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The Bathroom: An Epic

June 2024
17min read

THE SEEMINGLY simple act of bringing it inside the house required not only medical revelation and technological revolution but the remaking of human habits as old as time

“CAN YOU THINK,” HOUSE & GAR - den inquired in September 1926, “of any room in the house which reflects the progress . . . of comfort and of convenience . . . more than the bathroom?”

Indeed. What room of the house incorporates modern notions of convenience quite so well as the bathroom? What one room so delineates the house of today from the house of old?

Yet in 1926 the bathroom was still far from universal. No one knows exactly how many there were, but even when the U.S. Census Bureau began tabulating such things in 1940, only a bit more than half of American homes (55 percent) had at least one complete private bathroom. By the mid-1990s bathrooms were very nearly universal, and long forgotten was the slow process by which the bathroom became an essential element of modern civilization.

Take its fundamental feature. Of all the standard conveniences of modern life, perhaps none that is so simple took so long coming into use as the toilet (or water closet, as it was long called in America). After all, it is a relatively straight-forward device made up of uncomplicated parts requiring nothing in the way of computerization and a power source not even as sophisticated as electricity. Basically all it takes to make it work is a few gallons of the most common stuff on earth—water. Yet its general use is only a few generations old.

Long after this straightforward technology became feasible, America, a land famous for embracing innovation, took to it only slowly. Indeed, throughout much of the nineteenth century, disposal of human waste remained as primitive as it had been in the seventeenth: either an outdoor privy (commonly known in colonial times as a necessary or necessary house ) or a chamber pot kept in one’s bedroom or some other suitable place inside the house. In either case the waste went (or was supposed to go) into privy pits—“magazines of putrefaction,” Benjamin Franklin called them. The privy was simply built over the pit.

1854: “A fashion prevails of thrusting these noisome things into the midst of sleeping chambers and living rooms. . .”

It was a matter of common understanding that the pits should be emptied from time to time (in between, a heap of lime was useful). But poorer people could not afford to have this done, and even the wealthier rarely took the trouble. The relatively well-to-do Drinker family of Philadelphia, for example, went from 1735 to 1779 without bothering, and when the time came, it was an occasion worth recording in Elizabeth Drinker’s diary. The work was done after dark, and the family purposely scheduled it for March in hopes the cold weather would cut down on the smell, though Drinker’s children took the precaution of burning incense anyway. Wrote Elizabeth on March 7: “The jobb in our Yard is fmish’d except what the Carpenters are to do—It has been nothing to what we expected—I dreaded it before commencement, and am pleased ‘tis over—[they] were at work two night. . . .” When the carpenters finished up, probably rebuilding the seat, the pit was sixteen feet deep measuring from the seat—”a dreadfull gulph it look[ed] like” to Elizabeth.

We do know that there was some use of the water closet in America very early in the 1800s. One documented instance is the White House; Jefferson ordered one in 1801, but it was not installed until 1804. There were probably water closets in use in Philadelphia by the late 179Os, and perhaps in New York and elsewhere as well.

The earliest water closet in America—and probably the only one of its time—almost certainly was one incorporated into Whitehall, the house built by Gov. Horatio Sharpe in the mid-1760s at Annapolis, Maryland. It was clearly part of the original plan of the house, and there is no reason to believe it was not actually included. It was typical of water closets in use in England going back at least to the early eighteenth century—an uncomplicated design using a marble trough, with water from a remote cistern admitted by turning a stopcock. It was emptied by pulling up a handle, thus raising a plunger device that sealed a hole in the bottom of the trough. Waste emptied into a twelve-foot-high vault.

YET BY THE MID-NINETEENTH CENTURY, WATER closets were still relatively rare and usually to be found only in the homes of the wealthy. Baltimore, for instance, in 1859 had 698 for a population of 212,418. A. J. Downing’s influential Architecture of Country Houses (1850) had plans for thirty-four model homes, ranging in cost from moderate to expensive; only eight of them included water closets. Why not all? These were, after all, model homes, presumably indicative of what was modern.

