Restoring or Updating Your Vic­tor­ian House?

Contact us for authentic Vic­tor­ian period design, preservation, restoration, renovation and remodeling services.
Italianate House Drawing: Victoria Heritage Foundation.

We specialize in updating period homes while preserving the feel, style and craftsmanship of the historic era. We can seamlessly incorporate a modern kitchen, bath or addition into your Vic­tor­ian home.

The Vic­tor­ian Bath The First Spa Bathroom

The Vic­tor­ians invented the modern bath with running water, porcelain fixtures, and a flushing toilet. And, to celebrate their inventiveness, decorated the room with as much fuss and detail as they could. Vic­tor­ian bathrooms, especially in England and the Northeast United States were elaborate, fanciful rooms.

But, while it's easy to view the Vic­tor­ian Bathroom as yet another example of Vic­tor­ian excess. it's also an over-simp­li­fi­ca­tion. Some were indeed opulently appointed, particularly in the homes of the well-to-do, where the bathroom was often as much as showplace as the main parlor. But, the focus of most Vic­tor­ian-era bathrooms was not decoration. It was comfort. They were, in many ways the most comfortable baths ever designed, intended not just for bathing but also for luxuriating and relaxing. The large rolled-edge bathtub almost demanded a leisurely soak with lavender oil and a good book.

The focus on comfort translates well to today's Vic­tor­ian home — and even to homes that are not the least Vic­tor­ian. Sleek, sanitized functionality may have held sway in American bathrooms for the past 100 years but homeowners seem to be returning to the cozy bathrooms of the past as a place to relax, refresh, renew and shed the cares of a busy and stressful day.

Fixture and accessory companies have recognized the trend and are offering more vintage looks than ever before, all with modern functionality.

Even companies such as Axor and Duravit, which make fixtures by top European contemporary designers, are bowing to the period trend with new lines, inspired by the 19th century Vic­tor­ian and Belle Epoque traditions. So, the options for outfitting your Vic­tor­ian bath have never been greater.

The Vic­tor­ian Bathtub

The defining characteristic of a Vic­tor­ian bath is a large bathtub, usually a clawfoot or pedestal tub. The tub, connected to running water, was an innovation that sparked a change in the hygiene habits of Americans.

Prior to the Vic­tor­ian Age, a bath once or twice a year was thought to be adequate. More frequent bathing was considered somehow unmanly and even hazardous to health. The Vic­tor­ians changed that by focusing on hygiene as a social priority during the last half of the Era. A whole raft of organizations and societies trumpeted the benefits of frequent bathing — with soap, mind you — and by the turn of the 20th century, weekly bathing was the rule, at least in Vic­tor­ian cities, and the Saturday night bath a family ritual.

If you are lucky, your Vic­tor­ian bathroom already has a lovely old clawfoot or pedestal tub, so all you need to do is get it cleaned up and polished. Most of these tubs have a thick coat of porcelain enamel, so thick that it can be buffed out several times. So, if your tub is not actually rusting away (and sometimes even if it is), it can be restored to nearly new condition.

If your tub is too far gone for a clean and polish, it needs to be refinished. Typical refinishing involves applying an acrylic urethane resin over the original porcelain glazing after any chips or gouges are filled and sanded smooth. At a cost of about $350, it is an inexpensive way of getting more use out of a historically accurate tub. The downside, however, is that the coating lasts just 5-10 years, then it has to be done again.

Replacing the original glazing with new glazing is a more expensive proposition. It cannot be done on-site. The tub will have to be shipped to the finishing shop. Companies like Custom Ceramic Coatings of Lenzburg, Illinois, will re-porcelain tubs in a furnace, the same way the tubs got their original finish. The old finish is sandblasted away, then a new enamel coating baked on at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit.

The cost to treat a tub is $800 to $1,400, not including shipping and the wait-list is six months or longer. The upside is that the new glazed coating is just as tough as the original and will last decades or even centuries with proper care.

If you don't have a tub, or it's just too cruddy to save even with refinishing, there are plenty of local and national sources of new and refurbished tubs. New tubs have some nice features, including compatibility with modern plumbing fixtures, and can include a whirlpool or Jacuzzi.

