There were house plans in the 1850’s that showed bathrooms. There were plans in the 1890’s that showed none. Some of the earlier rooms labeled bathrooms had running water and tubs and perhaps even toilets, others were just rooms in which one could bathe if one placed a tin bathing tub within it.
By the turn of the 19th c at least 17 American cities had experimented with water supply systems. Philadelphia, the largest city in the US at the time, commissioned Benjamin Latrobe to build a steam powered waterworks. It opened in 1801, but it was plagued with problems and replaced by a new system in 1815. Boston embarked on a water supply system in 1846, and was soon supplying over 11,000 households with running water “for all domestic purposes, including private baths and water closets” according to an almanac of 1850. In 1860 Boston had 3,910 bathtubs and 9,864 water closets, for a population of 178,000. An interesting point is that even if your house was supplied by public water, it didn’t necessarily mean you had running water in the house. Some had hydrants in their yards and brought the water indoors by the bucketful.
In the 1850’s the water closet was expensive to install and imperfect in its workings, thus there weren’t very many in use. The bathroom of 1900, however would be pretty familiar to all of us.
In 1799 Elizabeth Drinker wrote in her journal that she had taken a shower bath, and that it was the first time she had been wet all over in 28 years. By 1836 it was advised that a young lady should wash herself completely with soap and water every 24 hours so as not to offend. Godey’s Lady’s Book , was advising readers in 1860 that bathing at night was ill advised, while bathing briefly in the morning once a week was fine. Before the 19th century, and even well into it, people washed themselves with water and a sponge when they felt they needed it. This final point was a matter of personal choice. Some felt they needed a washing every day, some once a week, or once a month or once every few years or so. At that, they didn’t use soap. Soap was for laundry. Soap for bathing wasn’t commonly used till the second half of the 19th c.
Before the use of bathrooms, bathing was often done in the kitchen, close to the hot water, and usually the warmest room in the house. Bathtubs often came under the heading of kitchen equipment.
The contraption on the wall by the door was for bathing. The sides slope down to the center basin to catch the water that was poured over the bather.
Another technological advancement that advanced the use of the bathtub, in addition to the increased amounts of public water systems was the attic cistern. It was filled by rainwater or by pumping water up from a well or spring. Gravity would then take over to provide running water to any room in the house.
Showers were generally used only by men. Elizabeth Drinker’s husband and sons had been using the shower for a year before she agreed to give it a try. Women were considered the weaker sex, delicate and fragile compared to men. The streams of water were widely felt to be harmful to women. Home décor authority Charles E. White wrote in 1914 that "……some constitutions cannot stand the rigors of shower bathing, a practice which should be resorted to only under the advice of a physician." Until well into the 1930’s few women showered, so there were few showers within the home. People bathed. Of course, there were households that didn’t mind paying extra to get a shower installed.
an example of one kind of Victorian shower, fill the can first.
the rest of the tiny bathroom
This is an example of a bathroom that was merely a cubby off the upstairs hall, in which a gentleman could have a very quick shower and a shave.
by the way, here's the commode in the same house
Following is a segment on the bath from the book Manners, Culture and Dress, published in 1890.
In most of our houses in the city there is a separate bath room with hot and cold water, but country houses are not always so arranged. A substitute for the bath-room is a large piece of oilcloth, which can be laid upon the floor of the ordinary dressing-room. Upon this may be placed the bath-tub or basin.
There are various kinds of baths, both hot and cold, the douche, the shower-bath, the hip-bath and the sponge-bath.
We do not bathe to make ourselves clean; but to keep clean, and for the sake of its health-giving and invigorating effects. Once a week a warm bath, at about 100°, may be used, with plenty of soap, in order to thoroughly cleanse the pores of the skin.
A douche or hip-bath may be taken every morning, winter and summer, with the temperature of the water suited to the endurance of the individual. In summer a second or sponge-bath may be taken on retiring.
Only the most vigorous constitutions can endure the shower-bath, therefore it cannot be recommended for indiscriminate use.
After these baths a rough towel should be vigorously used, not only to help remove the impurities of the skin, but for the beneficial friction which will send a glow oyer the whole body. The hair glove or flesh-brush may be used to advantage in the bath before applying the towel.
Before stepping into the bath the head should be wet with cold water, and in the bath the pit of the stomach should first be sponged.
There is no danger to most people from taking a bath in a state of ordinary perspiration. But one should by all means avoid it if fatigued or overheated.
Next in importance to the water-bath is the air bath. Nothing is so conducive to health as an exposure of the body to air and sun. A French physician has recommended the sun-bath as a desirable hygienic practice. It is well, therefore, to remain without clothing for some little time after bathing, performing such duties of the toilet as can be done in that condition.