Cost of installation was certainly a factor; a water closet was beyond the means of most of the population. Water supply was also a factor, although by mid-century awareness of public health—spurred by the recent discovery that cholera, that particularly ghastly epidemic disease, was spread by contaminated drinking water—was beginning to take on concrete form in municipal sewerage and water supply systems. Boston, for instance, by 1850 was supplying nearly twelve thousand households with piped-in water, at an average cost of eight dollars a year. New York’s new Croton Aqueduct system, completed in 1842, by 1856 was serving nearly fifty-four thousand customers.

Equally as important as water supply was sanitary disposal of waste, which lagged somewhat. The first comprehensive underground sewer system in America was that constructed in ore-fire Chicago from 1856 to 1860.

But there was another powerful factor inhibiting the acceptance of water closets. From time immemorial, human waste had been associated with the outside; one went outdoors to relieve oneself. If one used a chamber pot inside, because of the weather or the hour, one took it outside to dump at the earliest opportunity. Now with the water closet, one was being asked to defy tradition and complete the process inside the house. Besides the matter of habit, there was concern about odors that traditionally belonged outside. A chamber pot could be removed; the water closet was fixed in place. Furthermore, there was a gnawing suspicion that it wouldn’t always work and one’s very private offerings would remain unaccepted instead of flushing discreetly away. Some sense of this resistance to change is evident in an 1854 treatise called Rural Architecture : “A fashion prevails of thrusting these noisome things into the midst of sleeping chambers and living rooms—pandering to effeminacy, and, at times, surcharging the house—for they cannot, at all times, and under all circumstances, be kept perfectly close—with their offensive odor. Out of the house they belong, and if they, by any means, find their way within its walls proper, the fault will not be laid at our door.”

On the other hand, a few years (and not many water closets) later, an engineer named James C. Bayles gave this down-to-earth explanation of why water closets were needed inside the home: “In dry summer weather, they [privies] answer the purpose well enough, perhaps; but in wet weather, and especially in winter, their use involves an exposure which few constitutions are strong enough to bear with impunity. Women are especial sufferers from this cause; hence we find that in wet or cold weather they defer their visits to the privy until compelled by unbearable physical discomfort to brave the dangers and annoyances of a dash out of doors—for which, I may add, they very rarely wear sufficient clothing. The results of the irregularity of habit thus induced are, if possible, even worse than those attending the frequent exposures incident to greater regularity. It is not an uncommon thing for women in the country to allow themselves to become so constipated that days and sometimes weeks will pass between stools. . . . A visit to an outdoor privy in a cold storm or when the ground is covered with snow and the air frosty is attended with a physical shock which even strong men dread.”

Apparatus for disposing of human waste in fact goes back to antiquity—even including the use of water for flushing. A slab with “a groove for a seat” coupled with signs of “some vessel used for flushing,” as described by the British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans, suggests that a primitive water closet was in use at the Bronze Age palace of Knossos in Crete. Rome at its grandest had its famous baths supplied with water from its equally famous aqueducts. These facilities also made use of a plentiful supply of water for communal water closets, where ten to twenty could go at a time (men and woman separately). Waste was conveyed away in sewers. Rome’s very wealthy had private facilities at home; lesser Romans trekked to the public latrinae .

The first water closet reflecting modern principles was probably that built sometime around 1596 by Sir John Harington for the residence he used as high sheriff of Somerset, which by royal request he duplicated shortly thereafter for his godmother, Elizabeth I, at Richmond Palace. Both closets, apparently too imperfect to depend on, disappeared in time, and the queen when at Richmond returned to using a closestool, as she did at her other royal domiciles. The closestool, common among better-off colonial American families, could be as simple as a ladder-back chair with a cloth hanging around the bottom to hide the pot that set it apart from other furniture, or it could be fit for a king, as was a favorite closestool of Henry VIII, a magnificent piece of furniture decorated with black velvet and ribbons and fringes and studded with two thousand gilt nails.

NOTWITHSTANDING THE DISAPPEARANCE OF HAR- ington’s innovation, water closets (perhaps adapted from a description he published in 1596) were in use in England by the late seven-teenth century. The antiquarian John Aubrey told of a visit to the estate of Sir James Carew in Bedington in 1673 where he saw “a pretty Machine to cleanse an House of Office [privy], viz., by a small Stream, no bigger than one’s Finger . . . so that when it was full, a considerable Quantity of Water fell down with some Force, and washed away the Filth.”

