A Polar Bear in my Victorian Bathroom

“At the opposite side of the room is placed a couch covered with the skin of a Polar bear, whereon, clad in a luxurious peignoir, one reposes after the fatigues of the bath and the douche.

~The Lady’s Dressing Room, by Baroness Staffe

We are renovating our characterless 1970s bathroom. We have only the one, so the refit is a test of the strength of my SSRIs. Since we bought our characterless 1970s house about 5 years ago I have brooded about the terrible state of our long, thin bathroom. A coat of paint to the tiles and a re-grout were not enough of a solution. A few months ago I spotted a beautiful slipper bath with ball-and-claw feet. I have an interest in things long-gone, so I fell in love with the idea of a Victorian bathroom. Imagining myself reclining in the slipper bath beneath the light of a small chandelier, the long-postponed renovation began.

Much still to be done.

Today as I project-manage (is this really a real job?), I thought I would take some time to see what a Victorian bathroom actually was. Of course, the die is cast for me and I will  settle for whatever neo-style I end up with but it would be nice to know whether or not Victorian ladies really did lounge beneath chandeliers in ball-and-claw baths.

I had read Bill Bryson’s At Home and remember being shocked and horrified by the fact that up to the 1950s in England and parts of Europe, many houses did not have a bathroom for want of space. And I may never forget the description of the Marquis D’Argen who wore the same vest for years on end. When he eventually removed it, parts of his skin came off at the same time as the shirt. I have Bill Bryson’s book open on my roll-top desk as well as a few score web pages but I have become entranced by one book, My Lady’s Dressing Room, published in 1892.

"There is no excuse for an ugly woman"

The book was written by the French Baroness Straffe but has been adapted for the women of America by  Harriet Hubbard Eyer (pictured right). Harriet believed that in 1892 modern woman had learnt:

“how not to grow old, and with fastidious care we have learned that there is no excuse for an ugly woman, and that we may preserve the beauty of youth , or a delightful resemblance to it, far past the middle age which we formerly so dreaded”.

Isn’t she delightful! And look at that waist.

The volume is substantial and includes chapters on how to care for your hands, your face, your feet, your nose, your voice and your hair. Topics covered include Remedies for Falling Hair and the Science of Rhinoplasty. Hold your horses…women had nose jobs in 1892? I will look into that for my next post. For today though, I will limit myself to The Bath Room.


Fresh from her bath, a rose vision she.

It would appear that on one side of a Victorian bathroom, you should have the ‘shower baths’, concealed by a curtain, ‘from which descend heavy or gentle showers like satin on the divinity of this sanctuary’. This is a woman keen on clean! On the opposite side of the room there should be an enamel bath for sponge bathing. This bath should be decorated in natural colours with water lilies, arums and roses painted thereon. I fear that having only one of the three would have you marked as declasse in an instant. Around these must be scattered several soft chairs and ottomans. She also insists on a small dressing table at which the hair is dressed. The movable mirror above it “must be framed in natural flowers, changed daily”. The Baroness is so delightfully officious and seems so certain of the details, I daren’t consult another bathroom expert of her day. The fashionable bathrooms sound ridiculously gaudy – patterned wall paper, copper-framed mirrors, flowered basins and painted furniture.

Now sadly, I have neither a shower (concealed by a curtain or otherwise) nor a bath with lilies, arums and roses therein. I am starting to feel that perhaps my new bathroom vision is not at all appropriate.

According to the Baroness, you were also to keep an alarming number of potions and lotions in the wardrobe. Baroness Straff gives a list of ‘soap, jars filled with bran, almond paste, perfumes, carbonate of soda (crystal) &tc.  &tc.’. In the etc., she must be including the oils that were to burn in your alcohol lamp for a sudorific bath. Now, I have a few potions and lotions. Mine contain botufirm™ and trilinox™.

The Baroness recommends a daily bath but there several recipes for medicinal baths as well. My favourite was the recipe for the strawberry and raspberry bath. Ten kilograms of strawberries and two of raspberries are to be crushed and thrown into the bathtub. Mme Talien took one of these baths every morning and emerged with velvety skin and a delightful pink blush. Less appealing was the spinach bath, the turpentine bath which leaves the skin tingling and the electric bath.

The electric bath, if given by a trained expert, is refreshing, invigorating and soothing” 

~H. H. A.

My conclusion is that my bathroom isn’t at all Victorian. It will have to be a case of style over substance. I am quite relieved to be honest. The thought of polar bear skin on a chaise-longue is not in the least appealing and as for a crinoline douche, the less said the better.

If you would like to read the full text, it is available for download at The Internet Archive


One thought on “A Polar Bear in my Victorian Bathroom

  1. Pingback: Nose Jobs in the 19th Century « tracyloveshistory

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