Old tubs have something new tubs will never have, however: the patina and ethos of age and history. Given a choice, we usually opt for a refurbished old tub over a new tub.

Unfortunately, if you do have an original clawfoot tub, you probably also have the original plumbing. Plan on replacing most of this. It may include pipes made of lead (which you absolutely want to get rid of) or more probably in this part of the country, galvanized steel. But in either case, it is well beyond its useful life and needs to go.

The faucets (actually called "fillers") that work with clawfoot tubs are special. The most compatible with modern bathing are the "telephone" style arrangements with separate hand shower. But some old tubs do not fit modern faucets, and the choice may be to find an old valves. These were designed to work with old tubs that did not have holes in the right places for an overflow and filler, so all of these features were moved out of the tub and into this elaborate device that handled filling, draining, and overflow protection.

Original standing wastes are hard to find but worth the effort, and they usually need to be refinished and sometimes re-machined. Modern replacements are available from such companies as Strom Plumbing, our go-to source for reproduction Vic­tor­ian plumbing.

If at all possible, the tub should be near the center of the room, away from the walls. Putting a clawfoot or pedestal tub next to a wall makes it a major chore to clean behind the tub. Of course, if your room is too small to permit a central location for the tub, having a large tub next to the wall (but no closer than 6 inches) is better than not having a large tub but figure on a periodic hands-and-knees cleanup.

If your space is too small for a large clawfoot or pedestal tub, there is salvation in the smaller clawfoot tubs available, particularly the slipper tub, which provides nearly as much comfort in a smaller footprint. If your room is smaller still, we have had success with a standard 60" drop-in bathtub. We build the enclosure to house the tub in a Vic­tor­ian style, and the arrangement seems to work well.

For much more about selecting a bathtub and the features to look for, see Selecting Bathroom Fixtures: Showers and Bathtubs.

The Victorian Shower

If you want a shower in your Vic­tor­ian bathroom, you may have to get a little creative. The Vic­tor­ians rarely had showers as we know them today.

The bathtub was standard in a Vic­tor­ian-era bathroom. If there was a shower it was usually a showerhead suspended over the tub with a curtain on a ring hanging from the ceiling. Shower rings are still available, and a shower over the tub is certainly an option.

It's just not very convenient. First, it's small — generally no wider than the tub itself. Second, the curtain is both inconvenient to use and even more inconvenient to store out of the way when not in use. It's also hard to keep clean and seems to be a preferred place for mold and mildew to take root.

A better solution, if space is available, is a separate shower made to look Vic­tor­ian with appropriate tiles and tile patterns. This approach combines the convenience of a modern shower with the Vic­tor­ian look, the best of both worlds.

There are a couple of caveats. First, the plumbing should look Vic­tor­ian, with exposed chromed or nickel-plated piping (where permitted) and an overhead rain showerhead. Second, the tile used for the shower should blend into the rest of the room so the shower is not obvious. We cannot hide the shower but it should not be conspicuous. Lastly, use a much glass as possible so the shower does not reduce the visual size of the room.

For a handsome example of a modern shower in a Vic­tor­ian style, see the photo above right of the shower designed by architect Andre Rothblatt. The generous use of glass makes it almost disappear. But, what you can see looks authentic, although it really is not.

Heating Water

The main inconvenience in early Vic­tor­ian baths was the need to heat water on the stove, then carry it to the bathtub for comfortable bathing.

The Vic­tor­ian house after 1870 usually included running water but not hot running water. Various inventors tried to fill the gap, leading to all sorts of interesting devices. One, commonly found in English Vic­tor­ian houses was the "copper" — essentially a small brick or stone fireplace in the bathroom into which a large copper (or more often, cast-iron) kettle was inserted. A wood or coal fire was built beneath the kettle to heat the water. The large, heavy and hot kettle was then carried to wherever the water was needed.

