The Post-War Bathroom
The Post-War bathroom was small and Spartan. Architects of the period considered the bath to be a utility room, like the kitchen, furnace room, and laundry, it had to be just large enough to do its job, without taking space away from really important rooms like the living and formal dining rooms. The rooms were just large enough to hold a toilet, sink, and tub, typically 5' x 7' or, in "upscale" houses, 5' x 9'.
Small and Spartan, however, should not be taken to mean absent all style or refinement. Like the atomic age interior as a whole, mid-century bathrooms were characterized by clean lines and sleek, minimalistic design that first came to prominence in the pre-World War II era in Scandinavia. Although small, these were well thought out, attractive and even pleasant spaces, colorful, cheerful, and very functional.
Retro Bathroom Tile
Tile was the dominating feature of the mid-century bath — tile floors, tile countertops, and even tile wainscoting. Most of the tile was ceramic. It was so well set that more than a half-century later much of it still exists.
Some tile, however, was plastic. Plastic was the new space-age material in the 1950s and very au courant. All we can say now is that very little of it still exists because it was such incredibly terrible tile. What has not fallen off by itself was removed years ago. We see very little of it now.
Brightly colored tile did not originate in 1950s baths. It was a creature of the 1920s. led the trend, introducing color in bath fixtures in the 1920s, followed very closely by .
Originally in pastels, bolder, Art Deco-inspired, colors were added during the 1930s. Tile colors followed, ultimately including some pinks, burgundies, even lavenders. But, the overall tone was somewhat muted, reflecting the preferred color palette of the Arts & Craft period. Yellow was represented by ochre or pale yellow, red appeared as terra cotta or clay and green was presented as olive and darker Pullman and forest greens.
Geometric tile patterns, primarily in the form of contrasting borders became an integral part of bathroom decor and the lingering early 20th-century notion that the bath was a utility room to be made as small and nondescript as its functions allowed, was gone forever.
Mid-century bathroom tile was colorful and vibrant pastels – peach, cerulean blue, turquoise, pink, lemon-lemon, coral, old rose, and twilight – to mention just a few of the more popular hues.
The most popular bathroom colors were pink and peach, often trimmed in black or turquoise. By some estimates, as many as 5 million homes were built with pink or peach bathrooms between 1945 and 1960, about 20% of all bathrooms constructed during the immediate Post-War period from.
First Lady Mamie Eisenhower is credited with popularizing the pink bathroom when she redecorated the private quarters of the White House in pink. The color went away in the late 1960s but returned with the new century. It even has its own website.
For much more information on pink bathrooms, try Save The Pink Bathrooms, full of the history of the pink bath, and hundreds of photos.
Whatever its color, Post-War bath tile typically had little pattern, and certainly none of the elaborate mosaics of former years. If it had a pattern, it was almost always geometric and repetitive. Borders in a contrasting color were common. Partly this was a stylistic choice but also practical – it was faster to lay patternless tile and Post-War builders were for anything that saved time.
The Mid-Century Vanity
The modern bathroom vanitiy is a merger of the pre-bathroom washstand and a dressing table, both originally located in the bedroom. The washstand, equipped with a pitcher of water and a bowl, was a fixture in more upscale households even in the Colonial Period for washing one's face and hands on awakening.
If the household was rich enough, the pitcher was filled with warm water by servants just before the master of the house awakened. Otherwise, water from the night before would have to serve. Since few bedrooms were heated, face-washing in winter might require first breaking through a thin crust of ice.
The dressing table was more desk than table. A few, in fact, were designed as a combination dressing table and ladies secretary. It was typically equipped with a mirror and drawers for storing cosmetics. Some were very elaborate. In the 1788 Cabinet-Makers' London Book of Prices, Thomas Shearer depicted a compact table with a folding mirror, three powder boxes, lift-out storage for razors (with a hone and honing oil to keep the razor sharp), a toothbrush holder, and small drawers for combs, tweezers, knives, and other compact implements.
The near-universal popularity of the vanity had to wait, however, for the smaller houses built during the Post-War boom.
Bedrooms in houses built after the war were small, without the space needed for a dressing table. Builders solved the problem with a bathroom vanity that became a substitute for the dressing table and a nearly indispensable furnishing in Retro bathrooms in the 1960s.
Vanity cabinets housed a single or double sink as well as providing storage for bathroom accessories. It was, along with a small in-wall medicine cabinet, the only storage in the bathroom. It was much needed in rooms that tended to be much smaller than more spacious pre-war bathrooms.
Cabinetry was sleek and unadorned, with slab doors that were rabbeted to lie nearly flush with the rest of the cabinet, and simple, minimalist hardware. Cabinet tops were ceramic tile or Formica's new high-density laminate material.
Wood was the most common vanity material but enameled steel was a close second and considered the upscale option.
The best-known manufacturer of enameled steel vanities was Lavanette, maker of the Vanette "Beauty Queen" line that found a welcome place in thousands of Post-War bathrooms.
The Lavanette Beauty Queen vanity featured "storage space galore" including five drawers (one a locking medicine drawer to keep out curious children), a trash bin built into a cabinet door, and a "revolutionary, carefree" Formica top to "assure long-life beauty."
Unfortunately, not many survive. The ever-present moisture in the Post-War bath (not many had power ventilation) rusted the steel over time and energetic children tended to kick and dent the relatively thin steel fabric.
The more typical wood vanity was often made of birch plywood, a durable, water-resistant material that had been developed during the World War to speed the construction of everything from PT boats to temporary mess halls. It was commonly painted, most often in some shade of white or a color that coordinated with the bathroom walls. But it was just as often varnished, highlighting the figure of the wood.
Cabinet doors were simple plywood slabs with rabbeted edges, a style also popular in kitchens. The rabbets permiteed the door to lie almost flush with the front of the cabinet, making cleaning much simpler.
Storage was primitive, often no more than a large cavity hidden behind doors and full of pipes. Some featured more useful drawers, but the well-engineered storage common in Lavanette cabinets was usually absent.
An entire industry was soon developed to provide various types of pull-out, roll-out, and swing-out storage trays and other devices for use under the sink to provide more useful and more accessible storage.
Mid Century Fixtures
Fixtures in mid-century bathrooms were fully modern. Aside from the low-flow requirements of the siphoning toilet, lavatory faucets and showers mandated by the Energy Policy and Conservation Act in the 1970s, every fixture in a mid-century bath is identical to those in today's bath. The only device that has been added since the mid-century is power ventilation, made necessary by the advent of whole-house air-conditioning.
Before air-conditioning, window ventilation was thought to be adequate. But, after air-conditioning made opening windows for ventilation in the summer much less likely, another means of ventilating moist air out of the bath had to be adopted. This was the bathroom fan.
Bathtubs & Showers
It was during the immediate Post-War period that the homebuilding industry standardized on the 60" three-wall apron-front alcove bathtub introduced by Kohler in 1911.
The stand-alone pedestal and clawfoot baths of the past required a lot of floor space. Smaller Post-War houses, often as small as 850 square feet with two bedrooms, dining room, living room, kitchen, and bath, needed to use space efficiently. This meant bathrooms that were as small as possible. The alcove tub was ideal. Tucked into its niche, it took up a much less floor space than any alternative.
As the 1950s ended, showers were becoming more common. Tub/shower combinations were considered a necessity in nearly every new bathroom by 1960 and continue to be the standard today. Used with a shower curtain the tub/shower made the best use of limited floor space. The separate shower did not become common until late in the 1970s when larger houses were able to accommodate a stand-alone shower.
Framed glassed tub and shower doors replaced the less effective curtain beginning in the late 1950s. Today the more practical choice is a semi-frameless or frameless enclosure which is not only easier to maintain than the 1950s full-frame shower door but gives a more spacious feel to the room.
The most common toilet was the two-piece with a tank on top of a separate bowl. The separation of the tank and bowl dated from Victorian times when the tank had to be mounted high on the wall above the bowl to ensure enough flushing power. By the end of the Victorian Era around 1900, the tank had been moved to just above the bowl but was still often wall-mounted. The tank-sitting-on-bowl configuration followed and was virtually the standard by the 1930s.
The advantage of the unit's low profile was not immediately apparent other than its more modern appearance. It is a little more sanitary because there was no joint between the bowl and tank to collect grime and germs. However, most homeowners were not persuaded that these features were worth the often substantial difference in cost.
Whatever Happened to Crane and Eljer?
Eljer Industries and Crane Plumbing, disappeared after being merged with American Standard Brands in 2008.
is now owned by the giant Japanese building products conglomerate, LIXIL, a company that also owns the German faucet brand, .
The name and logo have been resurrected to label a line of economy enamelware made by LIXIL in China and sold exclusively at Menards stores. But, these new Eljer products have nothing of the old Eljer style.
Simarly, the name is used to brand economy LIXIL toilets sold exclusively at Home Depot. The company is nothing more these days than a bookkeeping entry. Its U.S. factories have been closed resulting in a loss of hundreds of American jobs and its distinctive mid-century fixtures – often creted by famous industrial designers like Henry Dreyfus – have disappeared from the market.
