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

Photo credits Siegfried Giedion on Thomas Wagner

The really amazing thing about this standard “bathroom” from 1915 ninety-seven years ago is how much it resembles the standard bathrooms of today. How did it come about and how did we get stuck in such a rut?

Sanitary in front of the interior

Before the flow of water, washing, bathing and emptying were carried out in various places. The washing took place at a vanity in the bedroom with a jug and bowl; The bowel movements took place in the adjoining building or in the chamber pot. When it happened occasionally, bathing was often done in a tub by the stove in the kitchen, where the hot water was. Nothing was repaired in one place (except the outbuilding) because nothing was connected to anything. In Mechanization Takes Command, Sigfried Giedion points out that this was a critical step from nomadic to stable (this happened with furniture a few hundred years earlier).

In England, the first thing they did was just keep doing what they were doing. They wedged the toilet under the stairs or in a cupboard (source of the name of the water closet) and built the sink into the wooden vanity. Earth toilets and chests of drawers had no water connections and were made of wood like furniture; What should a water toilet look like? Wrap it in wood! So, like furniture, all the fancy bathrooms are built out of wood.

Birth of the modern bathroom

At some point someone got the good idea that all this wet stuff should have its own room and they would take a bedroom and remodel it. In England, where only rich people owned houses and could afford bathrooms, they didn’t play around. Giedion writes:

Photo credits Siegfried Gideon on Thomas Wagner

The 1900 bathroom requires a spacious room with multiple windows. The expensive fixtures were set up at a decent distance from one another. The central room was big enough to move around and even exercise.

Nobody really thought about whether all devices should being in a room it just kind of happened because that was what they had.

The credit mechanization takes over the command

In America, a much more egalitarian culture with a lot more new buildings, things were very different. The first bathrooms were sensational in hotels, with the statler in Buffalo having a bathroom in each room that was completely unknown at the time. It makes sense that under such circumstances they were small and, like most modern bathrooms, didn’t even have windows. The hotel bathroom just seems to have set a precedent. Ellen Lupton and J. Albert Miller, in The Bathroom, The Kitchen, and the Aesthetics of Waste, write:

The small size of the standard bathroom reflects the ambivalence that has been used in American culture on body functions and grooming. The bathroom is both the most important and the least important room in the house; It makes up a large percentage of the cost of construction and is used by all residents of a house. However, one of the smallest rooms is granted. It is a private space, but it is made very public due to its shared status. It’s physically clean and yet culturally dirty.

It is also designed by installers and builders who want to minimize costs. Bathroom surfaces are expensive and plumbing is cheaper when you arrange everything in a row. Nobody asks if this is right, healthy, appropriate, or even logical.

Photo credit Lupton & Miller

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

Keep the bathroom what the name means. Eliminate the toilet. Put that in a separate room, even if it’s tiny … the comfort of both rooms will more than double. ”

Unfortunately she was a voice in the wilderness; The plan shown takes up more space, has more wall to complete, will not happen.

Photo credit Kohler, Fixafaucet

The problem with the bathrooms

Finally, after the Second World War, the mechanical engineers and builders convinced the authorities that a mechanical fan could replace a window. Now you have fumes from human waste, toxic cleaners, hairsprays, solvents, and drain cleaners that build up in a tiny little room with a closed door and a twelve-dollar fan that no one turns on.

It’s just stupid, really.

The engineers gave us a water supply and waste disposal system so logic dictated that you should put all of these new things together in one place. Nobody paused seriously to think about the various functions and their needs. They simply took the position that when water comes in and water goes out, everything is pretty much the same and should be in the same room.

But it’s not the same at all.

Bathing is different from “Going # 2”. “Going # 2 ‘is different from peeing. You could say that showering is different from taking a bath and that brushing your teeth is a different thing. But in a typical western bathroom, they all take place in a machine designed by engineers.” was based on sanitation, not human needs, the result is toxic production of contaminated water, questionable air quality and incredible waste.

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