Enamel cookware, dishes and candlestick, a black stove with a flat iron and skillet on top, a nice old wooden high chair – nothing too surprising for a 1930-ish kitchen. But if you live in an English-speaking country, there may be things in this German kitchen that seem slightly, or very, unfamiliar.
Do you recognise the little shelf on the left-hand wall with three pots of sand, soda and soap: a characteristic German way of organising cleaning materials in the early 20th century? Nearby is a “modern” touch: an electric outlet. (The wooden apparatus next to it is a puzzle. Could it be glass-making equipment from the workshop on the other side of the wall? Please tell us below if you know.)
The coffee mill on the wall has a glass cup to catch the ground coffee and a jar above the grinder to store the roasted beans. This type was used in other European countries too – but not in Britain, where you were far more likely to see a tea caddy than a coffee mill. There was a variety of wall mills in the US, another coffee-drinking country.
There’s a mould hanging on the wall for baking ring cakes. If you’re American you’ll call this a Bundt pan, but they were uncommon in the USA of the 1930s. In Germany and Austria Kranzform (wreath-shape) pans for baking Bundkuchen aka Gugelhupfer have been known for 300 years: ceramic, copper, or iron before the days of enamelled steel or aluminium.
Just to the right of the cake pan is a collection of long-handled utensils. At first glance you may think it’s just a set of spoons and spatulas, but these are slightly different. The meat tenderiser in a poor household surely reflects a “schnitzel-oriented” style of cooking, and would not have been owned by a working-class family in England, for example.
And then there are four quirls. Three of them haven’t changed much from when they were part of a tree. Quirl is often translated as whisk but that could be misleading. These are wooden beating and mixing implements and are not used for whisking up snowy peaks of egg-white or cream. German-speaking households would have a schneebesen (snow-broom) for that, a wire whisk, if they didn’t have an electric or hand rotary beater.
A quirl is essential for making some kinds of traditional dumpling! It can also be used for mashing potatoes, making doughy or porridgy mixtures, stirring liquids, and it’s handy for other things too. You can make one from your Christmas tree when the seasonal festivities are over. Quirl means a “whorl” on a plant.
German kitchens used to have a decorative shelf with a set of pots, neat and tidy, filled with three essentials for a clean home: soap, sand, and soda. Although English-speaking countries never had a special storage unit like this, and didn’t think of the “three esses” as a trio, they also made much use of sand and soda as well as soap.
Antique wall-hung shelves with their three containers appeal to collectors in the USA, not just parts of Europe. The most attractive to me are the ones ornamented in folk art style with full-petalled pink roses and curving outlines. Traditional German lettering adds character too.
They all seem to be made of enamelled sheet metal and belong to the first half of the 20th century, or possibly the late 19th too – the heyday of enamelware. If you know when these first came into use please do add a comment. The early 20th/late 19th century dates would match with cleaning and washing methods in that period.
Washing soda in the late 19th century was factory-made and quite affordable. Among other things, it helps with laundry and with taking out stains from wood, and is simple enough to be seen today as a “green” product. Soap, like soda, was quite plentiful by 1900, not too expensive, and was available in powder or flakes suitable for filling a nice enamel pot.
Sand had been a basic cleaning agent for centuries: for scrubbing floors, scouring iron cooking pots, and much more. This is easier to remember in German-speaking countries where the word Scheuersand, meaning scouring sand, is still recognised. Fine sand for cleaning gradually morphed into white abrasive cleaning powders with hygienic-smelling chemicals. There was an intermediate stage with sand and soda scouring mixes. One brand of “sand”, ATA, was remembered with nostalgia by some older people from former East Germany, after it vanished around 1989.
Household advice books from 100 years ago tell us about using the three esses. There’s one in German that recommends mixing soda and sand for cleaning wood – no soap as that makes wood look grey. Use all three for metal utensils but be sparing with the sand or you will damage tinned surfaces. Enamel is best cleaned with a soap and soda mixture, after soaking.
Or you can buy some detergent at the supermarket…..
