DIY and Home Improvement – A brief history of bathrooms

If you grew up in the immediate post-World War II years, then chances are you remember the outside lav. A cold and somewhat uninviting place, whether you had one at home, or simply knew someone that still hadn’t moved their toilet inside, considering how long it took for Britain to master the art of running water in the home it’s remarkable to think that only 70 years ago many of us were still dashing out the backdoor whenever we needed to relieve ourselves.

The story of bathrooms is far more interesting than many would give credit for. Few would guess it was the privy council of Elizabeth I’s reign that invented the flush toilet, for example. On record, there’s no evidence the monarch used it herself, and it’s hard to blame her for being so neglectful, given that without the luxury of a running water supply these technological innovations defined the term ‘well before their time’.

It was only in the mid-19th Century, with a cholera epidemic in London, that one Dr. John Snow began taking the first steps towards revolutionising how we washed, and where. Mapping the locations at which victims succumbed to the disease, he noticed that many were concentrated close to a public water pump at 37 Broad Street. Suggesting that the handle to power the sanitary kit should be removed, once this happened the epidemic stopped immediately.

Somewhat inadvertently, he had managed to prove a correlation between human waste and disease, showing people that sanitation, in particular excrement waste disposal, needed to be located far from drinking water sources. Thus the Metropolitan Water Act was introduced, in the hope of making ‘provision for securing the supply to the metropolis of pure and wholesome water’. The public pumps were replaced with pipes delivering water directly to the home.

It didn’t take long for another revelation to materialise. Architects and homeowners of the day were somewhat confused as to how this new trend should be standardised. In the first days, weeks and months, pipes were being fitting into homes rather haphazardly, with fresh water sent into every bedroom to supply sinks that were now replacing old washstands. Flush toilets themselves were stuck anywhere large enough to house them, usually a closet, hence the ‘water closet’.

Soon this practice proved to be far too expensive for most, and so rather than piping the supply to multiple parts of the house, experts realised it was far simpler, and cheaper, to concentrate on one, specifically designed room. Thus the bathroom was born, a corner of the home that would be spacious enough to boast both toilet and washing facilities like baths and sinks. At first these were lavish and highly decorated, largely due to the fact that early adopters were usually rich, but soon, with the advent of germ theory, they took on a more hospital-like look, with the focus being making them easy to clean and sanitise via tiles or porcelain; not a million miles from what we still have in our homes today.