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The Arts & Crafts Bath The First Modern Bathroom

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In the early part of the Arts & Crafts era, the bath was merely a continuation of the Victorian bathroom with its stand-alone claw-foot tub and wall-mounted lavatory sink. It was often a monochromatic room — with a subway tile wainscot, white floor tile, and painted white wood trim.

One difference is that while Victorian baths were often converted from bedrooms and were fairly large, Arts & Crafts baths were purpose-built and tended to be smaller.

A bathroom in the early 1900s was considered a utility area, made as compact as possible preserving space for more important rooms. It was made just as large as it needed to be, and no larger.

By the end of the era, bathrooms were approaching the 5' x 7' dimensions of the minimalist Post-War bath.

As the century moved on, however, baths became increasingly refined, bright, and cheerful spaces, especially after Kohler's introduction in 1927 of fixture sets (bathtub, toilet and sink) in matching colors other than stark white. Crane Plumbing followed shortly thereafter with its suites of fixtures in pastel shades.

The Arts & Crafts Series: Where Are You Now?

Arts & Crafts Architecture: Craftsman, Prairie & Four-square Houses
Arts & Crafts Interiors: The First Comfortable House
Arts & Crafts Kitchens: The Birth of the Modern Kitchen
Recreating the Arts & Crafts Kitchen: Updating Period Design
➛Arts & Crafts Baths: The first Modern Bathroom
Arts & Crafts Resources: An Illustrated Guide to All Things Arts & Crafts

The Vic­tor­ians invented the modern bath with running water, porcelain fixtures, and a flushing toilet.

The Victorian focus on health and sanitation carried over into the Arts & Crafts period. Bathrooms got smaller, but also more efficient and functional, and while no less comfortable, they got a lot safer, as plumbing, electrical, and building codes were repeatedly revised to reduce or eliminate hazards.

Fixtures & Fittings

The Victorians had made improvements nearly constantly so that, by 1910, plumbers had largely eliminated leaking pipes, inadequate waste-pipe venting, and overflowing sinks and toilets.

Durable surface treatments: tile, waterproof paints, and varnishers were well-established by the end of the Victorian era.

The major enhancements during the Arts & Crafts years were in plumbing fixtures and fittings. The alcove tub, chrome finishes, the low-tank siphon toilet, and improved showers, present and accounted for in the modern bathroom, were all creatures of the period.

Some common hazards, however, were not completely solved until the modern era. Non-slip surfaces, for example, were still in their infancy, and slip-and-fall accidents were more than three times more prevalent than they are today. Ground faucet interrupter circuits (GFCI) had not yet been invented, and the combination of water and unchecked electricity still caused thousands of injuries and deaths each year.

Generally, however, by the end of the Arts & Crafts period, the modern bathroom had been created. The only major feature that has been added since is powered ventilation.

Fixtures

Most of the classic designs in plumbing fixtures still in use today were introduced in the first three decades of the 20th century.

White and off-white, the "sanitary colors", were almost universal until the late 1920s when pastel sanitary fixtures designed by noted industrial designer, Henry Dreyfuss, were introduced by Crane Co..

The new colors led to design experimentations encouraged by advertising and "idea books" of the period. Fewer white fixtures were installed, but white still dominated and continues to be the most common fixture color yet today.

The new fixture colors, including turquoise, peach lemon-lemon, and hot pink, were to become closely associated with post-war modernism in hundreds of thousands of Cape Cod and post-war Colonial houses.

How­e­ver, most of these "Re­tro" bathroom colors actually originated during the late Arts & Crafts years.

Sinks

Pedestal and wall-hung sinks were predominant, a holdover from the Victorian period.

The modern vanity with its built-in sink made a modest, tentative appearance, mostly as consoles converted from furniture. But these did not come into their own until after the World War when a vanity became the standard in the very small bathrooms of the period.

Bathrooms of the Arts & Crafts period were still large enough for a linen cabinet or built-in linen closet and had little need for a vanity.

Sinks were porcelain or porcelain-on-iron, although the latter were mostly used in schools, restaurants, and other commercial installations.