There was a water closet in Osterly House near London by about 1730 and presumably in other such homes of the very wealthy, and it was to a water closet that King George II retired in 1760 when he collapsed and fell, striking his head and dying before physicians could reach him. These must have been nearly identical to the inaugural American water closet installed at Whitehall in Annapolis.

This was state of the art until 1775, when Alexander Gumming, a London watchmaker with a broad knowledge of mechanics, secured the first English patent for a water closet. (Thomas Crapper, that object of so much jocose folklore, did exist, but this nineteenth-century plumber had nothing to do with the invention of the toilet.) Cumming’s principal innovations were a valve mechanism to replace the plunger device and an S trap in the waste pipe to inhibit sewer gas from backing up through the water closet into the house. The S trap (or “stink-trap,” as Gumming called it) has been an essential part of plumbing ever since. Furthermore, the cistern that supplied water was no longer remote but elevated above the device itself. The major shortcoming of Cumming’s closet, however, was the same thing that made it modern, its valve mechanism. It was a sliding valve and was highly prone to sticking, from either corrosion or cold weather.

In, the Summer of 1799 Elizabeth Drinker took a shower and got “wett all over att once” for the first time in twenty-eight years.

JUST THREE YEARS LATER, IN 1778, JOSEPH BRAMAH, a British inventor whose numerous creations included the hydraulic press and the Bramah lock (for fully half a century considered the world’s best), patented a substantially improved water closet. He got rid of the balky sliding valve and substituted a flap valve operated by a crank; the same lever that flushed the closet simultaneously actuated a valve in the overhead cistern, causing water to refill the bowl. Bramah’s valve closets, refined and improved, and soon imported to America, remained in use for the next hundred years.

The 1880s marked the beginning of the transition to the modern toilet. The key was the realization that a siphon could greatly increase the effectiveness of the flushing action. There was nothing new about the principle—an inverted U-shaped tube or pipe, its columns unequal in length, set up so that atmospheric pressure forces liquid to flow from one level to another. The ancient Greeks made extensive use of siphons in their water-supply systems.

In the water closet siphonic action can be utilized both in the tank and in the bowl. A siphon tank remarkably close in design to that of a modern toilet was in use in England bv 1884. Bowls with siphon action began to appear at the same time; the first was patented in the United States in 1890. One of the earliest manufacturers, the Syphon Closet Company of Trenton, New Jersey, in 1890 explained that the virtue of siphon design was “the exceedingly simple and natural working of its parts—its freedom from springs and unreliable valves . . . the complete and perfect working of all its parts, in compliance with natural laws.”

Siphonic action had become common by the turn of the century, and by 1910 the modern water closet looked and worked essentially the same as the toilet of today. Nevertheless, the use of water closets remained far from universal. Existing houses more often than not continued to make do with the privies of old, and it was more commonly the house being built that had such a modern convenience as a water closet. (Nor was there a consensus on what to call it. Water closet remained by far the most common usage in America until the 1930s. The word toilet itself only emerged in this century, as toilette in the pages of a 1914 House & Garden , and it did not start to gain currency until the late 1920s. Webster’s defined toilet only in its dressing and grooming sense until the 1930s, when the plumbing definition was added as a subsidiary meaning. In between there was a brief fling with flush closet . Of course, both water closet and toilet are euphemistic; in fact this particular fixture never really has had a name all its own, specific to its function.)

Its cost, meanwhile, had come down dramatically. One of the earlier documented water closets in America was installed by the Massachusetts governor Christopher Gore at his summer residence, Gore Place, in Waltham, Massachusetts. There is a record of its purchase for $103.75 in 1807. With the cost of installation added, this would have represented something on the order of 70 percent of a carpenter’s wages of roughly $312 a year. By 1926 the Sears catalogue was offering water closets for $21. Even with installation, this would have taken only about 3 or 4 percent of a machinist’s annual wages of $1,771.