Another solution involved a gas fire located under the bathtub to heat the water in the tub. This eliminated the nuisance and danger of carrying hot kettles to the tub but it was not a completely satisfactory solution for at least two reasons. There was no good way to vent the exhaust gases from the gas fire so the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning tended to spoil one's relaxing bath. And, as the fire was not regulated, it was entirely possible to blister one's bum. Between the risk of asphyxiation and the threat of posterior toasting, it was probably difficult to completely relax with a good book on a languid Saturday morning.

The Vic­tor­ian Water Heater

Early water heaters were cast-iron and resplendently decorated as befitted their exalted status in the late Vic­tor­ian home where they were often on public display as evidence of the family's wealth and achievement.

Fueled by natural gas, they were not completely safe until the invention of the temperature and pressure relief valve patented by the Watts Regulator Co. in the early 1900s. The valve helped prevent an overheated tank from exploding.

An astonishing num­ber are still in service, although not very efficient and repair parts are getting very hard to find.

In the late Vic­tor­ian period, cast-iron kitchen stoves could be fitted with a copper water tank in which water was heated through an exchanger. A full day of cooking produced abundant hot water that could be drawn off at several points in the home through copper pipes, including the bathtub. But, in order to assure a constant supply of hot water, the kitchen stove had to be kept burning most of the day, which in summer was a decided nuisance.

The Vic­tor­ian Water Heater

The man who solved the problem was Norwegian Edwin Ruud who invented the automatic storage water heater in 1889 (patented in 1891) a few years after he immigrated to Pittsburg to work for George Westinghouse.

His invention was made possible by the nearly universal availability of natural gas in Vic­tor­ian cities after 1880. The device stored hot water in a tank, now usually located out of sight in the basement but his early ornate iron versions were often located right in the bathroom or kitchen for all to admire. The tank contained a thermostat that automatically turned on a gas fire to reheat the water as it cooled or was used.

He founded the Ruud Manufacturing Company to make his heaters. His invention is the type of water

heater most American homes use today (Europeans and Asians are more likely to have smaller, tankless, instant water heaters).

Much more convenient and safer than earlier efforts, the water heater was still not completely safe until the invention of the temperature and pressure relief valve patented by the Watts Regulator Company in the early 1900s. Added to the water heater, it kept the heater from exploding from excessive pressure — an event that could level a house and kill or injure all inside, or at very least, startle the cat.

By 1910 a new home in an urban area that did not include a water heater was a rarity, and plumbers were kept busy retrofitting existing homes with the wondrous new invention.

The Flushing Toilet

The first known flushing toilet was a gift to Elizabeth I of England in 1596. It did not work very well and it was not until the 19th century and the invention of the sanitary si­phoning toilet that the flushing toilet came into widespread use. These worked so well that it is the same technology we use today in almost all toilets.

Contrary to what many Americans believe (the English know better), the modern si­phon toilet was not invented by a fellow named Crapper. Thomas J. Crapper1 (1836-1910), an English plumber and astute businessman, founded a very successful bath fixture company, Thomas Crapper & Co. Ltd. in 1861 that is still in business today. And, while he made toilets (the company identifies itself as "The Original Patentees and Manufacturers of Bathroom Appliances"), he did not invent the device.

The toilet was not, in fact, invented by any one person, but resulted from an accumulation of incremental improvements made to the basic si­phon toilet over many years. Alexander Cumming (1783-1844) a Scottish watchmaker, laid the foundation of the modern toilet in 1775 with his invention of the S-trap which created the si­phon effect that efficiently flushed solid waste and also sealed against sewer gases.

Three years later Joseph Bramah patented a flush valve to control the water released from the tank into the bowl, the forerunner of today's flapper valve. Thomas Twyford (1827-1849) and his son Thomas William Twyford replaced less sanitary wood and metal toilets with his sanitary porcelain toilets. Twyford toilets were exported nearly all over the world and became the standard for excellence in si­phoning toilets. In 1889 Twyford made a further contribution to the modern bathroom by introducing a lavatory basin with a built-in overflow. Twyford Bathrooms is still in business in Staffordshire as part of the Geberit Group.

The signature feature of the Vic­tor­ian-era toilet is the placement of the tank several feet above the bowl. This is what is commonly thought of as the "high tank" toilet (The British say "elevated cistern" but, then, the Brits always seem to use more syllables than they actually need).

