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Archaeology of domestic life in early 20th century Britain

The aim of this blog is to publish data on early 20th century buildings, whilst this is still accessible. Much material of interest to the historian is being destroyed through 'home improvements' and DIY, and objects are increasingly being divorced from their context through dispersal after the death of their owners. By creating an easily accessible contextual record of material culture, it is hoped that those interested in this period of history may have a resource through which the details of domestic life might be studied.

If you have any artefacts of interest, or make discoveries during the process of your own investigations that you would like to share, please contact me!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Lymehurst bathroom: ongoing reconstruction - toilet & decor

Lymehurst bathroom before investigation

The reconstruction of the  bathroom at Lymehurst is nearing completion (although work on the southern wall - which will involve the removal of modern tiles - has yet to begin). As can be seen from an earlier post and the photos above, it appears that many of the original fittings remain in place. However, closer inspection reveals that this is not necessarily the case...

The bath is of cast iron, with a roll-top, and bottle-nose chrome-plated brass taps (with ceramic inserts labelled 'hot' and 'cold' - suggesting that hot water was provided by a boiler - possible behind the range in the 'kitchen' - and pumped to the bathroom: a hot water tank can be seen on the plan below) that, as can be seen from magazine adverts (e.g. within Good Housekeeping), continued to be sold into the 1930s. 

The possibility cannot be excluded  that this 1930s bath was installed at a later date. Wear to the enamel surface of the bath and to the taps (and the form of plumbing for the taps), and paint on the bath (see below) - as well as the style, demonstrates that this bath is contemporaneous with the house. However, the later hardbord flooring lies beneath the feet of the bath, the plumbing, and distance from the wall, suggests that, if not a later replacement for a long-gone original, this bath was moved at some point (perhaps in order to tile the wall, and possibly to replace earlier plumbing materials).

Chrome-plated brass bath taps, with ceramic inserts
The brass plug, and chrome-plated brass chain, are probably original.
Bras bath plug and chrome-plated brass chain
The feet of the bath, whilst into the Edwardian period quite ornate, are now devolved (developing from bird or animal claw designs of the Victorian period) to compare with some of the angular decorative forms that typify the inter-war period. 

Cast iron bath feet

The outer surface of the bath has been painted several times - the first colour appears to be cream (perhaps to match the colour of the walls: see below), which is followed by a bright 'emerald' green, as can be seen on the underside of the roll-top in the photo below - a typical mid 20th century colour; it has been repainted cream (see below for a discussion of paints).
 Early paint beneath roll-top of the bath

The white ceramic wash basin, made by 'Royal Venton' (manufacturers of ceramics, established in 1897 and located in the Potteries, also making decorative ceramics under the name John Steventon & Sons Ltd., now part of the Ideal Standard Group), appears to be contemporaneous with the original bathroom installation - the style is typical for the early 20th century. However, it has a British Standard number (BS 1188) stamped on the underside of the basin, which seems to indicate a late 20th century (post 1974) date.  During renovation of the property in the 1990s, attempts were made by a previous owner to install fittings of contemporaneous style; it is possible that the sink was installed during this time.

Royal Venton wash basin and pedestal

The style of the makers mark also differs to examples used 1926-36. This goes to show that style can be misleading (as many archaeologists realise)! Some styles endure for many years and others may come in and out of 'fashion'. Previous owners have replaced the original taps (perhaps due to wear to the plate, but perhaps to achieve a 'period' style) with modern (1990s or later) chrome plated taps. The original chrome-plated brass plug fitting remains in place.
Wash basin makers mark
A stain on the floor-boards, seen after removing the late 20th century floor covering (cork tiles over hardboard), demonstrates the original position of the wash basin pedestal, probably coinciding with installation of the Venton basin. The original position, to the left of the current basin, can also be seen on the building plan; marks on the ceiling also demonstrate that the ceiling light was previously to the left of its current position.
Stain showing original position of bathroom basin pedestal
The plan also shows the intended location of the original toiletagainst the southern wall. However, 'scars' on the walls show than an early, high-level, cistern was (instead?) placed on the eastern wall. It may be speculated that the plans were a little too optimistic regarding adequate space, and that, once a pan had be placed in this position (hopefully before plumbing!), the layout was re-thought. The earlier wash basin position support this interpretation (there would have been insufficient room for a toilet on the southern wall with the sink in this location). Further restoration (including removal of the modern tiles from the southern wall) will hopefully show whether the toilet was initially installed in this position, and then for some reason later removed.
Lymehurst: plan of first floor
After removing the modern (c. 1990s) toilet bowl and cistern, the position of the original seat-lid rest bracket (a contemporaneous example, with rubber buffer, can be seen in the photo, below) is evident from holes in the wall, The bracket may have been fixed on to a wooden block behind the pipe.The position of the original pipe can be seen, to the left of the replacement pipe.
Original position of bracket and pipe can be seen behind and to the left of and below the replacements

A  cast iron cistern and bowl, comparable to 1920s-1930s types (though possibly earlier), galvanised pipe, and contemporaneous seat stop, have been reinstated, as shown in the slideshow below. The cistern was made by 'Roboro' - a name noted in connection with the Rowe Brothers foundry of Handsworth, Birmingham (late 19th - early 20th century). It is an unusual 'bell syphon' type (an outline of cistern development can be found here and here), and not very efficient when water pressure is low; the pipe used here came with (was attached to) this cistern. 