Thus, becoming ever more practical and affordable, the water closet also became ever more common over the course of the twentieth century. And while there have been many refinements during that time, the basic design of the toilet has changed relatively little. Other than style and the use of color, evolution has come largely in response to a greater awareness of water conservation. American toilets of the mid-twentieth century generally used 5 gallons per flush, this gradually being reduced to 3.5, but a federal law that went into effect in 1994 now mandates a maximum of 1.6 gallons per flush. This has been accomplished through redesign of the standard gravity flush toilet (a slimmer tank, a bowl with steeper sides) or through use of a pressure system, a costlier option.

Meanwhile, there had been a transformation of the “bath” side of the bathroom, beginning roughly at the turn of the nineteenth century. In the summer of 1799 Elizabeth Drinker wrote that she “went into the Shower bath. I bore it better than I expected, not having been wett all over att once, for 28 years past.”

IN 1836 ELIZA FARRAR COUNSELED, IN THE YOUNG Lady’s Friend : “It may shock the feelings of a young lady, to be told that. . . perspiration, which is constantly passing off through the skin, has an individual odor, more or less disagreeable in different persons; but it is nevertheless true. . . . Once at least, in twentyfour hours, the whole surface of the body should be washed in soap and water.”

What is remarkable about Elizabeth and Eliza is that so thoroughly divergent outlooks on personal bathing came so close together in time. For her part there was nothing extraordinary about Elizabeth. Reluctance to bathe was general. Innumerable were the M’s of this world, as recorded by Henry David Thoreau in 1852: “M—[a farmer] was telling me last night that he had thought of bathing when he had done his hoeing—of taking some soap and going down to Waiden and giving himself a good scrubbing—but something had occurred to prevent it, and now he will go unwashed to the harvesting, aye, even till the next hoeing is over.”

This does not mean no one ever got wet. There was sea bathing, and there were spas. Indeed Elizabeth’s last immersion had been in 1771 at Bristol Springs, on the Delaware River north of Philadelphia, then a popular resort for Philadelphians. But there taking the waters was social and restorative rather than hygienic. The Drinkers also went to the shore from time to time. Of a visit in 1776 Elizabeth recalled that her husband went sea bathing while she, not venturing in, took the waters in another way that was somewhat in vogue at the time. She drank a pint of sea- water, which, as expected, “Operated largely & speedily” on her system.

Bathing for cleanliness for the Drinkers was, as it had been over the years, primarily a matter of sponge and washbasin in one’s bedchamber. Whether this was done once a day or once a week, or only for special occasions, was a matter of personal choice, as was how much of the body was cleansed at any given time. Furthermore, soap was still for doing the laundry; it would not become common for personal use until after the middle of the nineteenth century.

But a hint of changing times was the shower bath that the Drinker family had rigged up in the back yard of their Philadelphia home in the summer of 1798 (it took a year for Elizabeth “to bear it,” but her husband and children apparently got wet right away).

Modern public water supply was just around the corner in Philadelphia that year, and notions of cleanliness had begun to change since Elizabeth had last got wet all over. Although she provided no details about the construction of the shower bath, except that one “pulled the string of ye shower” to use it, an account of another such device of the time notes that it was topped with a tin reservoir, and the shower taker “pulls at a cord and the water falls upon her through a cullender.” The usual practice at the Drinkers’ was to let the water stand for “some hours” so that it warmed to body temperature. A female—Elizabeth, one of her daughters, or the family maid—using the Drinkers’ shower wore a thin gown and “an OyI cloath cap.”

It was in this contrivance that Elizabeth broke her twenty-eight-year drought. Why so long? She simply didn’t believe bathing was important, let alone necessary. Since the Middle Ages it had been thought to be deleterious. The Puritans were particularly leery of the practice; after all, whatever was washed had to be exposed. Even into the nineteenth century there were municipal ordinances prohibiting one from taking a bath except on medical advice. As late as 1860 Godey’s Lady’s Book still told readers that bathing at night was definitely ill-advised, while bathing in the morning, briefly , was probably all right if not done oftener than once a week.

Albany, with a population of 62,367 and just 19 tubs in town, was close to reflecting the country as a whole in 1860.

