Posted by: Fonte Dei Marmi | September 15, 2010

Bathrooms Through The Ages – Victorian Era: 1837 -1901

Read any home design magazine, look at period bathroom showrooms – on or off-line – to create a Victorian bathroom and you are undoubtedly going to be led down the path of:

  • Roll top, in particular, slipper baths.

    A Victorian bathroom

    A Victorian bathroom

  • Lion’s paw or claw and ball feet.
  • Florally, usually blue or pink, decorated sanitary ware
  • High-level cisterns with chain pulls.
  • Ornate wrought-iron washstands.
  • Cradle bath/shower mixers in gold or chrome.

Is this reality or pastiche? What was a Victorian bathroom like?

Well, for the majority there was no such thing as a bathroom. As people flocked to the cities living conditions were cramped and unsanitary. In London, houses were over-crowded, close together with narrow streets between them. Open sewers and drains, originally intended for rainwater, ran down the middle of the street carrying human waste, dead animals and rubbish to the Thames.

The Public Health Act 1848, the death of over 10,000 Londoners between 1853 and 1854 from cholera and the “Great Stink of London” of 1858 forced the Government (who can blame them, they were sitting right next to its source) to commission a new sewerage system to take the waste away from the Thames and off the streets. By 1866 and with thanks to engineer Joseph Bazalgette, most of London was connected to a sewer network, which diverted the foul water to treatment works. However, many houses weren’t connected to the sewer system or piped water until the early 1900’s.

High level Victorian toilet

Toilets

For the working classes the “privy” was one or two toilets shared amongst the inhabitants of a whole street. These were often nothing more than a wooden bench with a hole in it over a brick built ash pit.

Although flush toilets were invented in 1596, they did not become widely adopted because most houses didn’t have a supply of running water. As water supply and sewerage improved the grander of the Victorian homes featured elaborate embossed and decorated toilets made by Thomas Twyford, Josiah Wedgewood, Thomas Crapper and John Shanks. The earlier cisterns were at high-level supported on cast iron brackets with a china or wooden pull on a chain. Some were a copper or tin tank enclosed by an oak or mahogany box, some cast iron but usually, enamelled porcelain. By the late 1880’s improved siphonic flush pans allowed the cistern height to be reduced to just above the pan. The materials used for the cisterns were much the same, some of vitreous china but rarely as highly decorated as their predecessors. Toilet seats were oak or mahogany.

Baths

Until the mid to late 19th Century, even for the upper and middle classes, the bath was made of copper or tin. It was a portable affair used in the kitchen of most Tin bathhomes, the bedrooms or dressing rooms of the wealthy. The poor collected water from a street pump which would heated on the fire. The bath was filled and emptied with pails adding more hot water as each member of the household took it in turns to bathe. The rich, had a pumped water supply and servants to carry the heated water from the kitchen.

By the late 1880s, as indoor plumbing with water tanks and gas water heaters became more widely available, houses for the middle classes were built with bathrooms equipped with cast iron full-length baths. Victorian baths were usually regarded as furniture and tended to boxed in. Bathrooms were often wood panelled with hand painted, porcelain tiles.

Victorian washbasin and jugWash Stand and Basins

For the early, wealthy Victorians the wash stand was a piece of bedroom furniture, with heavy ornamentation and white marble tops. Until plumbing became commonplace in the late 1800s/early 1900s a porcelain bowl and jug were the basin and tap.

With the introduction of piped water the washbasin was plumbed in, often set in a floor-standing wooden cabinet or a shallow box supported on legs.

Showers

Without a water supply or heating appliances showers were a rarity in Victorian times. In the latter half of the 19th Century some wealthier people had shower fittings, mounted on a frame over the bath with a manual pump delivering the water.

In reality, bathrooms were not commonplace in the Victorian Era. The conversion of older houses to include bathrooms did not take place until the late 1800s. It was not until the 1900s that all but the smallest houses were built with an upstairs bathroom and toilet. Bathrooms in working-class homes were not commonplace until the 1920s. Many of today’s Victorian houses have been converted or extended to include a bathroom.

A modern day version of a Victorian bathroom is unlikely to match the reality of how it was. Freestanding baths were a necessity and in the majority of cases portable. They had flat bottoms to sit on the floor and unlikely to have ornate, heavy lion’s paw or ball feet. It was not until later, when plumbing was commonplace that the freestanding bath was lifted off the floor with feet to allow for a waste. The Victorians encased their baths and basins in wood to make them items of furniture. There were no mixer taps and showers were uncommon and certainly a separate shower enclosure did not exist. A Victorian bathroom was a luxury enjoyed by only the wealthiest and would not be considered to be energy or water efficient!

This is the first in our ‘Bathrooms through the ages’ series and we will be going back in time to visit other eras over the coming weeks. Next week we travel bang up-to-date with a look at shower enclosures. This will coincide with our event in conjunction with HSK who will be demonstrating some of their products from their show van. For more details and to RSVP to this event see our Facebook page.

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Responses

  1. Hey – you make this stuff sound old! I grew up with baths in the back yard in a tin bath that when not in use hung on a nail in the wall. The toilet was outside the house – an “Earth Closet” was the term.

    Bloggers today! They don’t know they are born!

  2. 🙂 – Great Blog though

  3. Excellent piece, incredibly informative, thank you. We live in what was probably a middle-class, late Victorian house. Some relatively recent inhabitants have put in the “modern Victorian” you mention (claw foot bath, high cistern, etc, etc), and i have often wondered how genuine that really is.


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