The Evolution of the Bath Room

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

It’s World Toilet Day, a day emphasizing the importance of sanitation to public health and reminding us that 2.4 billion people still do not have access to basic toilets.1 On this day, we look back to a historic time of toilet transformation in America and look forward to a time when disease-mitigating sanitation becomes available for all.

The Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company formed in Pennsylvania in 1875.2 At that time, indoor bathrooms had only just begun to appear in urban and suburban settings, newly possible thanks to the advent of sewer systems.3 Early indoor bathrooms hid plumbing and fixtures under wooden doors and cupboards.2,4 But by the publication of Standard Sanitary’s The Evolution of the Bath Room circa 1912, open plumbing and visible commodes had taken over bathroom design: “The bathroom of today is infinitely more cleanly, durable and efficient.”2 And the public health infrastructure that allowed for them, like sewers and access to clean water, saved lives.

Back cover, The Evolution of the Bath Room, circa 1912. Cover, The Evolution of the Bath Room, circa 1912. The 1870s-style bathroom is shown on top. The 1912-era bathroom is on the bottom.

Back cover, The Evolution of the Bath Room, circa 1912. The 1870s-style bathroom is shown on top. The 1912-era bathroom is on the bottom.

The bathrooms of this pamphlet look like the ones we have in 21st century America (except, in some cases, for their cavernous size and luxurious fittings). But today we are not as excited about our commodes as Standard Sanitary would like us to be: “The bathroom is rightly considered by many as the first room in the home and is exhibited to guests with the utmost pride. Truly the comfort that may be derived from a complete and up-to-date bathroom is worthy of this appreciation.”2

Along with several other companies, including Kohler (founded in 1873),4 Standard Sanitary worked at the forefront of the plumbing industry. The company developed “the one-piece toilet, built-in tubs, combination faucets (which mix hot and cold water to deliver tempered water) and tarnish-proof, corrosion-proof chrome finishes for brass fittings.”5 By 1929, Standard Sanitation led the bathroom fixture market worldwide. It still exists today as the American Standard company.

Enjoy perusing the full pamphlet, full of memorable quips like: “There is nothing which will appeal so strongly to the fastidious and careful housewife, and be so great a source of enjoyment, as modern high-grade fixtures.”2

Click on an image to view the gallery.


1. World Toilet Day. Available at: Accessed November 10, 2015.

2. Standard Sanitary Mfg. Co. The evolution of the bath room. Pittsburgh: Standard Sanitary Mfg. Co; [1912].

3. Duncombe T. A long soak in the subject of bathrooms. Philadelphia Inquirer. Published October 1991. Accessed November 10, 2015.

4. Horan J. Sitting pretty: An uninhibited history of the toilet. London: Robson; 1998.

5. American Standard. Company Information. Available at: Accessed November 4, 2015.

A Different Kind of Flush

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

It’s World Toilet Day, a day reminding us that one-third of the world’s population does not have access to a toilet and consequently faces serious sanitary challenges.1

Similar difficulties once faced places where toilets are now widespread. In much of the Western world, filthy urban streets, unregulated sanitation, and a series of epidemics marked the early 1800s. Things began to change at the end of the century, dubbed in Sitting Pretty: An Uninhibited History of the Toilet as “the golden age of toilets,” due in part to innovative toilet design, consolidated sewage systems, and a better understanding of disease transmission.2

Flushing the toilet was a loud business in the 1800s, one often plagued by insufficient water and unpleasant smells. These issues with water toilets led to Reverend Henry Moule’s invention of the earth closet in 1860.2,3

The most basic version of the earth closet was a seat above a bucket filled with “fine dry earth, charcoal, or ashes.” Pulling a handle caused fresh earth to fall into the bucket from above. More elaborate versions included closets on adjacent floors, connected via a chute in the wall.3

The inner workings of a basic earth closet.4

The inner workings of a basic earth closet.4 Click to enlarge.

Multistory Earth Closet

Earth closets on multiple floors, connected by a chute.4 Click to enlarge.

In an 1872 pamphlet in our collection, “Earth-closets and earth sewage,” author George E. Waring, a 19th-century champion of sanitation, advocated for the earth closet’s use. According to Waring, benefits included a lack of odors; the “complete and effectual removal of all the liquid wastes of sleeping-rooms and kitchens”; the collection of “manure worth . . . at least $10 per annum for each member of the family”; and disease prevention.4

Waring acknowledged the growing popularity of the water toilet, writing:

“The water-closet is the chief thing of which women living in the country envy their city cousins the possession. In country-houses, one of the first steps toward elegance is the erection of an expensive water-closet in the house, provided with a force-pump that is doomed to break both the back and the temper of the hired man; a tank and pipes which are pretty sure to be burst by frost every winter; the annual tax of the plumber’s bill; and, worse than all, a receptacle in the garden known as a ‘cess-pool,’ which usually has a private subterranean communication with the well from which drinking water is taken.”4

By contrast, wrote Waring, the “properly constructed” earth closet was odorless and absent “of the depressing, headachy effect that always accompanies the water-closet or night chair.” He also argued that outdoor privies, if they must exist, should become earth closets.4

Clearly earth closets clearly never gained the popularity Waring hoped they’d enjoy, although some use their cousin, the composting toilet, today. Whatever toilet you use, give thanks on World Toilet Day for its enormous public health benefits.


1. What is World Toilet Day? (n.d.). World Toilet Day. Retrieved August 29, 2013, from

2. Horan, J. L. (1998). Sitting pretty: an uninhibited history of the toilet. London: Robson.

3. Wright, L. (1960). Clean and decent: the fascinating history of the bathroom & the water closet, and of sundry habits, fashions & accessories of the toilet, principally in Great Britain, France, & America. New York: Viking Press.

4. Waring, G. E. (1872). Earth-closets and earth sewage. New York: Orange Judd and Co.