second floor, as opposed to the “living” floor, also afforded a greater degree of privacy.

ONE FINAL FACTOR: AS CHANGING TECHNOLOGY made tubs and sinks and, in particular, water closets more practical and economical, more and more people began adding bathrooms to their homes. Whenever the conversion was made to an existing house, it was necessary to find space. Far more often than not, it was a small bedroom that could be spared, and this of course would have been on the second floor.

Now, in the late twentieth century, that single room has become two or three or even more bathrooms, one commonly being a halfbath (no tub or shower) adjacent to the living area and intended for guests or for the incidental use of the occupants.

The modern bathroom is almost inevitably the smallest room in the house but often the one with the widest range of uses. Of course it is used the way those prototypical “bath rooms” of 1850 were, for bathing and for the basic needs of nature, but there are all those other assorted daily needs—brushing teeth, putting on makeup, shaving, shampooing, cutting one’s nails, inserting contact lenses, taking medicine, cleaning and treating cuts and scrapes, weighing oneself, using a sun lamp, even working out (some new master baths are part gym). Nor are tubs only for cleansing the body. Common also is the bath that is mostly just for the pleasant warmth and soothing repose of a tub full of gently bubbling water. What would Elizabeth have thought of that? Or Eliza?

If the modern bathroom didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.