The high tank was more a matter of function than style. Early si­phoning toilets were very inefficient. Waste was removed from the bowl and through the trap below the bowl by water flowing out holes in the rim around the top of the bowl. For the water to have sufficient pressure to completely remove the waste, the tank had to be hung at least four feet above the bowl to generate a lot of momentum. Typical tanks released 3-5 gallons of water per flush, more than twice what a modern toilet uses, and made enough noise to wake up the entire household — hence the rude nickname for the device: "thunder jug".

Toilets were often hand-painted and highly decorated as befit a device that was both rare and expensive — proudly shown off to guests. Late Vic­tor­ian toilets were often masterpieces of the potter's art, frequently made by the same companies that manufactured fine china: Delft, Wedgwood, and Royal Doulton.

In the always more practical U.S., elaborate decoration was less common. American makers of fine china such as Lenox (founded as the Ceramic Art Company in 1889) arrived on the scene after the heyday of the highly decorated toilet. Toilets were made by sanitary-ware companies like Kohler and American Standard that were much less interested in decoration than they were in function. In any event, by 1910 toilets had become sufficiently commonplace that they were no longer conversation pieces, and plain white sanitary fixtures were in vogue.

But, while toilets were made of very sanitary vitreous china from early on, tanks were typically cast-iron, zinc, or tin or made of tin- or copper-lined wood. China tanks were thought to be far too delicate to safely hold gallons of water high on the wall for long periods.

The first vitreous china water "cistern", as such tanks were often called in those days, was invented by Eljer Plumbing­ware Co. in 1903. Plumbers were skeptical of the durability of the product, so acceptance was slow. To prove just how sturdy china really was, the company hosted a demonstration that was widely reported. A china tank was laid on its back on a steel rail, a plank was placed on top of it and 27 men stood on the plank. That ended any reservations about the strength of china cisterns.

In 1908 Eljer replaced the original round or "pillbox" cistern with a rectangular model that was cast in a mold. The shape and casting processes are still used today virtually unchanged. (Eljer no longer exists as an operating company. It is now merely a slowly fading trademark of American Standard Brands which is owned by the Japanese conglomerate, LIXIL. See American Standard Faucets for more information.)

Cisterns were rarely decorated, and never as elaborately as bowls.

The old tin-lined wood tanks held up surprisingly well. We recently restored a Vic­tor­ian bath in rural Nebraska that still had its original high wood tank. The wood was badly in need of rejuvenation, which we did but the tin liner was in perfect shape. We had the devil's own time finding fittings for the tank since plumbing fittings were not yet standardized in the late 1800s. Each manufacturer had its own sizes. But, we finally found the matching fittings which we cleaned up and re-chromed. The tank, with a new reproduction bowl from Kohler, is back in daily use (We presume. It's not the sort of question one actually asks.)

After the introduction of the more efficient si­phonic jet flush toilet in the 1890s, the high tank was no longer required as a matter of function but sanitaryware manufacturers continued to offer them as an option to low tanks. The high tank had become a design tradition of Vic­tor­ian style and remained popular until the early 20th century when tastes changed to modern toilets that looked clean and functional.

The Vic­tor­ian Sink and Faucet

The most appropriate sink for a Vic­tor­ian bathroom is a pedestal lavatory or commode (see the Mott console pictured elsewhere on this page). An enormous variety is available. Just about every major fixture manufacturer has a selection of lavatories that would work well in a Vic­tor­ian bath. Pair it with a decorated mirror on the wall, and a set of bright brass or nickel faucets, and you have a true Vic­tor­ian arrangement.

The problem with the pedestal sink is that it provides no storage. And, we moderns have much more stuff to store than did our Vic­tor­ian forebears. As a consequence, many designers opt for some form of vanity instead.

The Vic­tor­ians did have vanities, although they were more common in England than the U.S. So, a vanity is not inappropriate. What is inappropriate is making them look built-in. A Vic­tor­ian vanity was not a built-in cabinet but a standalone piece of furniture. Today these cabinets are often called commodes in the U.S. (commode means something different in the U.K. and Canada), and they are widely available from cabinet companies. Although actually attached to a wall, they are designed to look free-standing.