Now to Eliza Farrar. Middle-class attitudes toward cleanliness were beginning to change, particularly in England, by the mid-eighteenth century, as exemplified by the evangelist John Wesley’s admonition that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” On the medical side there was Edinburgh’s Dr. William Buchan, whose remarkably durable how-to-stay-well book Domestic Medicine first appeared in America in 1772 (and itself stayed well, through one revised edition after another on both sides of the Atlantic, past the middle of the next century). Buchan preached that perspiration was of such great importance to health “that few diseases attack us while it goes properly on.”

By the late 1790s public baths were beginning to appear in American cities, reviving a custom that had declined with the Roman Empire. Baths continued as a public institution into the early twentieth century. But for many there was not even the luxury of a public bath, let alone a bath room in one’s own home. Hence, as one observer wrote of New York’s poor in 1845, “The wealthy introduce water into their chambers . . . but for the innumerable poor, this is a luxury that can seldom, if ever, be enjoyed. Open bathing around the wharves is of course prohibited; and the labouring man has to walk three or four miles [to the ocean] to obtain a privilege so necessary to health.”

The first household bathtubs in America (in the modern sense, as opposed to small portable receptacles) began appearing at the turn of the nineteenth century, but these were rare examples and usually not yet connected to any form of plumbing. The proliferation of bathtubs, not surprisingly, coincided with the development of the piped-in public water supply. Hence by 1860 we find 3,910 tubs in Boston, a significant number relative to their near absence earlier in the century, but not a great many given that Boston at the time had 177,902 bodies to be bathed. Bostonians, with a ratio of one tub for every 45 people, nevertheless were statistically better scrubbed than Baltimoreans, who had a ratio of one for every 84 people, and far cleaner than residents of New York City, which had one bathtub for every 463 persons. Albany, New York, meanwhile, with a head-to-tub ratio of 1 to 3,282 (the population was 62,367 and there were only 19 tubs in town) was probably closest to reflecting the country as a whole just then.

ANOTHER FACTOR ENCOURAGING BATHING WAS the increasing availability of soap; as developing technology made its mass production practical, it came into increasing use, particularly among the middle class. Procter & Gamble’s Ivory soap appeared in 1879 and was advertised as suitable for washing fine laundry (silk hose, gloves, laces, and so forth) as well as being “purer and much more pleasant” than the run of toilet soaps. To emphasize its dual nature, the bar came with a notch down the middle. It could be used full sized for laundry, or, pulling a stout thread tightly around the notch, one could easily break the bar into two pieces convenient for personal use.

But the underlying impetus to washing and bathing was essentially the same as that spurring development of sewers and public water supplies: increasing knowledge of the nature of disease and hence the value of personal cleanliness. With exceptions (yellow fever, which is carried by mosquitoes, for example), it was correctly understood that disease was spread by germs, and germs could be combated through personal hygiene. On the eve of America’s entry into World War I, mortal conflict was no less to be faced at home than abroad; writing in the September 23, 1916, Collier’s , William J. Cromie warned that the “war of the body against invading germs [is] a great battle that one is called upon to fight . . . continually throughout life.”

The two principal bathroom appliances for bathing are, of course, the sink and the bathtub/shower. The sink is a relatively direct descendant of the bedroom washstand of old, just as the modern bathtub is merely a refinement of the portable tub that goes back to colonial times, its most obvious difference being its length, which, as a fixed rather than portable appliance, allows for a full-body immersion. Otherwise, the principal advances have been the use of color and of materials like porcelain enamel and fiberglass that are vastly easier to keep clean and sanitary than the copper or zinc with which nineteenth-century tubs were commonly lined.

At century’s end America surpasses all other nations when it comes to bathrooms. Roughly ninety-eight of every hundred homes have at least one complete, private bathroom.

The modern bathroom is essentially so fixed as to basic configuration—its essential layout, its compact space, its primary components—that we lose sight of the fact it did not have to be thus. After all, it actually accommodates very disparate, if not opposite, functions. Until the mid-nineteenth century, bathing and elimination had no connection.

When one bathed at home, using a portable tub, it was usually in the kitchen, and for good reason: That room had the best facilities for heating water, and it was normally the warmest room in the house. So much taken for granted was the kitchen as the bathing room that when a Boston merchant in 1846 advertised for sale “every thing appertaining to the kitchen,” he perforce included bathtubs.

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.

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