Hand-operated rotary egg beaters were invented just before 1860, but at that time it wasn’t yet clear what the best design for the job would be. Different inventors had different ideas for labour-saving ways of whisking eggs. The first beaters with rotating parts were probably an American design patented in 1856 (below right) and, in England, Griffiths’ Whisk patented 1857 (below left). A very different “egg-beater” invented in 1849 is illustrated near the bottom of the page.
Rotating beaters with a handle were always going to work best, but they came in different forms. Some early ones were fixed inside a pot, and couldn’t be used with the cook’s own choice of mixing bowl. Some were developed by the same inventors who designed small hand-cranked butter churns.
By the 1880s, mechanical egg beaters were usually the shape we know now. In the US they were called Dover egg beaters after being popularised by the Dover Stamping Company. The company acquired patents from a series of inventors, starting with the Monroe egg beater (below right), patented in the US in 1859. This design got a UK patent soon after and was manufactured in London by George Kent who also marketed the Griffiths model.
Some inventors focused on whipping egg whites and emphasised how much air they could get into the mix. Others wrote about batter and other mixtures as well as eggs.
Eggs prepared by beating are thoroughly charged with atmospheric air… (Collier patent, 1856)
Who used the new egg beaters?
The 1856 patent, like others after it, said how useful the new invention would be for hotels and restaurants as well as for ordinary households hoping to speed up a “laborious and fatiguing operation”. But some people may have been influenced against the new egg beaters by cookery experts who didn’t think highly of new-fangled devices.
…beat…with the proper stroke, and with wooden rods, and in a shallow, flat-bottomed earthen[ware] pan. The coldness of a tin pan retards the lightness of the eggs. For the same reason do not use a metal egg-beater…..put…the egg-beater always down to the bottom of the pan…Continue till the surface is smooth as a mirror, and the beaten egg as thick as a rich boiled custard… (Eliza Leslie, The Lady’s Receipt-Book, 1847)*
However, by the 1890s The “Dover” egg beater was well-established in the US and was often mentioned in recipes and ads. In the 20 years between 1870 and 1890 Dover made 4 million egg beaters. Almost all were “family size” but they also sold 1000 “hotel size” and 10,000 “extra family size”.**
There’s less evidence of rotary beaters getting a firm grip in Victorian Britain, although some people certainly used them. With no well-known brand like Dover, they were advertised as “one-minute” or “ten-second” beaters, or with fanciful names like Biatrope or Archimedian. Advice on cooking and equipping kitchens mostly assumed an ordinary wire whisk would be just fine. Rotary hand mixers seem to have been even less popular in continental Europe.
To clamp or not to clamp?
Holding the beater by screwing it onto something fixed seems like a good idea, rather like an electric mixer set firm on a stand. The Monroes’ clamp was part of the original design, but you do wonder how it would work in an ordinary kitchen. Was the bowl held below a table? In 1859 a UK business demonstrated an “egg whisk, fitted with arrangement for screwing to table”.
The later 1800s saw numerous US patents for original clamping devices, presumably trying to improve on what we may call a “normal” clamp. But how many people really used egg beaters like this? Not many have survived. Most antique egg beaters are clamp-free.
Perhaps a hand egg beater is more versatile without a screw fitting? Perhaps the clamp has to be solid and strong to be effective? But then it would be more nuisance for washing and storing. The advertising I’ve seen doesn’t mention clamps.
EGG-BEATER: We have tried five different kinds in Boston, before a large audience and on the demand of an inventor of one, but none could beat eggs as well as a common hand-beater. The whites of the eggs could not be raised with any of the others much more than half as much as with the common one; and besides, could not be beaten stiff……Any tinsmith can make an egg-beater. It is generally made with tin-wire, but may be made with brass-wire.
1867, Handbook of Practical Cookery, Pierre Blot
Drinking strong coffee made in a small pot called a briki, ibrik, cezve or rakwa, has become quite popular in English-speaking countries in the last few years. If you have an old briki – from an antique shop, relative’s attic, or an old souvenir – you may wonder if you can put it on the kitchen stove and prepare intense, concentrated coffee in the Greek or Turkish style.
