Having no bathroom was no problem for people with servants. Using your bedroom for bathing was normal in the 1800s. Even if you were rich enough to install indoor plumbing, and enjoyed a bath or shower in a brand new bathroom, you wouldn’t necessarily want to give up the convenience of a commode near your bed, a washstand with warm water supplied by the maid or even a nice hip bath set near to all the bedroom furniture and accessories you used for grooming and dressing. This was especially true in big houses in cold weather. Keeping everything in one warm room was a good idea, or you could use a connecting dressing-room or boudoir, and still avoid unheated hallways.
As well as wardrobes, dressers, vanity tables, mirrors and so on, a 19th century middle or upper class bedroom serving as a bathroom too needed:
Chamber pot or a wooden commode in form of stool or steps, with pot hidden inside.
Washstand with earthenware bowl and accessories
At least one water carrier like can, pitcher, jug etc.
Free-standing wooden towel rail known as a towel horse
Basin for a sponge bath and/or a hip bath
Other things you might have seen include a bidet, a polished wooden clothes horse to hold clothing overnight, soap dishes, and a foot bath.
Bedsteps may have been useful for climbing into high beds, but from the 18th century people wanted them to conceal a “pan”. The same cabinet-making skills used for clever, folding furniture displayed in public parts of the house, like convertible library steps, were also applied to making bedroom steps double up as a seat and toilet.
The bidet here is not much like the modern idea of a bidet, especially as the box top looks as if it only has space for a very shallow pan inside under the lid. Still, the sales catalogue discreetly describes it as “complete”. See something similar in the second bidet photo here.
BIDET…. Amongst cabinet-makers it denotes a small stool with four legs, sometimes fixed, and at others to screw off, to render them more portable. They contain a pan made of tin, and japanned, or are of earthen ware, made for the purpose….
The simple box shaped ones are about 5 inches deep…
Sheraton’s Cabinet Dictionary, 1803
The first three pictures on this page are from England in 1875. The last one is from 1874, showing an American inventor’s idea for making a compact piece of furniture that would hide everything away in a kind of convertible vanity table with mirror and doors. No more need for separate washstand and bedsteps or chamber pot.
My invention relates to that class of toilet cases combining a commode, washing facilities, towel-rack, and other devices for use in a chamber or room; and consists in the hereinafter-described parts, combined and arranged in such a manner that the case may, when not in use, present a neat and compact article, capable of being opened out, in its several parts, for several uses incidental to chamber purposes…
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.
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.‡