Today, the bathroom constitutes one of the most indulgent and expensive aspects of luxury home building; it is a space for relaxation, rejuvenation, and ‘style’. Prior to about 1880, however, the bathroom as we understand it (generally en suite, with both toilet and bath) was virtually nonexistent, and not until the 1920s did it become a common feature of domestic design. Like so many things that are now taken for granted as standard aspects of household function—the refrigerated kitchen, the heated den—the plumbed private bathroom was an invention of the Gilded Age, and, more specifically, of the Gilded Age mansion house. (Though, like other innovations of the period, the modern bathroom was primarily a matter of practicality and was used in a variety of building types, it was in the mansions of the fabulously wealthy that it was introduced into the decorative canon of fashionable domesticity.) It was the epitome of American comfort and convenience, as Clive Aslet describes in his chapter on ‘The American-ness of the American Country House’, and constitutes one of the period’s most important and lasting contributions to domestic architecture. Why, then, has there been so little discussion of the Gilded Age bathroom?
Broadly speaking, the problems surrounding the Gilded Age bathroom are those surrounding the Gilded Age as a whole, namely, the uncertain position of the Gilded Age within history (with one foot firmly in the past it neither conformed to nor rejected modern fashions or ideals, and has therefore defied that most convenient academic device which is categorization) and the lingering bias expressed in the language used to discuss it (‘gilded’, ‘robber baron’, ‘parvenu’-- even the more technical architectural ‘revival’ suggests a lack of originality). To these are added a historical tendency to avoid, especially in polite society, the topic of personal hygiene and a concomitant disregard for the bathroom as anything more than a utilitarian space. (In contemporary museum and heritage operations, bathrooms, along with kitchens and other service spaces, are often among the first to be sacrificed for other uses.)
The purpose of this study will be to address these issues and instate the bathroom as a vital part of the history of ‘great house’ building, highlighting the impact of technology on the modern house, and calling attention to Gilded Age mansions as innovative rather than purely imitative spaces. It will also be to investigate what exactly the Gilded Age bathroom is: How is it arranged and decorated? What does it include and not include? Where in the house is it positioned? How is perceived by the public, by architects and decorators, and by its foreign observers? How does it relate to other, historical bathing and grooming spaces and rituals (e.g. the Roman bath, the French toilette)?
The study will look primarily at mansions built at Newport, the most fashionable resort destination of Gilded Age Society, between ca. 1890 and ca. 1910, such as Marble House and The Breakers, but will also consider other locations of significance, such as George W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC (which boasted an astounding 43 bathrooms). The most important resources for study will be the houses themselves, as well as any surviving documentation of their design, construction, restoration, and maintenance. The forthcoming text Technology in the Country House, published as part of the Country House Technology Project headed by Dr. Ian West and Professor Marilyn Palmer at the Centre for the Study of the Country House (a joint venture between the University of Leicester and the Lamport Hall Preservation Trust) will also be key.
The goal of this study will be to document an important development in architectural history and to create a concise, objective analysis on which future research can build. For me, it will form part of a larger study of architectural innovation in this period and will be an important stepping stone in my preparation for doctoral work.
A (very) few key texts:
Aslet, Clive, The American Country House (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990)
---. The Edwardian Country House: A Social and Architectural History (London, Francis Lincoln, 2012; orig. published as The Last Country Houses in 1982)
Barnwell, P. S., and Marilyn Palmer, ed., Country House Technology (Rewley House Studies in the Historic Environment) (Stamford: Paul Watkins, 2012)
Craven, Wayne, Gilded Mansions: Architecture and High Society (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009)
Girouard, Mark, Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History (New York: Penguin Books, 1980)
Kathrens, Michael C., Newport Villas: The Revival Styles, 1885-1935 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009)
Palmer, Marilyn, and Ian West, Technology in the Country House (expected August 2016)
Tinniswood, Adrian, The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House, 1918-1939 (New York: Basic Books, 2016)
Wharton, Edith, and Ogden Codman, Jr., The Decoration of Houses (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913)
de Wolfe, Elsie, The House in Good Taste (New York: Century, 1913)
Above: Mrs. Berwind's Bathroom, The Elms, Newport, RI, Horace Trumbauer, 1898-1901. Left: Mrs. Berwind's bathroom, looking east. Right: View of the callbox in Mrs. Berwind's bathroom. (Library of Congress, HABS RI-344, nos. 28-9).