If it’s a copper briki – and many are – you must check the inside. An unscratched tin lining is important for both taste and health reasons. Copper can give a nasty metallic taste to coffee. Even if it tastes OK, there’s a question mark over the safety of unlined copper cookware, especially for acidic drinks and foodstuffs. Using copper for cooking could lead to toxic levels in the body. Brass contains copper so it can’t be seen as a safe alternative.
You should be able to find a tin re-lining service if you want to get a vintage briki back in use, but be aware that having copper cookware re-lined is not cheap. Try to estimate the surface in square inches or centimetres before asking about price.
Making Greek or Turkish coffee
To prepare coffee in any briki, start with Greek or Turkish roast beans ground to a fine powder. You can buy a traditional spice mill to grind the beans by hand if you want to do it the old-fashioned way. Otherwise buy the coffee ready-prepared or use an electric mill or food processor. It’s possible to buy Greek coffees with special flavouring – like rose petal – but this is not for everyone.
Use at least a teaspoon of coffee, an optional teaspoon of sugar, and about 3oz (85g) of water per person and heat the mixture till it boils and froths. Many cooks like to remove the coffee from the heat, stir it, then boil it once or twice more. Pour or spoon out the froth (kaimaki “cream”) so everyone gets some in their demitasse cups. Next share out the liquid, trying to leave the coffee sediment in the briki. Sip slowly, hoping any grounds will stay settled at the bottom of the cup. Do not stir!
Other names for the briki include the Turkish cezve, and ibrik, a word related to briki. Brikia is the Greek plural, but ‘brikis’ sounds more natural to English speakers. Arabic speakers may say raqwa, rakweh or similar. Whatever the pot is called, coffee is made this way in many countries around the eastern Mediterranean.
The Asbestos Sad Iron design really did use asbestos. It was under the handle, inside a “hood” or cover that fitted over a heated “core”. It “bottled up” the heat, said an ad, so it was all channeled through the hot solid steel surface that pressed the clothes smooth. No heat rose upward to bother the woman ironing. The handle stayed 15 degrees cooler than blood temperature, claimed the Dover Manufacturing Company in early 1900s USA, and the cores needed reheating less often than other flat irons. This brand flourished just before electric irons helped bring cooler, less fatiguing ironing days.
Hot iron, cold handle
The main selling point was the cool handle on a hot iron. A 1906 ad explains this, and more:
The Asbestos Sad Iron handle…is attached to a steel shield, separated by an air space from the hood, thus preventing any conduction of heat to the hand. The asbestos lined cover, when placed over the throroughly heated iron, shuts in the heat. … An air chamber between the core and hood serves as a non-conductor of heat and also as a heat reservoir…
Is your comfort a consideration? If it is, this feature alone is sufficient to induce you to purchase an Asbestos Sad Iron Equipment…The elegant polish…is not intended for the sake of appearance only – but for the sake of making possible handsome work… All metal parts are substantially coated in nickel that won’t peel off … smoothness and polish of a mirror… glide over the most delicate fabrics…
No more handsome and useful wedding or anniversary gift can be found than the “Asbestos French Cabinet”. [boxed set]
Sets and specialist irons
The most-advertised Asbestos Sad Iron product was a “Laundry set” with 3 cores, hood, and stand, usually retailing at $2. In fact there were three types of Laundry set, one with extended pressing surfaces on the bottom of the cores. You could also choose from these:
Household set – 5 irons
Family cabinet – most expensive
And for travellers:
Tourist iron, small, only 35¢
Tourist flounce iron
You could also buy extra cores or hoods individually.
Manufacturers, patents, inventors and businessmen: Tverdahl, Johnson-Vea, Clark, Chalfant
In 1893 two men of Norwegian ancestry went into the sad iron manufacturing business in Stoughton, Wisconsin. Charles T. Johnson-Vea, who was not quite 30, had an entrepreneurial spirit, and Ole Tverdahl, in his early 40s, was an inventor. The Tverdahl-Johnson Company’s first patent was based on an idea of Ole’s wife Mathilde, but it had no sign of the asbestos iron that would be well-known in a few years.
