In the last two hundred years, the concept of the indoor bathroom has evolved from not existing at all to being one of the most popular places in the home to do a luxury remodel. These days, many homeowners are looking back to the opulence of the past to help create a relaxing, decadent getaway. The Victorian Era is one that most people think fondly of, and the one that people most often turn to for design inspiration. After all, the Victorian Era lasted the better part of a hundred years, from the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837 to her death in 1901. But what, exactly, goes into making an authentic Victorian bathroom design?
First, A History Lesson
The Victorian era marked a period of great prosperity for the middle class. Their new-found wealth, largely facilitated by trade between Great Britain and America, manifested itself in a huge outpouring of opulence. Everything in the home was made with the most expensive materials (or made to look like it was) and was not only elaborately designed, but covered on every available surface by uncountable knick-knacks. People of the Victorian era wanted to show off their wealth, their taste, their interests, and their worldliness, and did so in the form of hundreds and hundreds of small figurines. Ironically, for such an iconic historical period, there never was a single definitive interior design style; Victorians relied heavily on an eclectic blend of historical and foreign influences, with furniture from the Gothic, Tudor, Elizabethan, Rococo and Neo-Classical periods, as well as influences from Asia and the middle east. This cluttered, colorful, and un-coordinated vision of Victorian design might not be what you imagined, but it is something that can apply quite nicely to a luxurious modern bathroom – just keep reading!
A Note On Toilets
I will say up front: unless you have a particular desire to start using a chamber pot instead of a toilet (or a really fancy modern take on one, like this Dagobert Toilet), you won’t be able to get a historically accurate Victorian toilet. While nearly all homes had some form of indoor plumbing by the time of Queen Victoria’s death, flush toilets as we know them today weren’t perfected until toward the end of the Edwardian Period. Most homes still used chamber pots or outhouses, and the flush toilets that did exist were of designs that aren’t made anymore for the simple reason that they aren’t sanitary. To get a period-style toilet for a Victorian bathroom design, your best bet is either: 1) Get a nebulously old-timey cistern style toilet. This isn’t 100% accurate, but it’s the most contemporary style you’ll get. Or 2) Do what the Victorians would have done with a modern toilet, and look for a toilet bowl with floral painted designs, a sculpted shape, or just one like this Lutezia Toilet with a wood toilet seat to make it look more like a piece of furniture.
What Makes A Victorian Bathtub?
If someone says the phrase, “Victorian bathtub” to you, the first thing you probably think of is a clawfoot tub. And it’s true that these were, really, the first genuine bathtubs. That said, the clawfoot tub wasn’t invented until late in the Victorian period when, in 1883, John Michael Kohler (yes, that Kohler) stuck decorative feet onto an enameled horse trough. The design has, of course, been improved since then, but a classic roll top, enameled cast iron tub like this Retro Tub from Herbeau is pretty typical of the late Victorian Period. All you need is a matching Vintage Clawfoot Tub Filler and maybe a ring-shaped curtain rod to convert it into a shower.
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It’s important to remember, though, that the Victorian Era represents the time when the entire concept of a separate bathroom was only just coming into existence. Previously, people bathed in the kitchen, in small tin tubs or what looked like really big platters (Think Degas’ Le Tub paintings). This allowed them to heat water on the stove, pour it over their bodies, and wash with a sponge (no soap yet – that wasn’t common until the 1930s!), letting the pan catch the water and keep it off the floor until it could be emptied outside. But with the advent of indoor plumbing and gas powered water heaters, the whole concept of the bathroom began to change, moving into private (though usually very small) spaces, and allowing tubs to be larger and more permanent (as the water didn’t have to be heated manually, carried in buckets, or emptied outside). That meant that the typical hip-tubs transformed into much larger metal tubs like this Medicis Copper Tub.
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Building A Bathroom Identity
In one sense, the Victorian Era marked a nearly hundred year long battle with sanitation and disease that arose from the rocky transition of moving bathrooms indoors and trial-and-error in perfecting toilets and municipal sewage systems. During the 19th century, England (and London in particular) suffered a series of devastating human-waste-related plagues, but they would be the country’s last because of technological advances made during this time. On the other hand, it was also when homes started having separate rooms for bathing for the first time, and Victorian bathroom design was really the beginning of what we would recognize as bathroom design today. Often these rooms were small – a space under the stairs, a lopped off section of a room, or a converted servant’s quarters – but these were the first genuine bathrooms, complete with full sized Clawfoot Tubs, a Pedestal Sink with cross-handled Hot And Cold Taps (the mixer taps that allow us to get hot and cold water from a single faucet weren’t invented until 1880), and a Pull-Chain Toilet.
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But what did they actually look like? In all honesty, Victorian bathroom design was much like, well, any other kind of Victorian design. It wasn’t until the Edwardian period that the inclusion of a bathroom in homes was widespread enough to justify a separate aesthetic. In Victorian times, the bathroom was just another room, and was decorated accordingly – with lush, expensive wood and stone, lots and lots of fabric, dark, vibrant colors, extensive floral patterns, and lots and lots of stuff (in addition, of course, to the classic Clawfoot and Pedestal Sink).
