A Discussion on Antique Showers
What is the deal with showers?
I receive a lot inquiries about adapting a shower or at least a hand sprayer to an old rolled rim bathtub that has standing hardware. And there is no good and easy way to do it. And people ask why that is, since the shower or hand sprayer is such a vital and fundamental piece of bathing equipment. Many, many people also comment to me that the bathrooms in their pre-1930s houses, and especially Victorian or Arts & Crafts era homes, lack a shower altogether. And many of these homes are upper class houses or mansions, and even they do not have so much as one shower anywhere in the house! People cannot fathom why that is, since a shower would be the first fixture you would put in a house today, after a toilet and a sink. To provide enlightenment on the history of residential showers in America, as well as to try to explain why antique showers today have to be so doggoned expensive, I offer the following information, most of which is taken directly from an article that appeared in the Nov/Dec 1994 issue of the bible for antique home owners, the Old House Journal. The writer is Stephen del Sordo, environmental engineer and old house historian and preservationist.
It was uncommon for homes built before the 1920s to have a shower in them. For homeowners of the time, a shower was an unnecessary expense. Besides the bill for the extra plumbing fixture and installation, there was the hidden cost of constantly repairing wood wainscot and plaster, the principal wall covering in pre-World War 1 bathrooms. Only a rubber or duck-canvas curtain contained the shower spray, and that did not work real well. Even where indoor plumbing was common, such as the big cities, showers were used primarily by men, and not women. Showers had been in use in barracks, gymnasiums and bathhouses since at least the 1880s, but those places were generally inhabited by men. The shower was strongly associated therefore with athleticism and men. Women were considered the weaker sex, delicate and fragile compared to men. The streams of water were widely felt to be harmful to women. Home décor authority Charles E. White wrote in 1914 that "……some constitutions cannot stand the rigors of shower bathing, a practice which should be resorted to only under the advice of a physician." So, well up until the 1930s, most women would not consider showering, so what need was there for a shower fixture in the home? Bathing was done in the tub. But showers did have a purpose in the home for those who felt the need, and the purpose was medicinal or therapeutic. Shower sprays were believed to stimulate the action of the skin, and make some people healthier. Not until the late 20s and 30s did new ideas regarding germs and hygiene trickle into the public consciousness and begin to have an effect on how people outfitted their bathrooms.
But, there were some people who specified showers for pre-1920 homes, and those people tended to be wealthy. The showers that had the most therapeutic value were the ones that had multiple sprays that would apply jets of water to specific parts of the body. These showers were called needle showers, since the fine jets of spray would strike the kidney area, ribcage, liver or spine like fine needles. These elaborate showers were very expensive, commonly costing from $300 to about $500. By comparison, Sears and Roebucks 1910 Home Builders Catalog list its most expensive complete bathroom ensemble, tub, sink and water closet with all necessary fittings to hook up, (without shower) for $49.95.
This might help explain the rarity of antique showers today, especially the ribcage or needle showers. They were mainly only found in a very few upscale homes, the ones most likely to be remodeled or modernized as tastes changed. And then, with their elaborate brass tubing and castings construction, they were strong candidates for the scrap metal yard. Brass has always been a highly sought after commodity, so these showers did not tend to hang around once removed from their original installation. They were scrapped out for brass, and lost forever. As a result of all this, they are rare as hen's teeth now, and highly sought after by some old house people who have seen them in magazines or in old catalogs
The streams of water were widely felt to be harmful to women. Home décor authority Charles E. White wrote in 1914 that "……some constitutions cannot stand the rigors of shower bathing, a practice which should be resorted to only under the advice of a physician."