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Bathrooms of the Early 20th Century

1924 Crane BathroomFor all intents and purposes the bathroom — with its sink, tub, and toilet — was an invention of the 20th century. Though toilets (aka water-closets) were invented earlier, dedicated rooms for personal hygiene and grooming were almost unheard of except for the very wealthy.

In 1900, a bowl, pitcher, and chamber pot were standard issue in most bedrooms and kept in a small cabinet called a commode. Bathing was a weekly affair on Saturday evening because it was a significant undertaking to heat that much water. Often baths were taken in the kitchen or on the back porch in a large galvanized tub. Family members shared the tub and the water. Everyone went off to bed scrubbed and ready for church in the morning. The outhouse was "the necessary" and usually entailed a short march through the kitchen to the back porch and down the path. Many a young child envisioned spiders and snakes lurking in its dark recesses. Most members of the household were entitled to the comfort of a chamber pot which lived under the bed and was emptied every morning.

At the turn of the century, Science was revealing for the first time to a broader audience a universe of bacteria and other invisible lifeforms. Cleanliness ... always considered a virtue ... was pursued more aggressively. Diseases like cholera and typhoid were known to be related to unsanitary conditions, so modern sewer systems in the cities were implemented as huge sanitation projects. In 1905, home magazines like House Beautiful ran articles on "household bacteriology", which gave scientific explanations for what bacteria were, how they develop, and how to efficiently and ruthlessly eradicate them from one's home.

Companies like Standard Sanitary Manufacturing, with their easy-to-clean porcelain fixtures, were instrumental in bringing the concept of the modern bathroom to the attention of the average American. Formed in 1899 as a merger of several smaller companies, Standard began advertising their porcelain fixtures in home magazines like House Beautiful and Country Life in America. By 1910, house plans in almost all publications generally always showed a bathroom, much as we see them now. Summer cottages and early bungalows often went without, however.

The earliest kit home companies like Sears and Aladdin (from 1908 to 1915 or so), showed bathrooms on the upper-end plans but not necessarily the smaller, or lower-end, homes. Geography also played a role. It was more likely to find bathrooms incorporated into city or close in "suburban" homes, but less likely in rural areas where indoor plumbing remained outdoors until decades later.

By 1920, the majority of new construction included indoor plumbing and at least one full bathroom. By 1930, the shelter magazines often remarked on the need for a second bathroom. Pre-1900 homes were subject to remodeling and bathroom additions even if that meant adding a toilet and sink out on the back porch.

It wasn't until the second quarter of the 20th century that bathrooms as an essential home component really took off with the market for plumbing and fixtures growing by more than 350% from 1929 to 1954.

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