Historical accuracy of bathroom tile

ncamySeptember 14, 2009

OK I'm building a bungalow in a town that has a very large percentage of homes built between 1890 and 1945. For my daughter's bathroom I have decided to do a vintage black and white scheme. On the floor I'll do hexes or octagons and for the tub surround I was going to do do white subways. However I then started paying closer attention to the homes in my area and none of the original tile is subways. It is all 4 x 4 squares. Then I started thinking about the older homes I've been visited in other areas of North Carolina and to the best of my recollection, they too have squares and not rectangles.

Could it be that "subway" tiles are regional? Since obviously in the south we don't have subways, maybe folks just never were exposed to them like they were in other parts of the country. I read that subway tiles were first used in a public space in the New York Subway in 1904, though surely they had been used somewhere before then.

Who can tell me something about the historical accuracy of 4 x 4 squares? I would prefer my house to actually look like it was built in the 20s or 30s and not look like the current trends of the 2000s. It does seem that EVERYBODY whether building a new old house or a more contemporary one is using subway tiles now. Then it dawned on me that if I used 4 x 4s, my house might actually look more vintage (at least for my area anyway.) What do you think?

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4x4's were the tile of choice for most of the 20th century. If you want to make your daughter's bathroom authentic, it's not the shape of the tile, so much as the color. In the period you're talking about, most of the bathrooms were peach, pink, mint green or sky blue, usually with black or burgandy trim, including 6x6 cove base.

Oh-- and they were mudset. :-)

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 7:54AM
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I'd suggest you buy a book called Bungalow Bathrooms by Jane Powell. It just came out in paperback last week and amazon carries it. Lots of great advice about what size and color of tile is accurate for each decade.

If you are familiar with her companion kitchen book, she gives detailed advice in sections called "obsessive restoration" and "compromise solutions," along with some rather opinionated advice about things that never belong in a bungalow bathroom.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a bungalow.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 8:53AM
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Peach, pink and mint green....yuck! My grandmother's bathroom was black and white. So are you saying that was not common? And I don't even think I want to know what "mudset" means! lol

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 9:42AM
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My 1919 home has the most beautiful black and white basketweave tile floor. No fancy marble, just porcelain and I hope I can recreate it when I start my renovation.

Did that pink peach and mint come into play as early as the 20s? Ugh. I wouldn't go with that either!

Good luck. I am going with the black and white basketweave and white subway tiles like you suggest. Clean and simple and hopefully appropriate for my old home.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 1:24PM
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Wow, I'm glad you posted because I just spent a very enjoyable hour googling around for photos of 1920s bathrooms and discovering, to my surprise, that colors like peach and mint and coral were in use as early as the 20s and 30s. I always thought of those as 50s colors! Who knew?

It looks like both rectangular and 4 x 4 were used in that era, so you should be fine with whichever you choose.

I also found a very nice blog from a contractor out here in California who's done a lot of vintage bath renovations, mostly replacing colored tile with various black and white treatments. Enjoy!

Here is a link that might be useful: Good Home Construction Blog

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 4:38PM
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>colors like peach and mint and coral were in use as early as the 20s and 30s

They were very big then, the latest new thing, along with colored towels, which were quite a novelty back then. There are a number of references in fiction from that era about peach colored towels as the last word in luxury, or yearning over an all mint green bathroom, right down to the towels. They weren't as keen on contrast as we are now.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 9:26PM
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A couple of resources for you.

Antique Home Style

Great photos from American Vintage Home's flickr photo stream on bathrooms

FYI, it's all-white bathrooms that are starting to become dated, just as they have before. Everything moves in cycles.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 9:31PM
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OK those are some beautiful bathrooms, marcolo! I was drooling over quite a few. I do believe though that the bathrooms in my area were much more modest and not nearly as fashionable. In fact almost all of the houses on my street were catalog kit homes and were very basic bungalows.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2009 at 10:10AM
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I grew up in a grand old Fifth Avenue building in NY which I think it was built in 1927. Our bathrooms were all white with subway tiles on the walls and white octagonal tiles on the floors that I think were a plain white stone of some sort. Around the tubs, which had showers also, the tiles went up to about six feet or so, but they were lower on the walls around the rest of the room, perhaps four feet.

Many of my friends and relatives who lived in similar buildings had all white bathrooms like it. Most had big, square topped pedestal sinks with white column bases. I do not remember any vanity cabinet style sinks.

Glass fronted medicine cabinets were recessed into the walls and had white painted wood trim around them with a simole light fixture over the top. There were usually a china soap dish and a glass rest with holes along each side to hold toothbrushes set into the tiles, above the sink and slightly to the outsides of the faucets. Color was introduced through wall paper, shower curtains and rugs, just as it is today.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2009 at 1:51PM
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Where we live (north Jersey) there is this myth that subway tiles are the "historically accurate" choice in older homes. Ha! Even around here, they were a fad, popular in the 1920's but almost impossible to find outside of that specific decade. (We did lots and lots of househunting so I saw an awful lot of bathrooms of 1890-1940 houses.) And, even in the 20's, probably more homes had other choices than white subways.

Our own 1916 home has 6x6 white squares in its original bath. I grew up in a 1933 home with the 4x4's, in yellow-gold.

If you LIKE subways, go with them. If you consider precise historical accuracy important, the "bungalow" style is most associated with the 1910's, which is mostly pre-subway. (But, personally, I question the importance of such precise accuracy, unless you live in an historical site. To me, the goal should just be choices that look/feel right.)

    Bookmark   September 16, 2009 at 2:25PM
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