The larger 3/4" supply pipe required made it unpopular for retro-fits. It also meant that when the toilet was flushed, the shower instantly went from pleasant to scalding unless it was outfitted with a pressure-balancing valve — at the time a recently-invented (by and an uncommon feature of mid-century showers. Today it, or its cousin the thermostatic shower valve, is required by code in most localities — and a good idea even if not required.
Most toilets were floor-mounted, but wall-mounted units were also available. Common in commercial applications such as restaurants and gas stations, they required a wall with a beefed-up structure and were more difficult to service. They did not achieve widespread popularity until the 1990s with the advent of the European-style tank that was hidden in the wall, making the profile of the unit sleeker and much smaller, taking up less valuable bathroom floor space.
Companies hired designers to add a little style to their largely utilitarian toilets and other fixtures. The noted product designer Henry Dreyfuss created several collections for Crane Plumbing. Dreyfuss was the most famous designer of the age. His designs included the Bell System's iconic black desktop telephone, the round wall thermostat, several Hoover vacuum cleaners, the Polaroid SX-70 Land camera, and the Westclox Big Ben alarm clock.
Faucets and Sinks
Once vanities became common, sinks designed to fit into the tops of vanities dominated Post-War bathrooms. Most sinks were mounted flush with the countertop using a device called a
hoodee) ring, which became a defining feature of mid-century sinks. They did not exist before 1948 and by 1965 were falling out of favor, but for most of the Post-War period, they were ubiquitous, used in nearly every bathroom that had a vanity.
Where the name came from is somewhat a mystery. For years we, and everyone we knew, assumed that they were probably an invention of a company called Hootie Manufacturing. But, looking through old plumbing catalogs, we were unable to find a single reference to Hootie as a manufacturer or even to a
hootie ring. (They are always called
sink rims or
sink frames in the various catalogs.)
Pam Kueber of Retro Renovation, a dedicated researcher who comes up with all sorts of interesting information about the mid-century, believes the name is a misspelling of
Hudee, the name given to the device by its inventor, Walter E Selick and Company of Chicago, which patented it in 1948. According to the information obtained by Ms. Kueber from Bill Rapp, the co-owner of Vance Industries the name Hudee was a combination of the names of the engineers who worked on the ring's development.
The enormous success of the Hootie ring swamped the manufacturing capacity of Selick and Company, so it licensed the product to other manufacturers including Vance Industries which has been manufacturing Hootie rings since 1949 and is now the largest manufacturer of the product. It makes a number of standard sizes and will make custom sizes (within limits) on request.
While vanities were almost universal at the end of the mid-century, pedestal, wall-mounted, and console sinks did not disappear. They were especially common in the early 1950s and many advertisements from the mid-century period feature bathrooms with these types of sinks. Where a vanity was not used, other arrangements had to be made for storage. One of these, a mirror-front drawer cabinet, is shown in the illustration above. Another was the separate linen closet, often located in the hallway next to the bathroom rather than inside the room itself.
The 4" centerset lavatory faucet became pretty much the standard lavatory faucet during the mid-century period. Other options were still available including the traditional 8" widespread faucet, but most bathrooms seem to have included the centerset. Single-handle faucets were invented during the Post-War period, and were popular in Retro kitchens, but did not play a large part in the bathroom decor of the period. Most faucets were two-handle, three-hole configurations. (For more on faucet configurations, see Faucet Basics, Part 4: Faucet Styles & Configuration.)
Some handle styles were unique to the mid-century and indelibly identified with the period. These included blade handles, acrylic knobs, and fluted handles. Today they look dated but were considered the "modern" styles in the 1950s and '60s. The most popular faucet finish was polished chrome. Other finishes crept in during the last half of the period, notably "gold" and antique brass, but chrome was always king, appearing on well over 90% of the faucets installed during the period.
Very few original mid-century faucets are still being made for the simple reason that they all used the old compression valve which has since been replaced by more durable ceramic disc cartridges. But, replicas are abundant, available from just about any large faucet manufacturer.
The nation is in midst of a Post-War retro revival, still in its infancy but blooming quickly as more young couples rediscover the beauty and budget-friendliness of retro housing. So, there are a growing number of Post-War retro resources available. Anything you need to restore, refurbish or refresh your mid-century home can be acquired somewhere, and it is entirely possible today to recreate a mid-century homestyle virtually indistinguishable from that which our parents and grandparents enjoyed — with the advantage of modern conveniences and improvements in both technology and design.... (Continues)