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Bathroom History

I have a lot of questions about my upstairs bathroom. What puzzles me is that all the plumbing for the bathroom seems not to be ‘original’ to the house — it all was installed cutting the joists and studs. What was this 9′ x 5′ room used for if it wasn’t a bathroom with indoor plumbing when the house was built in the 1880s? Was it a ‘trunk room’ as I have seen small rooms referred to on floor plans contemporary with this age of house? Or was it used as a wash room then, even though the water had to be brought up? Any clues would be appreciated.

Subtle details and evidence remaining in the house itself are your best clue although they may be difficult to “read”. Look for lead pipes from an earlier system within the walls and down in the cellar. They might be abandoned or integrated into later systems. Even nail holes, pipe hangers or their holes, and other hardware associated with plumbing would help tell the story down in the cellar.

In the room itself look for evidence in the flooring such as holes cut for earlier plumbing fixtures. Look on early floor boards for the four imprints of the claw-feet of an early cast iron tub. Check the door and door jamb for evidence of hooks or latches on the inside that relate to the first coat or two of paint that would indicate use as an early water closet. This can be done by removing layers of paint one by one in the area you would expect to find such latches. For more information on investigation methods see my article “Poking into the Past” in the July 1994 issue of Old-House Journal.

John Leeke is a preservation consultant who helps homeowners, contractors and architects understand and maintain their historic buildings. You can contact him at 26 Higgins St., Portland, Maine, 04103; or by E-mail: johnleeke@HistoricHomeWorks.com; or log onto his website at: www.HistoricHomeWorks.com

© John Leeke