Toilets

Two-piece low-tank toilets replaced Victorian-era high-tank toilets soon after the turn of the 20th century. By 1920, high-tank models were rare in new installations.

The low-tank toilet was not only much quieter than the high-tank model but also less bulky, making the bathroom seem larger. It was much less prone to leaking and, if it did leak, it did not leak on your head.

The toilets were not the modern two-piece toilet quite yet. They were often just low-tank versions of the high-tank toilet. Tanks were still mounted to the wall and connected to the floor-mounted bowl by a pipe. It was just a shorter pipe.

Today's standard two-piece toilet in which the tank rests on the bowl, and is not attached to the wall, were introduced in the late 1920s and slowly replaced the low-tank toilet of the early Arts & Crafts period.

Toilets of the era required as much as 3.5 gallons of water or more to flush completely. This changed in 1992 with the Energy Policy and Conservation Act that mandated a maximum flush rate of 1.6 gallons. (42 USC § 6295(k)) Despite almost continuous complaints from toilet manufacturers for over a decade that it could not be done, it finally was done. The early problems with low-flush toilets have largely disappeared.

Bathtubs

Porcelain was the material for fixtures like sinks and toilets, predominantly in bright white. Porcelain was waterproof and sanitary, replacing tin and wood fixtures soon after its introduction. However, porcelain was not as suitable for bathtubs.

Solid porcelain tubs were manufactured in Britain as early as the 1850s. By the late Victorian era, they were being manufactured by firms like Trenton Potteries Company in New Jersey.

Porcelain solved the problem of a bathing tub that did not leak and was easy to maintain, but the tubs were very heavy and very expensive. A six-foot tub cost around $200.00 in 1910 dollars ($6,000 in today's inflated dollars).[2]

Copper and tin tubs were also expensive, and because they relied on braised or soldered seams, were also prone to leaks. Copper also needed regular polishing.

The solution seemed to be iron tubs. They were far less expensive. But they rusted. No matter the paint or coating used to forestall rust, and many were tried, rust eventually broke through.

The solution to the problem came in 1883 from John Michael Koh­ler, an Aus­tri­an immigrant and the proud new owner of the She­boy­gan Un­ion Iron & Steel Found­ry. He took some glass powder and sprinkled it on an iron horse trough from the company's product line that had been heated to 1,700° F.

The resulting "enamel" coating was so tough and durable that he featured the horse trough on the cover of the company's next product catalog, with a small footnote that read: "When furnished with four legs, will serve as a bathing tub."[2]

As a horse trough, it was not an overwhelming success but as a "bathing tub", it became the foundation of an Amer­ican plumbing empire that is now well into its second century.

Kohler also introduced the double-walled apron alcove tub in 1911, and it quickly began to replace the free-standing claw-foot and pedestal tubs in use since the 19th century.

The design is today's standard bathtub, installed in two out of three bathrooms in the U.S. and Canada.

It offered a number of advantages over the freestanding "clawfoot" bathtub:

Faucets and Showers

Most people call faucets, showers, and tub fillers "fixtures." Actually, in the trade, they are "fittings." Tubs, sinks, and toilets are fixtures.

The Arts & Crafts period saw widespread innovation in fittings, including the modern shower, widespread adoption of chrome finishes, and improved faucet valves.

Showers
Showers were a feature of upscale Victorian bathrooms but the "ribcage" showers of the period were complex and temperamental. The showers of the Arts & Crafts period were better made, using valves specially designed for showers.

With the introduction of the alcove tub, it was possible to install a shower over the tub by enclosing the area with a curtain or, more rarely, a shower door. Consequently, showers were fairly common by the late 1930s but they never did not gain widespread acceptance.

Bathing, however, was the preferred method of getting clean throughout the Arts & crafts period. Although heavily promoted by plumbing manufacturers and widely advertised in women's magazines, showers were never widely installed. Showering did not overtake bathing until well after the World War.

In the modern bathroom, however, showers are absolutely required, and fortunately, the marketplace contains plenty of shower units that look completely at home in an Arts & Crafts bathroom.

