When the Outhouse Came Indoors

by Roger Mayland
North Prairie Tileworks

Have you ever been in an older bathroom that was constructed in the early 1900s when bathrooms were first becoming part of our homes and wondered, “Why is there all this white tile?” Did you assume that even in 1915 most people wanted to avoid offending potential home buyers so they had white tile installed?

Prior to 1850 in this country, the bathroom virtually did not exist; most homes had a privy, which was a small wooden shack with a hole dug in the ground. But with the development of new products and systems, as well as the development of public health, the outhouse came indoors. According to the Bungalow Bathroom by Powell and Svendsen, concerns raised by sanitary reformers after the Civil War about drinking water and the disposal of human waste became based upon scientific principles. Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease focused on hygiene, and by 1907 indoor plumbing had become the standard in metropolitan areas in the United States.

The entrenchment of white tile in the bathroom seems to be due to it becoming synonymous with cleanliness and good hygiene. According to Powell and Svendsen, an 1885 Good Housekeeping article assured their readers that, “white encaustic tiles would ensure bright appearance, superior cleanliness, and purity.” Whether it was an individual or the whole ceramic tile industry, the use of white tile in bathrooms is no less than an outstanding marketing success story.

Handmade Tile Association
34 Thirteenth Avenue NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413

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