The History of the Bathroom Part 3: Putting Plumbing Before People

Close up of taps in a bathroom sink.

Mint Images / Getty Images

The really amazing thing about this standard "bathroom" from 1915, ninety-seven years ago, is how much it looks like the standard bathrooms of today. How did it get this way, and how did we get stuck in such a rut?

english basin and sink photo

Pre-Indoor Plumbing

Before running water, washing up, bathing, and defecating happened in different places. Washing took place at a washstand in the bedroom, with a pitcher and a bowl; defecating happened in the outhouse or the chamber pot; bathing, when it occasionally happened, was often in a tub by the stove in the kitchen, where the hot water was. Nothing was fixed in one place (other than the outhouse) because nothing was connected to anything. In Mechanization Takes Command, Sigfried Giedion points out that this was a critical move from nomadic to stable (It happened a few hundred years earlier with furniture).

So in England the first thing they did was just keep doing what they did. They jammed the toilet under the stairs or in a closet (source of water closet name) and they built the sink into the wooden washstand. Earth toilets and commodes didn't have water connections and were built like furniture out of wood; what should a water toilet look like? Encase it in wood! So all the fanciest bathrooms were built like furniture, out of wood.

Birth of the Modern-Day Bathroom

Eventually someone had the bright idea that all this wet stuff should have a room of its own and they would take a bedroom and convert it. In England, where only rich people owned houses and could afford bathrooms, they didn't kid around. Giedion writes:

full english bathroom photo

Image credit Siegfried Gideon via Thomas Wagner

The bath of 1900 calls for a spacious room possessing a number of windows. The expensive fixtures were placed at dignified distances from one another. The central space was ample enough for moving freely around, even exercising.

Nobody really thought about whether all the fixtures should be in one room, it just sorta happened because that's what they had.

statler hotel image

Credit Mechanization takes Command

In America, a much more egalitarian culture with a lot more new construction, things happened very differently. The first bathrooms were sensations in hotels, with the Statler in Buffalo having a bath in every room, completely unheard of at the time. It makes sense that they were small under such circumstances, and like most modern bathrooms, they didn't even have windows. The hotel bathroom appears to have simply set a precedent. Ellen Lupton and J. Albert Miller write in The Bathroom, The Kitchen and the Aesthetics of Waste:

The small size of the standard bathroom reflects the ambivalence wich has attended bodily functions and maintenance in American culture. The bathroom is at once the most and least important room in the house; it accounts for a large percentage of building costs and is used by all of a home's occupants, yet it is granted one of the smallest spaces. It is a private room yet is made very public by its shared status. It is physically clean yet culturally dirty.

It is also designed by plumbers and builders, who want to minimize cost. Bathroom finishes are expensive, and plumbing is cheaper when you line everything up in a row. Nobody is asking if this is the right, the healthy, the appropriate or even logical thing to do.

separate toilet image

image credit Lupton & Miller

Some were worried about it; one 1911 writer quoted by Lupton and Abbot wrote:

Keep the bathroom what the name signifies. Eliminate the toilette. Put that in a separate room, even if it be tiny....the convenience of both rooms will be more than doubled."

Unfortunately, she was a voice in the wilderness; the plan shown takes up more space, has more wall to finish, ain't gonna happen.


image credit Kohler, fixafaucet

The Problem With Bathrooms

Finally, post WWII, the mechanical engineers and builders convinced the authorities that a mechanical fan could replace a window. So now you got fumes from human waste, toxic cleaners, hairsprays and solvents and drain cleaners, all building up in a tiny little room with a closed door and a twelve buck fan that nobody turns on.

It really is just dumb.

The engineers gave us a water supply and a waste disposal system, so logic dictated that you should put all this new stuff together in one place. Nobody seriously paused to think about the different functions and their needs; they just took the position that if water comes in and water goes out, it is all pretty much the same and should be in the same room.

But it is not at all the same.

Bathing is different than 'going #2'. "Going #2' is different from peeing. You can make the case that showering is different than having a bath and that brushing one's teeth is another thing altogether. But in a typical western bathroom, they all take place in a machine designed by engineers on the basis of the plumbing system, not human needs. The result is a toxic output of contaminated water, questionable air quality and incredible waste.