A Vic­tor­ian vanity was not just a place to wash up but also a place to display wealth and taste. It was almost impossible to get too garish. Vanities would have been fine wood sideboards or dry sinks adapted to use as a vanity by the addition of a bowl and plumbing. Marble, especially white marble, was the typical top but other stones and ceramic tiles were also used. Tile in small formats: 2" x 2" mosaics and smaller were favored.

Almost any faucet manufacturer makes faucets that are elaborate enough for use in a Vic­tor­ian bathroom. Selecting a finish for your Vic­tor­ian faucet is fairly easy. There are two, polished nickel and polished brass.

Early brass fixtures were mostly unfinished and needed nearly daily polishing before modern finishes made brass nearly tarnish-proof. Chrome did not come into widespread use until the mid-1920s. Before that, faucets were plated, if at all, with nickel, a much softer metal that wore easily, often exposing the native brass underneath after a few years of use.

Brass and nickel, then, are the authentic Vic­tor­ian faucet finishes. Fortunately, the new PVD brass and nickel finishes are very robust and require little maintenance other than an occasional wipe. You can, of course, go with hand-rubbed oiled bronze or some other more modern finish but it will likely seem out of place. Chrome, however, especially highly polished chrome, seems to work well, even though it is not strictly authentic to the period.

Today's plated nickel is more durable than the nickel of the late 1800s but still softer than chrome. A better choice is PVD nickel, which is not nickel at all but some much more durable metal like zirconium applied to look like nickel. PVD nickel is no maintenance and nearly indestructible.

Bare brass is an option if you don't mind near-daily polishing, or you have a full-time maid with nothing better to do. Lacquered brass needs no polishing but the lacquer does not last forever and needs to be stripped and renewed periodically. How often depends on how rough you treat your faucets. PVD brass, which like PVD nickel is not actually brass, never needs polishing or renewing — and is the best choice.

Expect to pay a little more for PVD finishes but the ease of maintenance is worth the small extra charge. For more information on faucet finishes, go to Faucet Basics: A Homeowner's Guide—Faucet Finishes. For more information on selecting a faucet, see How to Buy a Faucet. You might also benefit from Faucet Reviews and Ratings of all major faucet companies selling in the U.S.

Vic­tor­ian Bath Flooring

Many contemporary flooring materials are not appropriate for Vic­tor­ian baths but most natural and traditional materials work well. For a complete account of flooring suitable for baths, see Flooring Options for Kitchens & Baths.

Wood Flooring

At the beginning of the Vic­tor­ian Era, wood floors were usually unfinished, oiled or waxed, and often turned gray with frequent washing.

Wood floors became more common once durable enamel paints were available. But, only very late in the Vic­tor­ian age did stained and varnished floors appear as paint companies began to offer tougher, longer-lasting varnishes. Still, it was common to paint or varnish the floor once a year — a major event in the days when the smell would permeate the house for days, and varnish took up to a week to harden.

Modern finishes work very well, protecting wood floors from all sorts of mishaps. So, in reproduction kitchens wood works very well. While not entirely accurate to the period, wood does evoke a sense of timelessness appropriate to the era. The preferred wood for a restored bathroom would be wide-plank pine or strip oak in this area but ash and fir are also suitable.


Genuine linoleum was the original sheet flooring material. It was patented by Englishman Frederick Walton in 1863. Although some people still call all sheet floors "linoleum," the real thing is quite different from petroleum-based sheet vinyl floors that are its modern replacement.

Linoleum's main ingredient, linseed oil is boiled, mixed with melted resins, and combined with powdered cork, wood flour, ground limestone, and other natural materials. Mineral pigments provide the color. This mixture is formed into a durable sheet by applying heat and pressure. In the 1870s and '80s, linoleum would have been the choice for an upscale "modern" Vic­tor­ian bath. It was relatively expensive at the time, so only the very well-to-do could afford it.