Then another Stoughton resident, Dr Lorenzo.D. Clark, gave Johnson-Vea (aka Johnson) his idea for an iron with an asbestos layer and air pocket between the handle and the hot part, along with a crude model he had made. An improved version was produced and marketed. By 1898 Tverdahl-Johnson had more than 40 employees. Charlie Johnson wanted to expand further. He especially wanted better access to markets in the eastern US. In 1900 he moved the company 500 miles east to Canal Dover, Ohio, found extra capital investment, and became director of the Dover Manufacturing Company.
This was the only “exclusive sadiron concern” in the world, in touch with “the housewife’s ironing problems”, according to Johnson. Within a few years it employed more than 200 men and sold 300,000 to 500,000 items annually. Johnson was learning a lot about pricing, retailers, advertising and so on. Newspaper ads were everywhere. Stores hosted demonstrations. The Asbestos Sad Iron was produced in different sizes, and packaged in different sets. Profit for the manufacturer was 5-8 cents per set.
Patenting was difficult and expensive. Johnson spent two to three thousand dollars on lawyers and travel over several years before he was confident that Dover’s manufacturing rights were protected. The important Clark-Johnson patent came through in 1900, Tverdahl got a patent for a locking mechanism in 1903, and other patents followed. I don’t know if their problems had any connection with an earlier patent granted to Isaac P. Chalfant of the Chalfant Manufacturing Co. He seems to have been the first person in the US to patent an iron with asbestos lining under the handle, back in 1878.
New irons of this kind were fading in the USA by about 1920, though they were still being exported to New Zealand in that year.
A sad iron (or sadiron) is an alternative name for a flat iron. Here the word “sad” means “solid” and it may suggest a weighty iron with a thick base. Read more about the history of irons and ironing here.
Do you have a bidet in your bathroom? It’s always been a difference between English-speaking countries and France. Bidets have never quite caught on in the USA or the UK, except for an occasional “trend” that never really went very far. Some upper class ladies in 19th century England had French-made bidets, and in the 1980s British sanitaryware retailers started stocking bidets.
But in France there’s a bidet in every bathroom, isn’t there? Not any more. In recent years the bidet has been disappearing from new French bathrooms. Only 40% had bidets included in the mid-1990s, as compared with 95% in the 1970s, according to the authors of a French book on the history of the bidet.† In 1995 Italy produced 15 times as many bidets as France.
Bidet-style arrrangements for personal hygiene are not limited to Europe. Arabic-speaking countries use them, and Japan is a leading producer of high-tech bidet/toilet combinations (also called washlets), with jets of water washing after you flush, and warm air following on. This type is used in nursing homes.
In France beautful bowls set into elegant seats were fashionable with the upper classes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Napoleon’s will left his silver-gilt bidet to his son. A 1751 rosewood-veneered bidet of Madame de Pompadour’s is preserved at Versailles near Paris. The basin in hers is decorative like this slightly later floral earthenware one.
That last link and the first picture on this page show the curving shape of the antique bowls. This shape explains why the bidet once had nicknames like violin-case or little guitar. Originally the word bidet itself referred to the wooden furniture originally used for holding the bowl, and meant pony.
Debates about who invented the bidet are not likely to be settled any time soon. The French or the Italians? After all, who can say when someone first set a basin of water on a stand at a convenient height for washing the more private parts of the body?
The earliest written information we have about bidets comes fom a Paris cabinet-maker whose business literature in 1739 offered bidets designed with backs and hinged lids. Rémy Peverie also suggested the possibility of making two-person bidets for his aristocratic clients. Now there’s an idea that didn’t catch on – as far as I know.
Why did Cornishware appeal to people in its early days? Now we think of it as a British “design classic”, collected above all for its distinctive broad blue and white stripes, the core pattern of the original TG Green Cornish Kitchen Ware range. Some collectors also like less common variations: black stripes, or a storage jar lettered with the name of a retro cooking ingredient.
The blue and white banding has always been the most popular design. Did it really suggest white-crested waves under a blue sky to its early customers, as the company now believes? Cornish seascapes inspired the brand name, but people often associated it more with cottage and farm kitchens than with the wide open sea.
