The Evolution of the Bathroom

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Aug 05, 2010 | Linda Merrill

We’re living in a time when the bathroom has been elevated to a high status place of importance in our home. Marble counter tops, hand painted porcelain sinks and chrome fixtures are just the start. Our bathrooms are now equipped with iPod docks, television sets and steam showers. Clearly, modern technology has wrought many of these conveniences and luxuries. The “necessary,” as it was once called, has gone through many changes over the millennia.

At its core, the bathroom has very few functions and all of them are personal. Throughout history, the bathroom has gone through many transitions due to advances in technology and culture mores of the times. Some societies valued cleanliness as a sign of modernity and others feared that water carried illness and it was therefore better to be dirty and odiferous than possibly diseased. So, one can add scientific discovery to cultural styles and technological advancements to the development of the modern day bathroom.

Roman Empire Represents Indoor Plumbing

While indoor plumbing didn’t come into common use until the latter part of the 19th century, indoor and outdoor plumbing has been around since ancient Roman times. Of course, we’ve all heard of the public Roman Baths that were as much about socializing as they were about cleanliness. As a matter of fact, while some of the wealthier citizens had their own private baths, they often still utilized the public facilities in order to see and be seen. A sign of the global power of the Roman Empire can be seen in the historic records of the baths, where imported ointments, incense, combs and mirrors were used. Hot and cold baths were used, as were steam rooms, courtesy of the local thermal hot springs.  At this time, cleansing oneself was done completely separately from relieving oneself.  Public toilets were not uncommon in Ancient Rome, where seated or standing space was created over a running stream of water. Often, a separate stream of clean water was used for hand washing.  While most people likely didn’t understand why, there seemed to be an instinctive understanding that it was important to keep the different water usages separate.

Keeping Clean Throughout History

Throughout history, the importance of personal washing has waxed and waned. The production of soap during the Middle Ages tells us that washing was still considered important. According to author Lawrence Wright in his seminal book “Clean and Decent” (1960), there were “curtesye books” available with instructions on self-improvement which instructed on the importance of clean fingernails, hands, teeth and face.  During the Renaissance, water was feared to be a carrier of disease. And it certainly can be if mixed with sewage. And so, while clean hands and fingernails were still valued, many used as little water as possible above the wrist, favoring sweat baths and heavy perfumes instead. 

Clean Hands and the Evolution of the Sink

Clean hands have long been important in both social and religious terms. Religions the world over feature the ceremonial washing of the hands before or during services or rituals. Dirty hands are a metaphor for guilt or misdeed and poverty. Commonly used for hand washing in private homes, at meals and in religious ceremonies are simple pitchers or ewers and bowls. A standard show of respect for a person of importance was to have servants greet them at the door with two bowls, clean water and towels in order for them to wash their hands. Today’s vessel sinks and finger bowls used at formal dinners hearken back to the old days of the pitcher and bowl commonly used for centuries from the Middle Ages through the late 19th century.

Indoor Plumbing

As public, and private, bathing became less common starting during the Renaissance, what little full body cleansing was taking place was more commonly done in private, which laid the groundwork for modern bathroom we know today. Of course, the colder climates of Northern Europe and North America didn’t foster a strong desire for regular cold water bathing either and heated water came at a premium.

The first recorded use of an indoor “necessary” was one invented by Sir John Harington in 1596 for his mother, Queen Elizabeth I. While the Queen did in fact use the room, Sir John was ridiculed for his invention and he never made another. It wasn’t until the 18th century with developments in plumbing such as the development of the s-trap and the two-valve version that the indoor use of a toilet began to take hold.  In America, the National Public Health Act of 1848 created a plumbing code for the US. Many bigger city homes, especially those of the more affluent, began to feature toilets, bathtubs and sinks. The standard bathroom as we know it had come into being. 

Old is New Again

In a sense, what is old is new again. Susan Serra, CKD (Certified Kitchen Designer), of Susan Serra Associates, a well known design firm of high-end kitchens and bathrooms, said, “Our American society's recent back-to-basics movement is connected to a desire for primitive sensations which calm the soul such as warm water, soft colors and textures, simple shapes and forms as seen recently in single carved tubs made of marble, rainfall shower heads and vessel sinks. Inspired by those in antiquity, all are connected to what is called ‘the spa bath’ in our current times.” 

Stand-alone cast iron clawfoot bathtubs were the standard of the day in the late 19th and early 20th century, eventually to be substantially replaced by built-in apron front versions. Today however, some of the most beautiful and elegant bathrooms are featuring stand-alone tubs for their beautiful and sculptural designs. The Victorian-era fear of bacteria and bugs led to the privy closet to be out of doors, even if it featured a flush toilet. Today, it is common for larger master bathrooms to have a separate toilet closet. Obviously, this is less about fear of illness and more about privacy and once again, the elevation of the bath-taking and cleansing ritual to high art. Multi-person showers and Jacuzzis are reminiscent of the social aspect of the Roman baths. The bathroom sink has taken on prime position in bathrooms of all sizes and configurations. From the days of the ewer and pitcher to today’s sleek vessel bathroom sinks with faucets, the ability to wash just the hands, face and teeth remains paramount.

A bathroom can be fancy or it can be plain; it can be expensive or budget. As long as it has a bath or shower, a toilet and a sink and free flowing running water, the bathroom will always be the single most important room in any home or building. Says Serra, “The recent desire for a ‘spa experience’ in the bathroom brings, full circle, an appreciation for the simple pleasures of the bath.”

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