Cork was one of the favored Vic­tor­ian flooring materials. Flooring cork is very robust and has a long history as a resilient flooring going back to the first half of the 19th century. It reached its peak in 1927 when 2.9 million square feet of cork floors were sold. It is very durable. The cork floor in the U.S. Department of Commerce building, installed in 1930, is still in use today, as is the cork floor specified by Frank Lloyd Wright for his "Waterfall" house in Pennsylvania.

Cork was not only the first but is in many ways the best resilient flooring for a bath. Due to its unique cellular structure (about 2.4 million air-filled cells per cubic inch), cork is a very resilient floor. It has a little "give" and feels soft to the foot. Yet it is extremely tough and durable.

Cork is naturally waterproof. Its cellular structure prevents it from absorbing water, which is why it was the original material for fishing bobbers and life vests. But, for bathroom flooring, where standing and pooling water is likely, coatings are required to prevent the material from darkening over time. Normal cork finishes do not do well with standing water over long periods, so special finishes designed just for wet areas are used to give cork a high level of protection from water damage. Your painter or the staff at your local paint store can help you select the right finish. Go to a paint store frequented by professional painters. The clerks at the Big Box Stores often know less about paints and coatings than you do.

With proper care, cork floors last 100+ years, and if damaged, can be easily repaired, although most cork aficionados don't bother — a little scratch or gouge just adds to the patina.

Cork is also the "greenest" flooring available. It is completely sustainable and renewable. Cork is the bark of the Cork Oak tree. The tree, grown predominately in Europe and North Africa, has a lifespan ranging from 150-200 years. Cork is harvested using methods that have remained virtually unchanged since the uses of cork were first discovered. Once the tree has reached maturity (typically 25 years), the first harvest of cork bark is removed from the tree. The process is repeated at intervals of nine years (the minimum interval required by law), at no time affecting the health of the tree. During each harvest, no more than 50% of the bark is removed, allowing the tree to protect itself using its natural defenses.

To produce cork flooring, waste cork bark leftover from making wine corks is ground into small granules. The granules are baked under pressure in molds at varying temperatures producing shade variations in the finished tile product. A dye may also be applied but most of the color you see in cork is just the result of baking. The cork slab is then cut into slabs, smoothed, and finished with several applications of polyurethane or some other durable coating. The coating adds to the natural resistance of the cork to dirt and stains. Damp mopping with a mild detergent is all that is required to maintain a cork floor. Cork does not stain easily nor require cleaning with harsh chemicals.

Ceramic & Stone Tile

The classic Vic­tor­ian bathroom floor is the 1" mosaic hexagonal tile. If a bath was built after 1180, there is a good chance that this was the floor covering used, especially in upscale houses. Fortunately, the floor is easy to reproduce. The very same mosaic tile has been manufactured the same way by many of the same tile companies for over 100 years and is widely available.

Marble floors were also common, and frequently paired with marble vanity tops, and even carved marble sinks. Other stones and stone tiles include slate and limestone, which would have been common for bath floors of the period, and granite which was much less common but still used. Stone tiles in these materials are just as authentic, and often considerably less expensive.

Some varieties, such as granite, are practically indestructible, while others are vulnerable to scratching, cracking, and other wear. (Imperfections, however, may make a stone floor more attractive.) Some stones commonly used for countertops, such as soapstone, are too soft for use as a floor. Others such as travertine, tend to show staining and discoloration fairly quickly.

The disadvantage of any natural stone compared to glazed tile is that stone needs a surprising amount of regular maintenance. Stone needs to be kept clean and dry, and it needs to be resealed regularly. Manufacturers usually recommend that it be resealed annually but it may be necessary more often in high-traffic areas — as often as every three months in a busy kitchen

In Vic­tor­ian times, stone floors would be oiled or waxed. Today's modern stone sealants would work as well, last longer, and require reapplication less frequently. Some tile makers offer tiles that look like slate and stone but have a ceramic glaze that never needs sealing and is virtually maintenance-free other than brooming and an occasional light mopping.

Wall Treatments in the Vic­tor­ian Bathroom

After 1870, the focus of almost all Vic­tor­ian homemakers was health and sanitation. The drive for cleanliness in the home extended into the bathroom and fostered a preference for easily cleaned, sanitary surfaces.