Showers of the period were typically attached to the wall, not in-wall like modern showers.

Early shower controls were two-handle simple compression valves. Cold and hot were controlled separately. There were no built-in temperature safeguards, so if someone flushed the toilet or turned on the water in the kitchen, the shower could get very cold or very hot very fast.

Symmons Industries changed that in 1939 with its Safety­mix® pressure-balanced single-handle shower control that monitored water pressure and automatically adjusted the levels of hot and cold water to keep the shower temperature from fluctuating. l

Faucets

In the Victorian years, most lavatory sinks had separate hot and cold faucets. Hot and cold water were delivered separately — one faucet for hot, the other for cold. Temperature mixing occurred outside the faucet in the sink.

The mixing faucet that blended hot and cold water inside the faucet was invented by Thomas Campbell of Saint John, New Brunswick, and patented in 1880.

By the begnning of the Arts & Crafts period, mixing faucets had become the standard. Most local plumbing codes require mixing faucets because they are safer.

Faucets still had two handles, hot on the left, cold on the right. The single-handle faucet — invented by Al Moen — did not make its appearance until after the World War.

Faucets used compression valves to control water flow. Modern ceramic valve cartridges were not invented until the 1970s.

The valves were effective but the rubber compression washers in the valves wore out fairly quickly. To avoid leaking faucets, Dad had to dig out the toolbox every year or so and replace all of the faucet washers in the house.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century compression valves that required several turns to reach maximum water flow were starting to be replaced by newer models that required no more than a quarter turn.

of Cleve­land, Ohio introduced its Quick-Pres­sion quarter-turn valve around 1910, and Chi­ca­go Fau­cet's Qua­turn® valve invented by Al­bert Brown launched a few years later.

The new valves put much less twisting force on the compression washer, reducing wear and extending the life of the washer.

Early faucets were continuations of Victorian designs. Over time, however, faucets took on the style features of the design trends of the new era, primarily Art Deco and Art Nouveau to develpe looks now viewed as characteristic of the Arts & Crafts period.

Nickel was the most common finish for faucets, tub spouts, and showers in the early part of the period. Native brass, from which most fittings are made, tarnishes and is a nuisance to keep polished. Nickel plating solved that problem in the 19th century. It could be plated on brass to keep it from tarnishing.

Chrome was a new finish at the time, and expensive. It was not practical for large-scale plating until Colin Fink and Charles Eldridge developed a commercial process for plating chrome in the early 1920s. By the middle of the decade, United Chromium, Inc. was offering chrome plating to all comers using the Fink/Eldridge process.

By 1930, Chrome was well on its way to becoming the standard finish for decorative plumbing fittings. It was much harder than nickel, did not sratch as easily or wear off over time with use.

Today's nickel plating and both polished and "antique" brass would work well in a reproduction bathroom. Metalurgists have made nickel plating harder and more scratch-resistant over the years with advanced alloys.

PVD brass is not actual brass, but a harder metal (titanium or zirconium) that the PVD process makes look convincingly like brass. It does not tarnish and is 10 to 20 times more scratch-resistant than chrome. Nickel is also available in a PVD finish, although not as commonly.

Color finishes, usually produced using , are appropriate if kept in the pastels. Black and oil-rubbed Bronze, although favored today, did not exist.

For a better understanding of faucet finishes and how to choose a durable finish, see Faucet Basics Part 5: Faucet Finishes.

Flooring

Flooring in an Arts & Crafts was almost always ceramic tile, and very good tile as anyone who has ever had to tear it up will attest. Linoleum is a second choice but was more often used in kitchens and laundry rooms. Wood floors were very rare.

Ceramic and Porcelain Tile

By far the most common and most often reproduced flooring choice was white 1" hexagonal mosaic tile. It might have been accented with black hex tiles in a flower, diamond, or dot pattern.

Penny round tile was another frequent choice, as were herringbone, basketweave, and running bond patterns.

But almost always, the tile was a mosaic. Mosaic was used because tile in those days was laid in a wet concrete base called "mud set" or "thick set" that was rarely flat enough for larger format tiles.

