Northwest Renovation Magazine

A Home Improvement Magazine

Indoor plumbing became commonplace in new homes during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. By 1900, most all-new construction of middle class housing contained indoor bathrooms. The American bungalow — popular in the 1900-1930 period — developed along with the modern American bathroom. Bungalows, considered the most modern homes of the time, had bathrooms that reflected the latest trends and highest standards of efficiency that indoor plumbing could provide.

Early bungalow bathrooms were quite small by today’s standards. Many occupants of the earliest bungalows would still have had not-so-fond memories of traipsing to the outhouse in cold or inclement weather.

Above, new hexagon floor tile shown in this example of a restored bungalow bath.
Photo courtesy of Arciform, LLC.
Above, a restored bath with old parts that can still be found at local vintage hardware stores. Left, original hexagon and subway tiles in good shape.
Right, a rib-cage shower stall in the male master bath at the Pittock mansion here in Portland.

The smallness of the indoor bathroom was not a pressing concern by comparison. Bungalow bathrooms gradually became somewhat larger and more commodious as the style progressed.

One bathroom per bungalow was the norm. It would have been the rare and wealthy family that would have had two full bathrooms in their bungalow. Occasionally there would have been an extra toilet (the “W.C.” or water closet), in its own tiny room with window, at the end of a hall, on the back porch, or in the basement. If your bungalow has more than one bathroom, most likely one was an addition.

One of the most common places to locate the bungalow bathroom was between two bedrooms along a hallway that opened up into the living room. A larger bathroom might have had a door or doors connected to one or both of the adjacent bedrooms. Because of the limited number of ways that standard-size fixtures could fit into the bathroom space, many bungalow bathrooms appear quite similar.

Variations did occur during the thirty years that the bungalow reigned as America’s favorite house type. The very earliest bungalow bathrooms were mere carry-overs from the still-novel indoor bathrooms of the late Victorian era. Walls were usually painted white with several extra layers of enamel on the lower portions. Wall and ceiling tile was not common during these early years. In more substantial and expensive bungalows, vertical beadboard — a Victorian favorite — was often used as wainscoting. Another Victorian carry-over was the pull-chain overhead W.C. used to provide a gravity flush to the toilet below. These were generally made of oak and lined with zinc to prevent water damage to the tank. Likewise, early toilet seats were usually varnished oak as well. Every bathroom had a clawfoot tub; this ever-popular Victorian bath fixture persisted into the 1920s.

As the bungalow style caught on, bathrooms began shedding the earlier Victorian appearance and developed their own bungalow style. These new bathrooms mostly reflected the practicality and simplicity of the Craftsman movement occurring at the same time. This bungalow bathroom style persisted until the early 1920s, when a new wave of jazz-age-inspired design took bathrooms for a walk on the wild side.

The “Sanitary Movement” of the early 1900s played a large role in the evolution of the bungalow bathroom as well. An emphasis on bathroom cleanliness produced wall and ceiling tiles that could be wiped down and cleaned easily. At first, wall tiles were of the rectangular “subway tile” variety (so named for the similar tile used in newly opened subway stations in New York, Boston, and Chicago).

By the 1920s, these were gradually being replaced with the 4” x 4” square tiles that are still popular today. The most common type of floor tile for the bungalow bathroom was the 1” hexagonal mosaic. Its unglazed ceramic face and the many grout lines resulting from its small size produced a virtually skid-proof surface. There seldom has been a good reason to replace these almost indestructible floor tiles. Many have survived the years to this present day, looking as good as new.

In the early-mid bungalow both floor and wall tiles were always mandated to be white — for sanitary reasons of course. Bathroom plumbing fixtures were also white. The wooden pull-chain W.C. quickly gave way to the new low-rise, white ceramic toilet tank that we still use today. The comfortable and warm wooden toilet seat persisted for some years, though any truly modern bungalow homeowner would have installed a molded white toilet seat to go with the all-white bathroom.

The jazz age and the Art Deco movement of the 1920s added pizzazz to the late bungalow bathroom. In place of the sanitary all-white color scheme marched bold and assertive colors for tile, fixtures, and paint. “Nile Green” fixtures, for instance, became all the rage after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. By the end of the decade, eccentric color combinations such as “Orchid” (lavender) plumbing fixtures and green wall tile with shiny black borders had become the norm in many middle class bathrooms. The Roaring Twenties had come to the bathroom.

The pedestal sink was a sought-after upgrade in both early and later bungalow bathrooms. More modest bathrooms made do with a smaller wall-mounted sink. The sink/cabinet combos common in today’s houses would have been unknown in bungalow bathrooms. The largest and most expensive bathrooms would have a built-in vanity and mirror on the opposite wall from the sink. Medicine cabinets — often finished in painted Craftsman wood trim — were always recessed into the wall with the mirror nearly flush to the wall. If the bathroom was large enough to have two windows, the sink would be placed between them for better light.

The popular clawfoot tub was eventually replaced by the “one-piece” that eliminated the need for cleaning under the tub. These were often set in a corner or placed into a recessed alcove. Showers became more and more popular as well. Early bungalow bathrooms often had a separate tiled shower stall apart from the tub. Practicality won out, and the shower-over-the-tub became the norm. The shower faucet was set low by today’s standards, not because people were shorter, but because they didn’t want to get their hair wet. It was thought unhealthful to wash your hair too often.

The most expensive bungalow bathrooms had “rib-cage” showers, designed to spew water at you from all sides, not just the top.

If you are considering restoring your bungalow bathroom to its original appearance, there are many resources available. Since the bungalow is arguably Portland’s most common old house type, there are many salvage yards with bungalow house parts for sale. Also check out the fine period-reproduction light and plumbing fixtures that are being sold today. Books and magazines on bungalows and bungalow restoration are another good resource. These can be found in larger bookstores or at the public library.

Click Cover to view a Digital Version of the current issue.