In 1932 the Manchester Guardian wrote about “Cornish farmhouse-ware, with its bold blue lines and white background”. A few years later one of its writers said you might get some at a “cottage sale” or “the village store”.
Cornishware was available in Canada in its early years, and there too it seemed like homey kind of stuff. When a new batch arrived in British Columbia after the second world war, an ad in the Vancouver Sun called it “lovely wholesome famous blue and white ware”.
In 1957 a New York store offered “peasant-type Cornishware earthenware, cherished for its rugged good looks.” It still had a pleasantly down-to-earth image for a New Yorker writer twenty years later:
… nice English Cornishware whose wide blue and off-white horizontal stripes have such an air of cheerful comfortableness …
Was it always intended to have a folksy appeal, for people wanting to make their kitchen or breakfast table look cosy and rural? Maybe not. The colour was originally called electric blue, or “e blue”, which sounds more contemporary than rustic. And Catherine McDermott, professor of design, links the style to Modernism as well as to farmhouses and dairies:
Cornishware’s distinctive blue and white bands owe something to the Continental development of well- designed, mass-produced Modernist tableware at this time.
So how do you react? Does Cornishware make you think of ocean waves, wholesome farm kitchens, or modernist electric blue?
I haven’t tried to distinguish between genuine TG Green Cornishware and imitations here, with the main focus on discussing the way people feel about the Cornish Blue style.
One 1930 ad offered a Cornish Ware tangerine-and-white version which I haven’t come across elsewhere. Orange was available at some point, but was it made by TG Green in 1930?
…It’s available now in green-and-white or tangerine-and-white, as well as in the blue-and-white that everybody likes. The whole range is reduced for this event – plates, basins, store-jars, everything, as an example, you can have a sturdy two-pint milk jug for 2/9 Ad for Lewis’s Household Bargains Event, Feb 1930, Manchester Guardian
A hundred years ago a woman going out in the cold of winter could tuck a miniature hot water bottle inside her fur muff to keep her hands warm: like Maw’s Dainty Muff Warmer in the photo. This kind of hand warmer was on sale in late Victorian and Edwardian England.
The Thermos Hot-water Muff Warmer is a delightful little invention which is sure to be appreciated by my readers. Ada Ballin, Womanhood, 1904
Poorer people had to find simpler ways of coping with a cold journey: heated stones or potatoes in a pocket, perhaps.
Ma slipped piping hot baked potatoes into their pockets to keep their fingers warm, Aunt Eliza’s flatirons were hot on the stove, ready to put at their feet in the sled. The blankets and the quilts and the buffalo robes were warmed, … Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods (story of the early 1870s in Wisconsin)
The branded stoneware muff warmer was a new take on elegant ceramic or silver hand warmers that ladies’ maids filled when their mistress was about to set out on a cold carriage ride or walk. With carrying strings and tight stoppers, and optional fabric cover, these were clearly designed for people going out from home.
Hand warmers indoors
Hands could be cold indoors too. Plenty of people made good use of a hand warmer in a room or workshop with neither fireplace nor stove. Most parts of Europe had a variety of portable warmth providers, from silver braziers to ceramic novelties to heat-retaining bricks.
An earthenware pot with glowing charcoal was a common source of portable heat. It might be put on the floor, used as local heating or as a foot warmer, but it could also be raised up to warm someone’s hands -as in the picture. At night it could be used in a bed wagon.
Portable containers for hot water or glowing embers are sometimes called hand warmers even when they are used for more than just cold hands.
Neat little hinged cases with sticks of charcoal inside were in use in Europe by the first world war, when some officers carried pocket warmers. Someone patented a design in the US for a similar case holding heated metal slugs but I don’t know if these were ever made. There were also tubes to hold charcoal rods.
One of the newest inventions for winter comfort is a small hand warmer consisting of a hollow cylinder of fiber. A small pencil of heated charcoal is inserted through one end. The device will keep warm … for two hours. Popular Science, USA, 1924
Chinese & Japanese handwarmers
You can’t really discuss antique handwarmers without mentioning the traditions of Eastern Asia.
Japanese homes might offer guests a small roundish ceramic pot with fuel in to warm their hands. Called a te-aburi , it could be used by an individual at the same time as a hibachi brazier big enough for a whole group of people.
