Prescription for Change

Historian Tom McGehee explains how pandemics have shaped home design.

At the end of the 19th century, luxurious bathrooms had dark wood surrounding toilets and sinks, mimicking fashionable furniture.

Having spent increased time indoors over the past year, thanks to the pandemic, many people are rethinking the design of their homes. This is far from a new phenomenon. 

What most would consider the first modern indoor bathrooms developed when outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as cholera, tuberculosis and influenza, were commonplace. Advancements in plumbing put an end to the need for a pitcher, wash basin and chamber pot.

Flushing toilets were suspect at first since it was widely assumed that sewer gasses caused disease, and many Americans were hesitant to give up the chamber pot and the backyard privy. Improvements in venting and plumbing put an end to the theory, and indoor toilets connected to a sanitary sewer became the norm.

For many years, chamber pots and wash basins had been placed on or in pieces of furniture within a bedroom, so it is not surprising to find that the earliest bathrooms had far more wood than they do today. 

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As the 19th century came to an end, luxurious bathrooms had dark wood surrounding the toilet, sink and zinc-lined bathtubs, mimicking fashionable furniture. The floors were also of wood, while walls were covered with heavily patterned wallpaper. 

At the start of the 20th century, bathrooms began to take on the look of laboratories.

A New Century

Ideas of sanitation and hygiene changed rapidly with the arrival of the 20th century. Suddenly, bathrooms developed the look of a laboratory following changes first adopted in hospital design. Patient rooms featured gleaming white walls and furnishings with sunlight streaming through large windows. Both fresh air and sunlight were looked upon as healthier. These bright white rooms became strong visual symbols of good hygiene and sanitation.

By 1910, wallpaper in bathrooms was looked upon as unhealthy since it held dampness and could not be cleaned. Examination of old papers often showed busy patterns had hidden years of fly stains in the days before screened windows had become the norm. Easily cleaned painted walls and tile became the standard. Wood floors gave way to ceramic tile, and anything that was not easily wiped down or washed was suspect.

Nickle-plated brass had emerged in the 1880s to imitate silver. By the late 1890s, it had arrived in kitchens and bathrooms as a tarnish-free and easy-to-clean alternative to brass hardware. White porcelain-coated fixtures replaced the wooden-encased versions and were advertised as being “superior, clean and hygienic.”

Most modest houses in the early 20th century were equipped with a single bathroom used by family members and guests alike. Following the flu epidemic of 1918, a trend developed to add a second bath or at least a half-bath near the home’s entrance for the use of guests. This alleviated fears of a visitor bringing germs into the family’s private space. It was also convenient for more frequent handwashing, either when entering the house or prior to a meal.

Tile would make its way into the kitchen, too, partially replacing the wooden kitchens of old.

The Kitchen Evolves

Sanitary measures quickly changed the look of American kitchens. Sinks rather than buckets had only arrived in kitchens in the mid-19th century. A cold-water tap seemed an improvement on carrying buckets of water into the space, but hot water only arrived with the advent of cast-iron ranges.

While some lamented the end of an open fireplace in the kitchen, iron stoves were far more efficient and were soon equipped with a reservoir to hold hot water. Floors and countertops were made of wood until the 20th century.

Natural gas and eventually electricity became the desired fuel for new stoves, which boasted washable surfaces and gleaming nickel-plated trim. Oversized white porcelain sinks replaced older zinc and walls and woodwork were painted white. Linoleum or ceramic tile covered wooden floors and counters. Gas water heaters now provided a steady supply of hot water.

An “open-air” movement in the 1910s led to a boom of “sleeping porches.”

The Essential Porch

Porches were nearly universally screened by the first decade of the 20th century, and families took advantage of them whenever weather permitted. Another benefit of the porch was the escape from “vitiated” or impure air from a closed-up house. Even hospitals added screened-in porches for their patients.

