A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine who had arrived in the American Midwest for the first time decided to freshen up by taking a shower in my bathroom. Minutes later, after he came out, I noticed that he was shivering like a skinny, wet cat. Puzzled, I asked him what was wrong. He responded that he had showered in cold water because he couldn’t figure out how to get the hot water turned on. At the moment, I was certainly taken aback because I thought getting water of the right temperature on in my bathroom was pretty straightforward. I was also mildly amused because this acquaintance was highly-educated and came from a well-to-do-family in India.
On further reflection, I’ll be the first to admit that figuring out how to use a bathroom with which you’re unfamiliar can be quite challenging.
It wasn’t always that way. The Romans with their spas at Bath and the Harappans with their intricate drainage systems were notable exceptions, but for the majority of human existence, bathrooms were essentially roofless and without walls. When nature called, it also invited. Even today, for many, lack of adequate sanitation is a medieval scourge afflicting a modern world.
For the longest time, however, no one had access to proper sanitation or any systematic knowledge of microbiology. That all changed in the 1800s, and the water closet owes a great deal to developments by Victorians such as Thomas Crapper. Quite soon, a bathroom which was part of the main section of the home became a norm all around the world.
That was fine. But since there were relatively few innovations which added to the functionality of washbasins, toilets, and bathing facilities, over time bathroom fittings started to evolve towards different perceived standards of aesthetics.
The results are a bewildering number of different devices doing only a handful of pretty basic jobs.
Because I travel quite a bit, I constantly find myself having to deal with many different kinds of contraptions. In hermetic hotel bathrooms, I’ve often had to push a knob, pull a lever, rotate a wheel (clockwise or counterclockwise), turn a dial, push a button, flip a switch, kick a latch, or tug a handle to get the water turned on in a shower. Passing through airports and rest-stops, I’ve come in contact with devices as diverse as water sprouts, gooseneck faucets, pipes sticking out of walls, and fountain nozzles pouring water at awkward angles into washbasins often shaped like bowls, fish, boats, crates or barrels.
Well, I don’t know what the experts think, but here is how I feel: I’m sure these bathrooms are gorgeous, but I can always go to a museum after using a functioning one. When I enter a bathroom, ten times out of ten I do so with the intention of using it. High art does not come to me.
I get the feeling that I may be in the minority these days.
© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban