What’s the deal with showers?


“We receive a lot of inquiries about antique showers. Many, many people also comment to us 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!” our friend, Don Hooper, revealed. “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, we offer the following information, most of which is taken directly from an article written by Stephen del Sordo, environmental engineer and old house historian and preservationist, that appeared in the Nov/Dec 1994 issue of the bible for antique home owners, the Old House Journal.


It was uncommon for homes built before the 1920s to have a shower at all. For many homeowners, adding a shower (even to an existing bathtub) was an unnecessary expense. There was the bill for the extra plumbing fixture and installation, and there was the hidden cost of constantly repairing wood wainscot and plaster, the principal wall covering in pre-World War I bathrooms. The only thing between these surfaces and the shower spray was a rubber or duck-canvas curtain.” Even where indoor plumbing was common, such as the big cities, showers were used primarily by men, 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, and the streams of water were widely felt to be harmful to women, who were considered the weaker sex, delicate and fragile compared to men. In 1914 home décor authority Charles E. White, Jr. wrote that “…some constitutions cannot stand the rigors of shower bathing, a practice which should be resorted to only under the advice of a physician.” 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 believed they had medicinal purposes and thought the sprays had “therapeutic value for ‘stimulating the proper action of the skin.’ In time, though, showering was linked to personal hygiene and their use increased. The germ theory, confirmed in the 1880s, trickled down to the public as the sanitary movement of the early 20th century.” This began to have an effect on how people outfitted their bathrooms.


Still, people who owned homes with showers prior to and even up through the 1920s 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, the most expensive complete bathroom set in the Sears, Roebuck and Company 1910 Home Builders Catalog, which included a tub, sink, and toilet with all necessary fittings to hook up (without shower), was listed at $49.95.


This might help explain the rarity of antique showers today, especially the ribcage or needle showers, as they were mainly only found in a very few upscale homes. As tastes changed, these were the ones most likely to be remodeled or modernized so these showers did not tend to hang around once removed from their original installation. Often, they were scrapped out for brass, and lost forever. As a result of all this, they are incredibly rare and highly sought after by some restorers who have seen them in old magazines or catalogs.