By the 1910s, an open-air movement was in full swing. Born out of the curative power of fresh air for tuberculosis patients, homeowners were soon being advised to sleep outdoors. The overcrowded conditions in cities was blamed for increased cases in both tuberculosis and cholera. Fresh air became a cure-all prescription, and the idea of a sleeping porch became very appealing. One expert declared, “Many tubercular cases could be avoided if more persons slept outdoors.”

In 1917, a writer for House Beautiful declared “sleeping porches are essentials of health and comfort” and recommended their use year-round. Demand for sleeping porches spiked in the 1920s, and consumers could purchase kits by mail order. Usually located off an upstairs bedroom, these porches were isolated from the public spaces of a home, making them seem even safer from the germs potentially carried by visitors.

The porches were best designed to have open screening on at least two sides to allow for a breeze. While many today might assume their purpose was to escape the summer heat, Americans were advised to use them year-round for an “invigorating” slumber. Roll down shades of canvas were used to block summer rains as well as winter winds.

Magazines touted their benefits and offered suggestions for wintertime comfort. “Layers of paper placed between the mattress and the springs beneath will assist in keeping the sleeper warmer,” advised one writer. Another suggested “flannel pajamas with enclosed feet, and on the coldest nights, wear a hood and use a hot water bottle.”

In Mobile, architect George Rogers was advised by clients that they wanted sleeping porches in their 1921 home in Spring Hill. The caveat was that they could not look like an addition, which was commonplace with older homes. The architect was able to seamlessly include two sleeping porches into the design at each end of the second floor.

Down on South Georgia Avenue, one resident routinely wished her neighbors a good night as the lights were doused. Their sleeping porches were less than 20 feet apart.

By the 20th century, “linoleum and ceramic tile covered wooden floors and counters.

Color Returns

By the late 1920s, as scientists came to better understand the causes of viruses, the design of the American home began to change. Firms like Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company began introducing porcelain fixtures for both bathrooms and kitchens in a kaleidoscope of colors. A kitchen sink was now available in Ming Green or Rose du Barry. Bathroom fixtures were sold in Ionian Black, Claire de Lune (blue) or Ivoire de Medici (yellow). Gone was the stark white bathroom or kitchen and in the most luxurious of bathrooms, gold-plated hardware was now offered in addition to new chrome finishes.

Although white appliances and sinks remained popular as the decades advanced, the popularity of a changing color palette remained. In the 1950s, pink appliances ruled, and then came the 1970s with avocado green and gold reaching a height in popularity. Kitchen cabinets were now finished in a choice of “natural” wood tones.

The idea of an antiseptic bathroom was seemingly forgotten. Busy wallpapers featuring flocked and foiled designs were popular rather than painted walls. Tile floors were suddenly covered by shag carpet in an array of colors while toilet seats and tanks were encased in matching materials. 

Air-conditioning made sleeping porches unnecessary, and they have been largely forgotten. Likewise, the first-floor screened porches were infilled on older homes and eliminated from the plans of the ranch houses being built during the 1970s and 1980s. If front porches were included at all, they were shallow affairs to pause under in a rainstorm before entering the house.

Sleeping porch
On Mobile Bay, sleeping porches remain a healthy (and breezy) feature of some homes. Photo by Jean Allsopp


The pendulum of taste has swung back and forth over the years. Today, thanks in part to the pandemic, house design is changing once again. A half bath located near the entrance of a home is still a big plus, especially with the recent emphasis on frequent handwashing.

The benefit of a bright, light-colored kitchen is appreciated for its aesthetics as well as its cleanliness. White countertops joined with white subway tiles and chrome fixtures are in high demand.

Porches have also made a serious comeback. A recent national poll found that 63 percent of homeowners consider a porch to be a top priority in a home. Today, those porches are more likely to be an extension of the home and contain everything from a large wall-mounted television to a fireplace. What better spot for a family to isolate?

Only the sleeping porch has lagged in popularity — except in Alabama where they are still enjoyed from Tuscaloosa sorority houses to bayfront homes at Point Clear. The pandemic will one day be a memory, but the changes in house design will be with us for quite a while.

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