Today, most ceramic tile is "thin-set", that is, a thin coat of mastic or mortar is applied to a dry substrate, and the tile is embedded in the mastic. This form of setting results in an even, flat surface making large format tiles possible.

But, in the early 20th century tile was usually "mud set" over a thick slab of concrete.

Is there actually a difference between ceramic and porcelain tiles, see Porcelain vs. Ceramic Tile Is There a difference? to find out.

The process required great skill to get the resulting tile flat and reasonably even but resulted in an incredibly tenacious bond, which is why so much of this early tile still exists. And, where it exists, it should be preserved if possible. It is an enduring testament to what is almost a lost art.

Large format tile did not come into common use until the 1950s when thin-set mastics allowed it to be laid over a flat board.

White is not the only period-ap­pro­pri­ate floor tile color. Starting in the early 1930s manufacturers, influenced by Art-Deco design themes, began introducing bathroom fixtures in pastels.

Period decorators took full advantage of the new color flexibility to design baths in a rainbow of hues, including floor tiles of every color. With the appropriate fixtures, there is almost no tile color that would be out of bounds.

Linoleum

Linoleum is also a good choice for period flooring. It was the miracle material of its age and was widely used in kitchens and baths up to the 1960s when it was replaced by vinyl which required much less maintenance.

Linoleum is not a plastic. It is a largely organic material made of linseed oil combined with powdered cork, wood flour, ground limestonem and a few additives. Mineral pigments provide the color and it is formed into a durable sheet by applying heat in a press.

Invented by Englishman Frederick Walton in 1863, it was a mainstay of late Victorian kitchens and migrated into the Arts & Crafts period.

Linoleum has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity among homeowners because of its natural look and physical properties.

It is quiet and comfortable underfoot and contains no synthetic chemicals. The linseed oil in the material has natural antimicrobial properties. The anti-static surface rejects dust and makes it ideal for rooms with electronic equipment, and people with dust allergies.

It is durable, so durable that the Navy used it in early 20th-century warships as its standard flooring below decks. One manufacturer, in the 1940s, Congoleum, advertised its linoleum as complying with the "exacting requirements" of the U.S. Navy.

Linoleum is an excellent choice in a "period" pattern. Keep in mind however, that it still requires maintenance that may include periodic waxing.

For a sheet flooring that resembles linoleum but is much easier to care for, consider vinyl.

Vinyl Flooring

Vinyl flooring made its debut at the Century of Progress International Exposition in 1933. It was available during the later Arts & Crafts period as a luxury flooring.

During the war years from 1942 to 1945, its manufacture was discontinued. It was a petroleum-derived product at the time and every drop of oil was needed for the war effort.

It had an almost explosive resurgance after the War in the millions of Post-War homes built for veterans under the GI Bill.

In an appropriate pattern and color, it is a suitable material for Arts & Crafts bathroom flooring.

Wood Flooring
Wood bathroom floors were uncommon in the Arts & Crafts period. The finishes available at the time did not protect the wood well enough for use in a wet area like a bathroom.

But great strides in wood finishes now make the use of wood floors in bathrooms very practical and we are seeing more and more wood in designer Arts & Crafts baths.

If woOd is used, it should BE a well-figured hardwood with oak being the first choice but elm and ash also being acceptable.

Exotic woods like Acacia, Cumaru, or Ipe were not imported until decades in the future and are not at all suitable. Cypress and fir were rare but used in the Deep South and on the West Coast in areas where it grew locally.

If using an enginnered wood flooring laminate, make ceRtain the product is rated for use in wet areas.

For more information on flooring options for baths and what to look for in flooring, read Flooring Options for Kitchens and Baths with Ratings.

Wall Treatments

Unless tile is run floor to ceiling, walls should include a tile or panel wainscot. Tile is the more typical wainscot material but painted breadboard wainscot was also common.

If A wainscot was not installed, the lower wall was often painted a different color than the upper part of the wall, and the two sections were separated by a band of wood or chair rail trim tile set 30" to 54" from the floor.