Copper or bronze box-shape hand warmers a few inches across, often with carrying handles, were called shou lu in China: convenient, portable, with glowing coals inside. China and Japan had used both metal and ceramic hand warmers for many centuries. The perforations were an attractive part of the design as well as being functional. I like this tiny piece of Chinese pottery for warming 7th century hands.
European travellers in the later 1800s and early 1900s were interested in the little heaters they saw in the Far East. Some people called them “Japanese muff warmers” and recommended them for nursing and medical purposes. One Englishman bought one for his own winter outings and praised the:
…little stoves which the Japanese women put in their sleeves and obi [wide sash]. They are small enough to push up the sleeve of a [European] coat, and…will keep alight for four or five hours. Walter Tyndale, Japan and the Japanese, 1910
These could be lit with a simple paper fuse in 1910, but it was not long before a modern version of the metal “box” hand warmer was introduced to Japan. It was ignited with platinum catalyst technology. The Hakkin hand warmer or kairo, invented in 1923, looks like a cousin of the cigarette lighter, but I like to think it was inspired by its older ancestors.
S. Maw, Son, & Sons
This English company’s Dainty Muff Warmer was by no means an important product. Maw’s had been dealing in surgical and pharmaceutical supplies from 1807 onwards. One of their early earthenware products was an inhaler (from the 1860s or before). By the early 1900s they were making ceramic foot warmers as well as hand warmers, and also baby feeders, toothpaste pots and more. The company name varied over the years. From 1901-1920 they were S. Maw, Son, & Sons of Aldersgate Street, London.
In the late 1940s a Canadian housewife, Joan Colborne,† counted her sock stretchers before tackling a backlog of laundry. She “only” had four pairs and so could not wash more than eight woollen socks at a time. If socks were not stretched out while drying they might shrink.
Stretchers like the ones in the photo were the best way of keeping socks and stockings the right size and shape after laundering. If they had holes all over to help air circulate so much the better. The flat wooden legs, clad in long woolly socks, were hung from outdoor clotheslines or given a place to dry indoors.
Since long socks always used to be called stockings, or hose, these wooden leg shapes were originally called stocking stretchers or airers, but the name sock stretchers was more common by the mid-20th century.
They were used by manufacturers as well as at home: an industrial invention with benefits for people doing domestic chores. Hosiery producers sometimes called them stocking boards.
By the time of World War I stretchers seemed so important for sock care that the Red Cross and other people knitting socks for soldiers sometimes sent stocking stretchers along too.
At Caldwell, under the direction of Mr. Howard D. Thayer, a number of stocking stretchers have been made for the soldiers’ use. (1918 New Jersey School Bulletin)
Sometimes you see metal sock stretchers made of wire. As long as they were truly rust-free they were probably a better design: more air passing through, and no damp, warped wood. A patent in 1875 seems to be claiming inventor’s rights over the idea of using wire for stocking stretchers, while also patenting other new features in “devices for drying and stretching hose”. The patentee, Augustus C. Carey, was described as “the inventor of more than 100 valuable electrical and mechanical devices” in an obituary.
Although stocking stretchers were certainly used in Britain, especially in big households, it seems that they were most popular in North America. After World War II, when a few more sock stretchers were provided to the troops, there was news of socks that would not shrink. American ads stressed that you could now manage without the hassle of using sock stretchers.
Throw away those annoying sock-stretchers — just wash Sarfert Socks in the usual way. They’ll not only keep their knitted size after many washings, but they’ll wear longer and stay soft and pliant as when new. (1947 ad)
DuPont nylon will keep their shape, looks, and smartness for a long, long time. Throw away your sock stretchers too because under normal washing conditions these new Bear Brand honeys won’t shrink, won’t stretch, they’ll always fit. (1949 ad)
Some people still expected sock stretchers to stick around for a long time. In 1948 the Spokane Daily Chronicle published a sceptical column titled Put-up-or-shut-up Policy Issued Against Science?.
