This week I am out of the office and into the mansions, photographing bathroom fittings and fixtures at The Elms, Marble House, Rosecliff, and The Breakers—four of Newport's most spectacular Gilded Age residences. Among the things to which I am paying special attention in this process is hardware—the 'practical' stuff, regularly overlooked, and often the most useful in determining dates and arrangements. Fixed, immovable (on a regular basis), and positioned strategically for specific purposes, these, like the tubs, toilets, sinks, etc., are part of the bones of the room, and have much to tell about how and when they were used, disused, updated, and so on.
Iron fixtures like the one on the left, a soap dish manufactured by J. L. Mott Iron Works, usually bear a maker's or manufacturer's mark. Along with the name of the manufacturer, these marks often include a U. S. patent number and patent date or dates, which can be searched (in many cases digitally) through the United States Patent and Trademark Office. With a firm date, these items can then be identified in the detailed catalogs, where they exist and can be accessed, produced by firms to advertise their wares. When the date matches the suggested date of the room, I know that the pieces are original; when they differ, I know that I have an update, a retrofit or, in rare cases, the opposite (a room with fixtures that significantly predate its design and construction), to unravel. Conversely, where no date for a room is known, fixtures are an excellent place to start.
Where no hardware is found, certain identifiable patterns of holes in the wall suggest its original placement, and certain crack patterns, residual discolorations, and other traces can provide clues as to, for example, how an item was attached or of what material (certain metals react differently with certain stones) it was made. Custom fixtures—always a fun puzzle—stand out precisely for their exceptional (i.e. non-standard, unpredictable) qualities.
For door handles, like the one on the right, the answers are not always straightforward. Which way a door opens (in many Gilded Age examples, there are at least two and sometimes three or four doors in a single bathroom) indicates a suggested or intended flow of traffic. The decoration on a door might be different on either side, each side decorated to match the decor and overall arrangement of the respective room of which it is part. In some cases, the level of decoration indicates a level of privacy or access: for example, a concealed door might draw attention away from the existence of a room beyond, or a plain door might suggest a primarily practical (service) function. In terms of hardware, several points can be considered in approximating a date or status: Do the handle and lock plate match those found on similar doors within the house? Is their design consistent with the rest of the decorative hardware in the room? and with the general decor? (This is particularly important in ensemble interiors.) Is the keyhole in any way obstructed (which might suggest an alteration)? And, finally, when the fixture is removed, do the holes, paint, 'age lines', etc., match with the current hardware?
As always, histories of rooms over time are varied and variable works-in-progress. For bathrooms, however, the devil is usually in the details, and the details are usually to be found on the fixtures.
Photos by author.