University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Running Water Comes to Western Europe and North America

Victorian Washstand Gives Way to Tap Water

Ewer, basin, and washstand from the personal collection of Addeane S. Caelleigh, University of Virginia School of Medicine

Bedrooms in Victorian houses typically had washstands, furnished with a basin and ewer, washcloths, soap, and towels.  They usually also had a slop bucket behind the door, used for holding dirty water. Running water was introduced in West European and North American cities during the 1800s, first with one water tap for each neighborhood, later with a water tap for each house.  Even large apartment buildings had only one, usually located in a ground-floor courtyard, shared by all.  Only gradually after 1900 did individual houses routinely have running water in the kitchen and a bathroom with a toilet, wash basin, and bath tub.

Simple washstands like the one above would have been in ordinary homes or in the rooms for children or servants.  More elegant, elaborate washstands were used in the homes of the wealthier.  These washstands often had marble or tile tops, were made of expensive woods and had built-in towel racks, and held beautifully designed china basins and ewers.

In poorer rural areas, many families did not get running water until the 1950s and 1960s although they may have received electricity through the rural electrification projects of the 1920s and 1930s.  Electricity was considered a major improvement for health because of the many burning injuries and death each year from fires started by kerosene lamps.