Mar 7, 2018 | by Ellen Dial
It’s a beautiful day here in central Indiana, after a depressing week of drear and rain, chilly temps and the growth of nearly fantastical pot-holes on our roads. I’ve never seem them this bad!
But these spring-teaser days and the Biblically proportioned pot holes peppering our pavement isn’t what this little story is about…. It’s about keeping it clean. Bathing. Shower bathing – and the special, though now mainly obscure, fixtures our good friends back in the way back used to perform this most necessary of functions. No, not necessarily how frequently, I’ve covered this before here.
I’ve always had a fascination with bathrooms. Not sure why – perhaps because, trying to live a more sensible, vintage hygiene life aside, I love to shower. Love. It. Taking a bath? Not so much. But a good, hot shower is heaven to this vintage maven. The hot water. Lovely smelling shower gel (love gels from Lush and the Body Shop -both natural producers). The steamy warmth. Add into the mix some classical music and perch a glass of Cotes de Rhône on the edge of the tub – there’s an amazing evening to be had- go until there’s no more hot water.
So what fixtures were created to help Great-great Aunt Carrie give up the funk?
Prime your hot water geyser and prep your needle shower – let’s look at obscure bathroom fixtures of times gone by – shall we?
Vintage Funk Two | It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Cruise over the Pinterests (one of my fave time sucks!) and check out the examples of late Victorian and Edwardian bathrooms – primarily of the very affluent, since it wasn’t until the 1920-1930’s that some in more rural areas and those of a lower social class even had running water. They are amazing jungles of commodes, tubs and fancy wood work – even wicker chair looking toilets. All very prim and proper. The real purpose was camouflaged.
What ARE those strange little tubs that are lined up like little soldiers along the wall? Well, they had very specialized uses. Two are strange, but one most of us can recognize and perhaps have even used – the bidet.
More common in Europe and the Middle East, the bidet is used to keep one’s…er…neighborhood clean and fresh. Instead of a full bath or after, well, the use of the toilet, one would just take advantage of the bidet. Give everything a good rinse and you’re good to go. A clean machine, as it were.
So, what about the small tub that can look almost like a tuna can mated with a recliner? Well my vintage friends, that’s a sitz bath. Continuing with the concept of the bidet, the sitz was utilized to well, keep your neighborhood clean as well – but a little more intensive than a rinse and go thing (or go and rinse). Since “back then” toilet paper wasn’t as well, effective, as it is now (Americans use more toilet paper than any other country in the world… what exactly does that say about us?), feminine hygiene wasn’t great AND diets weren’t roughage-rich, piles were a bit more common. They would fill the sitz about 1/3 full and many times add soothing preparations to the water. And just, well, sit and soak. Sounds a little chilly, perhaps? A sitz bath used much less water than a full immersion bath – so it was environmentally sensible! You go Edwardians! I too noticed the focus on one’s neighborhood.
Vintage Funk Two | One Feet, Two Feet, Dirty Feet, Clean Feet
That funny squat and shallow tub? For your feet. Your. Feet. So, I guess, like a clean neighborhood, clean feet were important, too. Well, if you didn’t bathe every single day and sometimes twice in a day, one’s dogs might get a tick ripe. Add to that they almost ALWAYS wore footwear, even at home, even to swim.
Yes, your feet stunk.
The foot bath, of course, wasn’t just for feet. Filling this little, squat tub used less water and made for an efficient sponging after a long day of robber baron activity. The shallow tub was filled about half way and one would employ jugs of water and a sponge to rinse away the day and of course, soak one’s feet. Neat as you please, no puddles of water on the floor. Very nice. Ready to join the missus for a protein infused meal (see piles), a glass of whisky and a hand-rolled cigar.
Vintage Funk Two | A Good Needling
But wait – all this talk of tubs and neighborhoods and feet! What about my beloved shower? Were they a thing?
Perhaps, the well-heeled used showers for health reasons. These impressive fixtures were primarily used by men, women only showered on the advice of a physician. Really. They were amazing cage-like contraptions and typically separate from the bathtub. Water temperature was maintained with a thermostat, like todays showers and were VERY expensive, indeed.
Thin, needle-like jets of water focused upon one’s kidneys, liver and chest – all for good health and the improvement of one’s circulation. Hence called “chest showers” or “needle showers”. Be healthy! Take a shower! But only if you’re a guy.
So specific! Not really used for cleanliness, weird, right?
Side note – interesting bathroom fixtures weren’t just a late Victorian thing! Back when running water and bathrooms became more common, there was usually only one. Even for large families! So in the 1930’s a specialized little sink was born. A dental sink. Usually placed on the wall close to the main sink, these precious little porcelain vessels boasted a cold water tap and were used to, well, brush one’s teeth. It kept the main sink free for washing and shaving, also, the action of brushing one’s teeth was thought to fling germs all over the place (so does flushing the toilet and showering, but I digress), so the dental sink kept the bath more hygienic. They never totally caught on and fell out of favor in the 60’s – but you don’t you just love the example in that fabulous pink bath?
Our obsession with cleanliness bore some interesting and very specialized fixtures over the years. It’s hard to believe that some areas didn’t have RUNNING WATER until the 1930’s. You had a Model T and electricity (most times), but no flushing toilet.
Even though many of us would jump at the chance to take a time machine back – we do so love our mod-cons and would be lost without them – OK, not lost, maybe just a bit disgusted and perhaps amused. To our darling readers – did or do your homes have any interesting bathroom fixtures? If yes, what? Do you remember dental sinks?
The writer would like to thank: vivaciousvictorian.com, apartmenttherapy.com, oldhouseonline.com and thebathbusiness.wordpress.com. As well as those who post their images freely on the internet.