Wall Tile

For walls, subway tile in white or almost white was nearly ubiquitous. The tile was thick (3/8") and skillfully made so that it could be fitted together almost with very minimal grout lines.

The 2"x6" format is the most historically accurate. It is still being made in the same old way by Subway Ceramics. Borders in a contrasting color, usually black, were a typical embellishment that emerged in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Ceramic tile manufacturers produced distinctive tile colors and designs during the Arts & Crafts period that are forever associated with the era. Characterized by extremely glossy finishes, period tiles are still made by many major tile companies as well as boutique tile makers who specialize in period tiles.

It is often not possible to use only specialty period tiles without shattering the budget but a border or medallion of these period tiles adds a distinctive Arts & Crafts period flavor to a period bath.

Wall Paint

Period illustrations, primarily in advertisements, often show bathrooms painted in the kind of pastels we most commonly associate with the Post-War Retro period.

Most people, however, preferred to use a more somber color combination typical of the rest of an Arts & Crafts house. Almost all paint manufacturers now have a collection of paints authentic for Arts & Crafts interiors, so color choices abound and it does not take a color consultant to pick a suitable palette.

The paint of the period was loaded with white lead as a key ingredient that gave paint its opacity. If you already have painted walls, just patch and paint over the existing coating. Don't try to remove it unless you have had lead abatement training and own the proper equipment.

If your plaster walls need a little repair, take a look at our article Easy Fix for Cracked Plaster Walls (and Ceilings) for a step-by-step guide to restoring plaster.

Wallpaper

Wallpaper was rarely used in a bathroom. The material at that time did not stand up very well to moisture, and, if used, was often waxed or varnished to extend its lifetime.

Wallpaper today is quite different. Treated with a plastic coating, it will handle the moisture in a bathroom for years.

One caution, however. Our experience in removing wallpaper in bathrooms is that very often mold has established itself behind the paper. For those particularly affected by mold, wallpaper may not be a good choice.

Enormous varieties of suitable wallpaper designs are available on the market, including revivals of original Arts & Crafts papers by William Morris and C.F.A. Voysey.

Lighting & Ventilation

Some lighting fixtures are timeless. They have been with us since the early days of electricity, and are still appropriate for contemporary houses.

The classic schoolhouse lamp is an example. It was used throughout the Victorian, Arts & Crafts, and Post-war "Atomic Age" periods, and still works well with modern architecture.

But, if your preference is lighting true to the Arts & Crafts period, you have an almost infinite selection.

Reproduction light fixtures based on designs from the early 20th century abound, which makes choosing appropriate lighting fixtures easy. We think the best source for research is Rejuvenation Lighting and Hardware, our go-to source for such things.

For your finish, stick to chrome for the most authenticity, or brass, nickel, or bronze if you are reproducing an early-period bath. The later Arts & Crafts period overlapped the Art Deco period, so Art Deco fixtures were fairly common in houses built after 1927 which would be perfect in a reproduction Arts & Crafts bathroom.

You might also look to the Orient for inspiration. Asiatic touches were a frequent feature of Arts & Crafts houses and Asian-influenced lighting fixtures would lend a modern touch, and still be period-appropriate in a reproduction bathroom.

The relatively sparse lighting in original period bathrooms is not considered sufficient in a modern bathroom, however.

At a minimum, a modern bath should have a central light fixture supplemented by lights on both sides of the mirror, a light over the toilet (for reading), one over the bathtub (for safety), and another in the shower (also for safety). Multiple ceiling fixtures would work, but look a little crowded, and sealed fixtures in an Arts & Crafts design for use in a shower are hard to come by.

Our solution is to use recessed lights over the tub, shower, and toilet. They are not at all period-correct. Recessed fixtures were not invented until the late 1940s, initially for commercial use, and not routinely installed in houses until Halo introduced its model H1 recessed can meant to hold a regular incandescent lamp in 1956.

But, they are almost invisible, very unobtrusive, and do not detract from the Arts & Crafts look and feel of the room.

Adequate ventilation is another problem. Arts & Crafts bathrooms did not have vent fans. Opening a window was thought to be enough ventilation. Today we know better and almost all building and plumbing codes require a mechanical exhaust system, vented to the outside, in every bathroom.

