Friday, August 6, 2010

My first bathroom

The fourth in an occasional series about necessary houses, bogs, WCs, comfort stations, garderobes, heads, johns, ladies' rooms, latrines, lavatories, outhouses, potties, powder rooms, cloakrooms, restrooms, thrones, washrooms, and bathrooms.

Occasionally one hears of bathrooms being described as retreats or sanctuaries, as they may well be for many people. Such descriptions suggest a room spacious enough to include a bathtub larger than the white enameled puddle that is standard in many a bathroom across this land.

I was raised in a house with a bathroom that had the usual appointments for the time - a capacious, claw-footed cast iron tub, a high tank, pull chain toilet pot and a white stoneware sink with chrome taps, no shower and no heating, the only ventilation being an open window. Lighting was an unshaded bulb hanging overhead. Times change, but what the experience of my childhood bathroom has left me with, besides a dislike of unheated bathrooms, with walls running with condensation, is a desire for the (relative) austere and forthright ablution.

In the 1970s, in a mild fit of DIY, I bought some brightly colored wallpaper, an orange plastic bogroll holder to match, peach gloss for the door, and a kerosene heater. I'd had enough of the damned, damp, marrow-sapping chill that very closely matched the dour climate of Lancashire.

There were two coal-burning fireplaces in that house - one in the living room and one, in its never-used-black-leaded purity, in my grandparents bedroom. A situation unimaginable to many in this day and age - the only heating came from one coal fire. The rest of the house went without heat.

Hot water, of which there was plenty in winter, came from a tank that sat behind the back wall of the fireplace. This arrangement had two disadvantages. First, a lot of hot water had to be drained when the thunderous noise made by boiling water came from the fireplace; second, in winter, if the fire was not banked overnight, the water in the tank froze – only to burst when a fire was lit. One advantage was that the hot water storage tank was kept in a closet in my grandparents' bedroom and, being uninsulated, warmed the closet, actually called the "airing cupboard," the place to let newly ironed linens "air" - that is, dry off completely.

Luckily for me, my grandmother loved to wash and iron, and there was plenty of hot water for washing.  Water from the kitchen tap was transferred by bucket to the washing machine, if machine is what one could call it. The first washing machine I ever saw my grandmother use – and if my memory serves me right it was the first she ever owned – was basically a copper kettle, heated by a gas ring underneath, with a lid incorporating a hand-turned agitator, a wringer for squeezing out the water, and a tap low down for draining the water into the bucket that had filled it. My grandmother kept that washer for years.

What I didn't realize then was that I was watching a method of washing that was pure nineteenth-century – if not earlier. It is not easy to imagine nowadays, but washday could last effectively all week, especially if the household was large. My grandmother's washday was Monday, the traditional day for beginning the wash, and seemed to take a whole day. First, as I say, the copper was filled, clothes washed and wrung, the copper emptied of suds, clean water put in at least twice for rinsing, then filled a third time for "bluing" the whites. All went to hang in the garden on a clothes line that always had to be wiped clean of soot (these were the days before any clean-air legislation) before anything was hung. Freezing weather did not diminish the need for washing and hanging out - I remember being charmed by my grandfather's shirt being so stiff from the cold I could hold it in front of me like a board.

Ironing, before she bought an electric iron in the 1960s, was with one made of iron, heated on the stove, tested with a wet finger and – though I don't know why – smoothed on a bar of soap.

As I say, times change, for many years later the Celt and I have a Miele automatic, front-loading washing machine and dryer (still in the kitchen, but that is a story for another day.) Ironing? We both can iron a shirt better than any laundry and even sheets and pillowcases have been known to be dashed with a smoothing iron.

Oh yes... back to the bathroom. I don't need my bathroom to be a sanctuary, retreat or gallery for family photos. What I need is functional, clean and handsome: good light to shave by, a powerful shower, a warm-when-needed floor, and good fresh towels. Pots, potions and other talismans against the evil eye of aging, out of sight in drawers, towels stacked on shelves and other surfaces clear as can be. Get in, get done, get out, get on with the day.