As for woolens that won’t shrink, I see that sock stretchers are still being sold… (Henry McLemore)
Well, that journalist was partly wrong, and partly right. Sock stretchers have come back. A few people use them for wet wool hiking socks, and they’re also popular with knitters, who call them sock blockers. A new generation of hand-knitters use sock blockers to shape up newly-knitted socks. Blocking means encouraging pieces of newly hand-knit fabric to take their intended shape: by dampening, pressing, pinning etc. Sock blockers is a 21st century name for the 2-dimensional wooden legs, although knitters have used “blocking” techniques for longer. I found a couple of mentions of sock blockers before the new millennium, but the name really only took off after the year 2000.
The earliest showers were rather like having a pail of water tipped over you from a height. By the 1880s there were some more sophisticated contraptions available. They could be fully integrated with indoor plumbing, and came complete with an array of taps and valves to adjust temperature, water flow, and more. Patent mixers were invented to make sure the water could never be scalding hot. One manufacturer promised their needle shower would not let water go over 98 degrees F (body temperature). Showers were supposed to be invigorating and health-giving, so cool or lukewarm water was considered beneficial.
A needle bath or needle shower directed jets of water all round the torso. Sometimes the water flow could be adjusted, and a particular setting was promoted as a liver shower or bath, supposedly offering a stimulating massage for internal organs. Its energising effects were considered more suitable for men than women. Needle showers were marketed to gentlemen’s athletic clubs as well as private houses. Some people call them cage showers.
A rain bath or shower was an overhead spray coming from a circular head pointing straight down or slightly slanted. Also called a spray bath, it was a desirable fitting for modern, hygienic public baths and hospitals.
Combination showers with a variety of features were promoted by leading manufacturers. Some were decorative as well as cleverly designed. They led to the canopy shower.
Canopy showers or canopy baths built several bathing features into a fine piece of furniture. Designed for bathrooms in well-decorated homes, these were available for the well-heeled buyer in North America and Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The porcelain enamel tub extended upward at one end into a tall curved shower wall, usually with a hood. This impressive bathroom centrepiece could be seven feet high. Many were fitted inside dark polished wood cases; some had ornamental enamelled metal exteriors. Douche and plunge settings were sometimes included. The plunge was a gushing flow of water, not a spray or fine jets. Other features of needle or canopy baths could include a kidney, spinal, or bidet spray, or a special shampoo spray.
UK manufacturers tried to entice wealthy late Victorian customers with a steady supply of new features. As well as all the shower options, you could have fine carving on the canopy bath surround, a curving bath with extra space at the shower end, or an open top “Oriental” bath which avoided any “sense of confinement”. Instead of being enclosed in dark wood, the Oriental model was metal decorated with stencilled friezes, fluted columns, and cornices. Copper and other metal canopies came into vogue, and started to replace the heavy mahogany look.
When did ordinary homes get showers?
Around 1900 these were splendid luxuries for rich people, who often bought them for the supposed health benefits of special kinds of bathing. A lot of routine hygiene depended on washstands and hip baths in the bedroom. But when were showers fitted in middle-class homes? There are plenty of statistics about the percentage of homes in various countries with either a bath or a shower, but very little about showers alone.
The 1920s was when showers began to spread to “normal” homes in the USA, especially new homes, according to many writers.† The pictures at the bottom of the page give a foretaste of this, with US bathroom designers illustrating not-too-lavish bathrooms with showers included. Sears Roebuck was selling showers by 1915. By 1965 a study of one thousand American middle-class homes found that 85% had both a tub and a shower.*
Even though British shower manufacturers and wealthy customers had kept pace with American developments up to WWI, it stopped there. Bathrooms were different on different sides of the Atlantic. Showers appeared in sports clubs and other communal facilities but remained uncommon in private homes in Britain before the 1970s/80s. (Sorry, only anecdotal evidence so far, but I’m pretty sure.)
Many European countries were far slower than the USA to adopt showering at home. Possible reasons include older housing stock without space for showers, and progressive attitudes to new technology in America. Attitudes to hygiene varied from culture to culture. Sweden was one of the first European countries to take home showers to its heart. 1980s studies in Sweden and Minnesota showed that in both places most homes had a shower and a bathtub.‡