The solution is not easy. Vent fans seem to be relentlessly contemporary designs, ill-suited for an Arts & Craft decor. Those that try to look "vintage" largely miss the mark.

One solution is to buy a modern recessed-in-the-ceiling fan, then replace the vent cover with a grill that looks more like something from the Arts & Crafts period.

For more than you may ever want to know about room lighting, see Efficient & Effective Kitchen Lighting

Storage

There was very little storage in an Arts & Crafts bathroom because there was little to be stored.

Most houses of the period had a built-in linen cabinet in an adjacent hallway for towels, so what had to be kept in the actual bathroom were toiletries, of which there were few. These could be accommodated by a built-in medicine cabinet which was a standard feature of a typical period bath.

Period medicine cabinets were wood, recessed into the wall, usually with a mirror mounted on the door. Later, steel recessed cabinets more commonly associated with Post-War bathrooms came into use. But the most prized cabinets are still the earlier wood models, and these are the ones most often used in period reproduction baths.

They are still being made.

One source is Mitchell Andrus, who makes a wide variety of surface-mounted and recessed period medicine cabinets. if you need a size that Mitchell does not make, then contact us and we will custom-build one. Since there were no standards for medicine cabinet sizing, an odd size is commonly needed to fit an existing recess.

Unfortunately, the amount of stuff we store in bathrooms today has far outstripped the modest storage capacities of a typical Arts & Crafts period bath.

There are several elegant solutions. The one we like best are tall, narrow cabinets. Located on both sides of the sink table, these provide ample storage, and in the cabinet on the right, a laundry chute. Another alternative is a tall in-wall cabinet behind the bathroom door.

Bath Moldings

All Arts & Crafts moldings were simple and lacking the often intricate ornamentation of the Victorian Era. But they were almost always heavy and deep, unlike modern moldings that have been minimized just about as far as they can be.

A base molding 8" tall and 7/8" thick was not uncommon (compared to the current standard of 3-1/2" tall and 3/8" thick). If the bath does not include a wainscot, a horizontal molding should be applied between 36" and 54" from the floor. This molding divides the wall horizontally and helps make a small room appear larger.

Simple crown moldings at the junction of the walls and ceiling were also common but not the tall, angled crowns of Victorian times. There were small, often flat, bands of wood that made the room look taller without being overwhelming in a small room. Window and door casing should be wide, often with back banding.

Wood moldings would normally be painted but sometimes varnished woods typical of the period were used: oak, elm, and gum.

If the original molding in your bath is painted, odds are it was always painted, and the wood used was knot-free pine. It is almost impossible to strip this wood and remove all the paint that has penetrated into the very pores of the wood.

But if the original wood was oak, it was probably varnished originally, then painted over the varnish. These moldings are fairly easy to strip and should be stripped and revarnished to reveal the beautiful old-growth oak underneath.

You can't buy that old-growth wood today at any price, and it is a prize to be carefully preserved.

Arts & Crafts Resources

The nation is in midst of an Arts & Crafts revival. Unlike the interest in Post-War architecture which is still in its infancy, the Arts & Crafts revival is in full bloom and has been for over twenty years. So, there are lots of Arts & Crafts resources available. Anything you need to restore, refurbish, or refresh your home can be acquired somewhere, and it is entirely possible today to recreate an Arts & Crafts home style. . . . (Continues)


Footnotes:

1. We have run into a couple of these in remodeling period bathrooms. They are usually in good enough shape to be reused, even after 100 years. But they are enormously heavy. It takes four strong men and an axle jack to move the tub even a few feet. We wonder how the original builder managed to get it to the second floor.
2. Kohler's claim to having invented the porcelain-on-iron bathtub is disputed. The J.L. Mott Iron Works also developed the porcelain-on-iron technique in the late 1880s although the exact date remains unknown. American Standard (then Standard Sanitary) also claims the credit. But Kohler is the only company to have dated documentary evidence of its accomplishment, so we give the prize to Kohler.

Rev. 02/08/24