Clean and handsome in our case means travertine floor, largish shower, frameless glass shower doors, Venetian plaster walls that live well with travertine and are sympathetic to early-morning skin, a simple large mirror, two plain sconces and a really big, framed 1970s poster by Rene Gruau advertising Dior's Au Sauvage. Oh, and no tub!

Photo of Charles de Beistegui's bathroom at the Villa Labia, Venice, by Gianni Berengo-Gardin for an essay published in The World of Interiors, April 1987.


  1. Blue, On the same page today-as it were! pgt

  2. I agree with you that I don't need the lavish treatment -but women spend more time in the bathroom so I guess it's understandable. I guess it's the architect in me, but I want a functional space (with a window hopefully) with a cabinet for everything out of sight. No carpets, couches and roman tubs for me!

  3. Yes, perhaps bathrooms ARE a woman thing... I admit to dreaming of having a slate fireplace alongside my clawfoot... but I also admit that I am charmed by the frozen shirt image... the contradictions...

  4. Loved your hanging your past bathrooms out on the line for us to see...and remember our own. In my parents' home there was only one bathroom, but the tub was huge. I used to do my homework while bathing/soaking. In fact, I wrote two essays that I won two trips to Washington DC in that tub. When a reporter asked my dad about that story and was my winning two prizes worth the family "sacrifice," my dad said, "just barely!" At this age, I have giving up the tub for my brand new shower and I love it. The aging aching bones may cry out for tub, but the same body finds the exiting of the shower easier to accomplish. Jealous about the shirt-ironing prowess in your household. I thought I had a prenup that stated no shirt ironing for me. Damn that small print!

  5. Little Augury, hello. I began the post on Tuesday or Wednesday but had to find the right photo - I remembered about which decade it belonged to but had to search. The original photo was of too bland a room.

    Author, thank you. Bathroom advertising is not in the main aimed at men but seemingly designed by them. A fireplace in a bathroom? That seems particularly sybaritic but my ideal would be to have a view to the horizon over water.

    home before dark - thank you for sharing that memory and congratulations on the prize! I must tell you that nowadays some shirts are non-iron cotton - not the best choice as the topical application of a resin that makes the cloth lose wrinkles when heated degrades the shirt to the point of disintegration after about two years and even my ironing skills cannot resurrect it.

    Architect, bathrooms with windows are a real treat especially those with a view. Neither of our bathrooms have windows which is not really a problem but ....

  6. I have to admit that I've never really understood the whole bathroom as sanctuary thing. I'd far prefer to luxuriate in a study or library than the bathroom. I wish that my bathroom looked like yours, though!

  7. Oh DO start me on laundry, (Reckitts) Blue. My mother was a bit in advance of your grandmother with a massive toploading washing machine lined in spotted enamel. I would sit for ages watching the bubbles chase each other across the glass top during what was probably quite a slow spin. My friend's mother messed about with a Hoover twin tub and rubber hose pipe disgorging hot suds into the sink. I loved the smell. And I liked her mechanical mangle on the top, pleading to feed the clothes through it.

    Sounds like not enough ironing of bed linen goes on these days! My wretched daughter doesn't even own an ironing board. (Christmas present eh).

    Do you think global warming could be ameloriated if America (and most of the West) reintroduced the washing line? I won't own a tumble drier - horrible things. Mind you, my kitchen will look like a Chinese laundry on wet days for a few hours. Small price to pay for being so damn smug?

  8. I love this childhood remembrance. It reminds one that our modern conveniences are indeed a luxury. To this day our summer cottage boasts a very small well and claw-foot bathtub where we all take quick 2-minute showers (so quick that one barely has time to allow the water to warm up).

  9. Janet, that's a long time to spend in the shower - two whole minutes. Mind you, the Celt has been known to take a half-hour shower but only when he's in a hurry.

  10. I covet your handsome Au Suavage haven, having had near identical plans for my 1930's pink and black tiled bathroom: ditch the tub, install a shower with frameless doors, and a well-lit large mirror. Perfect!

  11. VoiceTalk, thank you. Believe me, ditching the tub is the best thing ever. The normal tub is merely a footbath, anyway. I cannot find the photo of the shower side of the bathroom.