Roboro cast iron toilet cistern
 Mid 20th century 'Dauntless' cast iron brackets support the cistern; the original position of cistern brackets can be seen by marks on the wall, although it appears that the original brackets were not directly fixed to the wall, but supported by wooden blocks. It is likely that the original fittings were very similar to the Edwardian - 1930s examples found in Mr Straw's House: a lead cistern encased within a wooden surround, with ornate cast brackets; however, after searching for several years for such an example, it was not possible to replicate this arrangement during reconstruction, due to prohibitive costs. The 'scars' on the wall (which unfortunately do not show well photographically - drawn plans will be posted in the future) also demonstrate that the original position of the cistern was higher on the wall than the replacement cistern (again, the 'Mr Straw's' example seems high in comparison to the replacement).

'Dauntless' cistern bracket

A later 20th century electric heater in the bathroom is operated by brass chain with a (broken) ceramic handle - of the type used for high level toilets during the early 20th century: it's possible (but not certain) that this handle derives from the original toilet.

Later 20th century electric bathroom heater, with brass chain and toilet pull handle

The modern toilet bowl was replaced by a white ceramic 'Art Deco' style bowl made by  'Alerto', although the date of this fitting is currently unknown.The makers mark, however, is consistent with a 1920-30s date. Plus the basin is shaped to fit an older style seat - the example used for the reconstruction (see below) fits perfectly.

Toilet bowl and makers mark
Toilet seat: underside (above), and fitted (below)

'Scars' on the wall again show the position and size of an early toilet roll holder. A late 19th - early 20th century toilet roll holder (wood plate with bronze holder) - much replicated today, though the patina of this fitting, its bronze material, and the deal plaque, suggests that it is an original - has now been fitted.
'No. 1 Bronze Toilet Fixture' toilet roll holder

The end result of the toilet renovation:

In painting the bathroom, attempts have been made to replicate original and early colours. However, this process is not without problems. As pigments often change over time, frequently darkening, only an approximate guide may be obtained without microscopic and chemical analysis (some very interesting articles on this topic here). It is also important to remember that paints continued to be hand-mixed by many into the 1930s (resulting in variations; interesting descriptions of Edwardian paint mixing and colours can be found within Robert Tressel's novel 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists'); however, attempts at standardisation can be seen in the development of British Standards (BS 381C: 1931); early colour charts have been used during this reconstruction project to get close to the original colours.
Bathroom, partially renovated to replicate early decor

The wooden doors (to the stairs and to the airing cupboard) had been stripped (seemingly in situ) of their paint before reconstruction began, but enough early paint remained (within hard-to-reach crevices to determine the approximate colours of the finish; the original handles on the main door handle and escutcheon (ebony stained deal), and airing cupboard door handle (porcelain and brass), remain in situ

Airing cupboard door handle
Door handle
 The doors have been repainted in a similar colour: it was closest to the Little Greene Paint colour 'eau de nil' (which was one of the '1930s collection' developed with the support of English Heritage); however, the colour seen through a PC monitor differs to the colour of the paint. This colour was commonly used during the interwar period for bathrooms and kitchens (however, it's possibly that the early colour was closer to 'pea green' - again, monitors misrepresent this colour, though more seen here). This colour seems not to have been the first colour chosen for the wood-work: by examining the underside of the airing cupboard wood-work, it is possible that the stain shown in the pre-reconstruction photos is original (also noted on the door); in addition, a darker colour can be seen beneath the green paint of the skirting-boards, which closely resembles the dark brown paint that forms the first paint layer within most other rooms. This colour resembles Little Greene's 'Purple-brown' (again not very well represented on their site, through a PC monitor - again a closer representation seen here), one colour from their 'Victorian' collection, but found in many early 20th century homes, when it was sometimes referred to as 'ox-blood' brown, and the 'cherry' colour used on the doors (see the first photograph, above).

Wood stain marks on floorboards

As noted above, removal of the later 20th century flooring revealed the deal boards beneath. The presence of paint (emerald green) and wood stain (the same dark colour used on the bathroom threshold) suggests that (at least at particular points in time) the boards were covered in some way (probably by lino). Comparisons with contemporaneous properties (such as 'Mr Straw's House'), and with illustrations (particularly from catalogues relating to interior decoration) demonstrate that this was usual for the period.

Behind the bath, with original wall colour, and early plumbing, seen in the middle of the photo (darkened by the shadows)
Having removed a modern radiator (the restored chrome-plated heated towel rail - perhaps a 1950s example), the original custardy-cream colour of the 'enamel' paint on the walls could be seen; this colour can also be seen behind the bath. An interesting correlation comes from the memory of a previous, now elderly (if, hopefully, still living) resident, who, on passing the property a few years ago spoke to one of its more recent owners in the garden. The older man lived here as a child in the 30s [and perhaps as an adult for some time?], and remembered a few details about the house. He described the 'yellow' walls of the bathroom; some might easily describe the remaining patch of original colour in this way, suggesting that this paint has faded little. Unfortunately, as renovations funds are tight, it has not been possible to use a comparable paint finish; oil eggshell has instead been used. The Little Greene Paint colour 'Ivory' (again found within the 1930s collection) is very close to the original colour as it may be seen today (however, the colour seen through a PC monitor is again different to the actual colour of the paint).

As can be seen, the task of removing the tiles from the southern wall (to the right of the above photo) remains, which will be quite an arduous task, and therefore probably not completed before autumn; it is also hoped that lino can be found to replace the mid-late 20th century lino tiles that currently cover the floor...

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