Walls And Wallpaper
The Victorian Era was big on color and big on texture. They believed that everything should be decorative and decorated. A bare room was an ugly room, and reflected poorly on its owner. And while in a modern bathroom you might not want to take their cue and have a bathroom awash with knick-knacks, there’s definitely a lesson to be learned from Victorian walls. The Victorian Era saw the invention of wall-paper and ran with it, with elaborate floral designs and rich textures that brought some of the homey feeling of a bedroom or parlor into the bath. Where they didn’t use wallpaper, they used elaborate painting and finishing techniques to create the appearance of expensive stone or wood, and decorated with thick cloth in bright gem tones. Because homes still largely used gas lights at this time, the colors tended toward the darker end of the spectrum to help hide soot and gas stains (which is another reason they decorated their ceilings, too).
More popular still was the tripartite wall, with wainscotting on the bottom third, paint or wallpaper to the ceiling, and then an elaborate crown molding, different papered trim, or even an elaborate painting decorating the upper edge of the wall. Woodwork on the walls was picked up throughout the room, from Mahogany Bathroom Vanities to full wooden decks for the tub and shower. Even ceilings were often painted or inlaid with beautiful woodwork. While you might not favor the Victorian bathroom design preference for primary colors, either using elaborate materials for your walls or following this three-tiered decoration style can give your bathroom a gorgeous vintage look and feel. Add to that thick curtains, large patterned rugs, and wood wherever you can put it, and you’ll be able to capture a large part of what made Victorian bathroom design so regal. For authenticity, don’t for get the Cross-Handled Faucets (even if you opt for a single rather than the more historically accurate double tap).
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Bathroom Fixtures As Furniture
Once again, because Victorian bathroom design was largely similar to the design of the rest of their homes, Victorian bathroom fixtures were largely treated as furniture, and as such typically involved a whole lot of wood. Rather than the stereotypical clawfoot tub, Deck Mounted Tubs were often set in mahogany enclosures, with matching Vanities, trim, and often wall paneling. Anywhere a wood accent could be added, such as on a toilet seat or bidet, it was. If there’s one way to give your bathroom a decadent, Victorian feel, this is probably the best one. Modern bathrooms tend to shy away from the use of traditional wood and ceramics, so even if you opt out of wallpaper or heavy ornamentation, the use of dark, exotic woods adds instant opulence in no small part because of its rarity. Add a Crystal Chandelier, and you’ve got a supremely decadent Victorian bathroom getaway.
As well, Victorians believed that it was beneficial to your health to spend as much time as possible after your bath in the buff. Women especially were encouraged to do as many of their toiletries as possible in the bathroom, nude, before dressing and leaving. Victorian bathroom design reflects this with the inclusion of a wide variety of furniture you’d typically associate with other parts of the home. Chairs, dressing tables, wardrobes, Dressers, and full length mirrors were just as important to Victorian bathroom design as the ubiquitous Clawfoot Tub. Adding accent furniture – especially accent chairs, small accent tables, or privacy screens – are a great way to add historical authenticity to your Victorian bathroom design.
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In a lot of ways, authentic, historical Victorian bathroom design isn’t something that would appeal to a modern homeowner, even someone living in and looking to renovate a Victorian era home. These days, we’ve strayed away from busy patterns, intense colors, and the clutter that Victorians loved. But in another sense, we’re very much like them: in a time of relative middle class prosperity (despite a currently rocky economy!) with a penchant for looking to the past for design inspiration. So whether or not you want a Wall-Mounted Sink with Dual Taps and a Clawfoot Tub, there are definitely some things worth stealing from Victorian bathroom design.
- Don’t forget the basics. Your walls, floor, ceiling, and windows are all important to creating the overall ambiance of your bathroom, and creative wall treatments, decadent window dressings, and the occasional rug can all foster a supremely luxurious design. Even a coat of bold-colored paint or lots of pretty pictures or mirrors can make your bathroom more beautiful and more your own.
- A furnished bathroom is a homey bathroom. If you want to make your bathroom a place to unwind, you need to make it a place you can comfortably spend some time. Even just adding a chair or chaise is a great way not only to encourage yourself to use the space, but to make it visually seem more inviting.
- Don’t be afraid to borrow. More than anything, though, the Victorians teach us that good design isn’t necessarily original. Whether it’s from the past or present, east or west, whatever period or movement, if you love it, use it. Eclectic designs are inviting and give you more room to express your personal sense of style.
What do you love about Victorian bathroom design? Are you more interested in creating a period-authentic space or a more romanticized historical design? If you’re interested in learning more about Victorian interior design, or about daily life in the Victorian home in general, check out victorianstation.com, or look for the hefty but fascinating Inside The Victorian Home by Judith Flanders at your local library.