We have much the same concern today, and while we have the advantages of modern materials to help our quest for a germ-free environment, almost all of the Vic­tor­ian solutions work just as well with more traditional materials.

By far the favored material was glazed ceramic tile. Easily cleaned and very sanitary, it was regularly used on floors but also on walls as wainscots up to five feet from the floor. Today, tiles from floor to ceiling are often a feature of reproduction Vic­tor­ian baths. The most common color was some variation of white — from bright appliance white to some of the warmer eggshell whites and ivories.

If tile was not used, wood wainscot, usually beadboard, would be the second choice. When painted with the new ready-mixed paints then coming on the market, beadboard would have been nearly as sanitary as tile.

Ready-Mixed Paints

Walls above the wainscot were usually painted. And this was not the nearly foolproof process it is today.

Before the American Civil War of 1860-1865, almost all paint was made from local materials by the painter, and the most popular painter in town was not necessarily the one who could do the best job of painting but the one who could mix the best paint. It was and still is, something of an art.

Traditional paint is composed of a hiding pigment, most often white lead, which gave the paint its opacity, a color pigment that gave the paint its color, and a liquid binder. Paint "dries" when most of the liquid evaporates leaving behind the solid parts of the binder mixed with the pigment. The traditional binder was boiled linseed oil, which was first produced commercially in 1856. It was usually mixed with turpentine to make it easier to spread and quicker to dry.

The process was involved and time-consuming. The dry pigments had to be ground in oil to form a paste, and the paste had to be successively thinned, little by little, with more oil and turpentine before the paint was ready for use.

Paint formulas were printed in recipe books or "formularies". The earliest known American book of paint formulas is the 1812 guide by Hezekiah Reynolds entitled Directions for House and Ship Painting 2. Formularies gave instructions for the relative quantities of tinting pigments, binders, and solvents to be used but the process was still very inexact, often resulting in substantial color variations.

Color pigments were usually animal, vegetable or mineral materials found locally. Each locality usually produced only a few colors, mostly earth tones since mineral pigments lasted longer and were less likely to fade over time. Suitable deposits of iron oxide were available in most places, hence the historic popularity of red and brown paints. Chromium, when it could be found, made a nice yellow, and zinc oxide various shades white. Paint was prepared right before it was applied, and if not done correctly would not dry or would not hold up for the two to five years paint was expected to last.

It was not until 1867 that D.R. Averill of Ohio patented the first commercially prepared or "ready-mixed" paint. Shortly thereafter Harry Sherwin, Alanson Osborn, and Edward Williams formed Sherwin, Williams & Co in Cleveland Ohio to market prepared paint. By 1875 the company was selling its brand of prepared paint throughout the Midwest.

Ready-mixed paints did not rely on whatever materials happened to be available locally for pigment but used commercial pigments which not only provided a greater range of color but also more consistency in color from batch to batch.

By 1880 there were hundreds of paint companies, most with local or regional markets. Prepared paint did not initially have a very long shelf life, so it could not be shipped very far or stored for very long.

That problem was solved by John Lucas & Co. of Philadelphia. It was the first paint manufacturer to ship ready-mix paints in sealed cans so the paint would not cure before it was sold. The can did not have a removable lid. It was opened with a can opener, and once opened, could not be re-sealed. Any unused paint had to be either thrown away or transferred to an air-tight container.

Commercial paints were usually far more complex chemically than traditional paints. More ingredients were been added to the simple three-part mix of pigment, oil, and turpentine. Fillers or extenders such as clay and chalk were included to make oil paints flow better and hide more completely. Drying agents such as cobalt compounds helped paint dry faster. The drying rate of linseed oil paints was relatively rapid at first, drying to the touch within one or two days. But it continues to dry over the decades to a point of eventual brittleness. Chemical agents that helped the paint remain flexible were introduced by the 1890s.

The first truly national paint company was probably the Benjamin Moore company, founded in 1883. Its Moresco paint, introduced in 1892, was a dry paint mix to which water was added to make a spreadable coating. It was one of the earliest national commercial successes.

