This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.
The bathroom and kitchen are the two rooms that change most often in a residence, due to constant advancements in product technologies, changing architectural fashions, and essentially the availability of fancier appliances and fixtures. Over the 19th century, the modern bathroom, as we know it, evolved in conjunction with the availability of indoor plumbing. The development of modern urban sewer and water systems was rapidly followed by the interior architectural evolution of the bathroom.
The Building Technology Heritage Library has a large number of plumbing fixture catalogs at the core of its bathroom-related resources, which also cover casework, finishes, and accessories. While early catalogs feature plumbing fixtures as isolated objects, more sophisticated catalogs presenting the complete bathroom—outfitted with plumbing fixtures, finishes, and accessories—arose during the 20th century.
Description of Stoves, Furnaces, Bath Tubs, Garden Vases, and Ventilators, J. L. Mott Iron Works, New York, 1843
The catalog features a cast iron bathtub noted as a “new article.” The ad copy claims that it was superior to bathtubs made of tin, lead, or marble, and that its streamlined shape was more efficient, requiring less water—an important consideration when water was delivered by bucket.
1885 Illustrated Catalogue: Universal Float-Valves and Cisterns, Miller & Coates, New York, 1885
The flush water closet, now known as the toilet, was a significant step up in sanitation starting in the mid-19th century. Though many variations were offered, the high, wall-mounted tank was particularly popular during the 19th century.
Illustrated Catalogue “B”: Baths, Lavatories, Water Closets and Sundries, Thomas Robertson & Co., Montreal, 1898
The shower, in addition to the bathtub, starts to show up in plumbing fixture catalogs at the beginning of the 20th century.
Modern Bathrooms, Standard Sanitary Mfg. Co., Pittsburgh, 1909
Plumbing fixture catalogs soon evolved into “bathroom catalogs,” with plans and perspectives showing the arrangement of fixtures and interior finishes.
Economy in Plumbing, Montgomery Ward & Co., Chicago, 1920
Mail-order merchants, such as Sears, Roebuck and Co., and Montgomery Ward, marketed heavily to rural households, which were getting electricity and indoor plumbing in the early 20th century. This catalog features everything needed for residential plumbing systems, including fixtures.
Color Charm Enters the Bathroom, Kohler Co., Kohler, Wis., 1928
Kohler was one of the first manufacturers to produce plumbing fixtures in color, in the late 1920s. Other companies quickly followed, and the bathroom became a new design feature.
Miami Steel Bathroom and Ironing Board Cabinets, Miami Cabinet Co., Middletown, Ohio, 1929
Bathroom accessories, from medicine cabinets to toilet paper holders, became another way to accentuate bathroom design.
Beautiful Douglas Bath Rooms, John Douglas Co., Cincinnati, Ohio, 1935
The influence of the Modern design movement of the early 20th century manifested in the bathroom designs of the 1930s. Colorful plumbing fixtures were still the room’s centerpieces, but a whole array of new finish materials and design motifs made the bathroom more than just the “necessary room.”
Crane Plumbing and Heating for Low Cost Homes, Crane Co., Chicago, 1946
The simple but efficient “three fixture bathroom,” consisting of a toilet, sink, and bathtub, was all that was needed for “low cost homes.”
Give Your Home New Value and Exciting Change!, National Planalog, Columbus, Ohio, circa 1955
Bathroom and kitchen designs were featured in this “planalog,” a unique marketing effort aimed at the renovation marketplace.
New Adventures in Bathroom Designing with Briggs Compatible Colors, Briggs Manufacturing Co., Warren, Mich., circa 1960
This bathroom design catalog and planning guide showcases plumbing fixtures in six contemporary colors and has an internal “color wheel” to help coordinate bathroom finishes.
National Vanity, National Vanity, Bayonne, N.J., circa 1956
The bathroom sink in a cabinet, now commonly known as a vanity, was a mid-20th century development; laminate countertops were another innovation of this era.