Sherwin-Williams countered with the first screw-top, resealable paint can and in 1880, with a prepared paint in which the pigments stayed suspended in the binder for an extended period of time, reducing the need for stirring. Thus began the rivalry between the two companies that has lasted well over a century.

Most paints continued to use some variation of the linseed oil-turpentine (or later, mineral spirits) base right through the Vic­tor­ian era

By today's standards, it was not very good paint. It was not fade-resistant or "colorfast". The sun often bleached walls in part of a room so they were a distinctly different color from unbleached walls in the rest of the room, and readily identifiable when hanging pictures were removed to show the "shadow" of unbleached paint. Nor, for the most part, were they particularly water-resistant, hence the usual practice of a tile wainscot on the bottom half of bathroom walls.

Nonetheless, while not always simple enough for a novice to use, ready-mixed paints did make paint more reliable, and over time, less expensive. The term "ready-mixed" did not mean that the paints were actually ready to use, it meant that all of the ingredients were in the can but they had to be blended by stirring, a process that often took an hour or more.

Pigments tended to collect as a nearly impenetrable brick of color on the bottom of the can and had to be broken up and evenly distributed throughout the linseed oil binder before the paint could be used. It was also very flammable, and many a house was burned down by paint-soaked rags that spontaneously burst into flame.

To help bathroom and kitchen paints better resist damage from water and grease, some painters applied a coat of wax to the finished wall. The wax made the wall "washable" to a degree and helped the paint last longer by replacing the oils slowly being lost by the linseed binder as it continued to cure, reducing the need to re-paint. Wax was often re-applied yearly during Spring cleaning.

Appropriate Paint Colors

Unlike the Colonial period which offered very few paint colors to select from, or the Arts & Crafts period during which the paint palette was deliberately restricted by notions of "returning to nature", the Vic­tor­ians had, for the first time in history, an enormous and varied choice of a rainbow of vibrant colors, and used every one of them. Which makes selecting an appropriate paint color for your Vic­tor­ian bathroom fairly easy.

Before 1856 pigments were limited to natural animal, plant, or mineral dyes. But, in that year Englishman William Henry Perkin, a chemistry student, accidentally discovered the first synthetic aniline dye which he named mauveine. He patented it the next year and opened a dye works to mass-produce it. By 1859 the color had been renamed mauve and when in 1862 Queen Victoria appeared at an Exhibition wearing a mauve silk gown, the color became instantly popular.

By 1870, dozens of new synthetic pigments were already appearing in paints and, within a decade most of the synthetic pigments we use today had been discovered.

Multiple colors in the same room was a common theme. Decorators of the period often specified a main color surrounded by many supporting colors, often in bands. Deep, rich colors were thought to enhance the importance of a room. A texture was often added to a wall using stencils, and faux-painting to mimic everything from elaborate woodwork to masonry and even fabrics.

More important than the color is the sheen. Vic­tor­ian bathroom paints should not be glossy but should have a noticeable sheen. A flat or matte sheen is not accurate to the period. Wood should always be somewhat shinier than the wall plaster. With modern paints, this is accomplished with a satin sheen on the walls, and semi-gloss on any woodwork.

Architecture of the Arts & Crafts Period

The Arts & Crafts period from the turn of the 20th century to the start of the Second World War1 is unique in American architectural history. First, it was the only period in which houses that ordinary people could afford were enriched with all manner of finely crafted detail. Rich wood trim, art glass, and colorful tile mosaics had been used in houses for a long time but only kings, potentates, and robber barons could afford them. The rest of us had to do without — at least until the Arts & Crafts movement made rich detailing the standard in home-building… (Continues).

1. The Crapper name came to be forever associated with the si­phon toilet when American soldiers in England during the First World War noted that most of the sanitary facilities they visited (many for the very first time) were labeled with "Thomas J. Crapper & Co." and drew the erroneous conclusion that Crapper was the creator of the device.

2. Hezekiah Reynolds, Directions for House and Ship Painting: Shewing in a Plain and Concise Manner, the Best Method of Preparing, Mixing and Laying the Various Colours Now in Use, Designed for the Use of Learners. is available from Historic New England as a facsimile reprint by the American Antiquarian Society of the 1812 edition.

Rev. 04/20/21