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When new houses could legally have only one bathroom

Back in the day, you were lucky if you had one bathroom in your house. Prior to, and after World War II, there were actually government restrictions on the number of bathrooms that could be built in newly constructed homes, due to materials shortages. Reader Shari D. recently posted an informative comment on a story I did a while back showing 1942 photos from the Library of Congress of Quinnipiac Terrace, of a defense housing development in New Haven, Conn. Shari wrote:  

I collect from eBay – and read thoroughly – issues of a trade magazine for the building industry called “American Builder”. Currently I am going back (again) through the issues dated through the War years. There is an amazing amount of information, with lots of pictures and floor plans, and information covering the houses built for defense workers, and military members and their families during that time. It also dealt with all the myriad, confusing and confounding government rules and edicts regarding what the building industry could, and more to the point, could NOT do during that time. You could make enough “alphabet soup” from all the different defense organization acronyms to feed everyone on the east coast three meals a day for a year!

Pam here, noting: I have also collected copies of American Builder and have found that Practical Builder also is a terrific historical resource. Note also: Both of the links earn me small commissions if ya buy. 

This photo and the one above credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Gottscho-Schleisner Collection [reproduction number, e.g., LC-G612-T-45094]

Regarding construction restrictions, that someone else brought up concerning homes built in 1942 – the current issue I am reading of the American Builder, January, 1942, has an article in it addressing that very issue, and the builder who worked day and night to lay foundations for as many houses as possible, likely did that around the first part of October, 1941. We weren’t directly involved in the War yet, it’s true, BUT, we were going crazy building “defense housing” prior to that, for the mass migrations of people to the big defense centers, such as the shipbuilding yards on three coasts (East, West, and the Gulf coast) bomber plants, right down to the little subassembly production facilities which were busy making things like seats for those big bombers.

There was also a flurry of building numerous new Army facilities from the ground up, to accommodate all the new draftees and enlistees in the other services, who were coming through the pipeline to be trained, housed, fed, cared for healthwise (hospitals, etc.) So, construction restrictions were getting tighter everyday. In January, it was reported (again, in concert with an article about other restrictions) that builders who had *completed* foundations (not half done) in the ground as of October 9, 1941, would be granted a priority to get the needed materials he didn’t already have in hand to complete those homes. That was the cutoff date for builders to have complete autonomy to buy the materials they needed to build a complete residential structure, whether it was a one-family home, a whole subdivision, or a multifamily apartment building. The cutoff date of course had been announced in advance, but the limitations hadn’t yet been finalized.

As for the restriction on the number of bathrooms a single family home (or apartment) could have (one) due to the restrictions on copper for water pipes, connections, and valves, and iron for waste stacks, and the cast iron or steel used to make bathtubs all priority materials, I’m sure I have read it in past issues (since I have been reading these for several years) of American Builder. I’m not sure of the exact dates involved, but likely very close to the others. I do know too that when we were really in the thick of things, building wise, that there were some defense homes which were built without bathtubs all together, and just had shower stalls! And even those were made with a very minimum of restricted materials.

But, the houses were also built with an incomplete second floor, for completing more two or even three bedrooms and an additional bath later on, after the War restrictions were no longer in force, and the plans which were provided to the homeowner at the time of sale included a bathroom layout that included ample space for the missing tub. In the meantime, everyone had to learn to like short showers rather than a long soak!

A few alternatives to steel or cast iron bathtubs which were either proposed but never actually constructed in large numbers due to a real lack of practicality included a tub constructed inside and out completely out of small ceramic tiles, over a wooden framework covered in some kind of cement, with the tile grouting adding to the “durability,” such as it was! Can you imagine sitting in such a structure to bathe? And, there was a period of time where all the exposed plumbing pipes and handle controls were no longer chrome plated but made from black iron in small quantities! Definitely utilitarian!

Thank you, Shari. Indeed. I will add: During this period, there also was a dire housing shortage. It is my understanding that people crowded into city apartments were over-the-moon happy to get into these new homes, no matter how small they were. This situation went on for another… 30 years or so! 

Categoriespostwar culture
  1. Carolyn says:

    This subject would make for very interesting Memorial Day conversation as it fits in with both honoring those who served in the military and those who sacrificed at home. (Although, as Shari D. & I have commented, it might not have been such a sacrifice for some but a step up.)
    I wonder if history would be more interesting if certain aspects such as housing were included as it would be more immediate than going to historical sites. History surrounds us if only we’d open our eyes and minds and imaginations to it.

  2. Dano says:

    I would love to learn more about this. We have a house built in 1945 and I am surprised at how well built it is, considering that it was build during the war (presumably built in the summer months of that year). Were the restrictions relaxed or lifted as the war neared it’s end? Was there some type of inspection or similar process to limit the uses of restricted materials, if one had them on hand already? Our house’s first owner was an electrician, and I often speculate that he may have had friends in the building industry, or maybe had materials stored from before 1942. What would stop someone from using what they already had on hand? I’ve also noticed that some of the door hardware, while from roughly the same era, is slightly different, yet doesn’t appear to be replaced. I’m wondering if people were forced to mix-n-match or use old stock due to shortages, or if these were left at the time and finished later when materials were more readily available. I’d also be interested in knowing if people involved in the war effort would be given priority for materials, as I know our home’s first owner was involved with electrical work for the ship building industry during the war. My speculation is that he knew the right people, as he was already involved in the building industry, but I would love to hear other people’s thoughts.

  3. Dan Langdon says:

    I remember my mom telling me about how after WWII the city of Omaha finally passed legislation to get rid of outhouses. In some of the old houses they ended up putting the toilet in a corner of the living room.

  4. Neil says:

    LOVE that tall steel “hoosier” in the first pic. I’m in the biz and have been buying and tarting-up mid cent steel kitchen cabinets, to sell, for years and years (they’re Very poopular here in SF, with our tiny post-victorian kitchens short of storage), and I thought I’d seen them all.
    But….. never saw that beauty before….

    And that second picture…..Quaint-to-the-max! Notice how, in contrast to 50’s “fitted” kitchens, it’s an empty, generic room with a collection of kitchen elements placed here and there; I’m surprised there’s not a painted hoosier on that long wall.

    And…love me that geometric linoleum rug; that object alone takes the room from functional to cozylicious (along with the dreamy curtains…). And the scene is taken to completion by the little girl, in her clean dress, gazing out the kitchen window dreaming of growing up to be a housewife.
    I watched, from close quarters, countless little girls like her being groomed for that (highest, most noble, drudgery-ridden) role in the 50’s. Being a boy, I was glad it wasn’t aimed at me, though the kitcheny settings on offer sure did appeal. On the other hand, I couldn’t relate to the boy-trajectories being offered, either; gritty, baseball diamonds and filthy grease-monkey garages….no thank you.
    As for there being only one bathroom (never mind, on my grandmother’s Kentucky farm, there being only one outhouse, and one dishpan for bathing in the kitchen…) it was a time and room, not for personal pampering, but for getting one’s business done and vacating the bathroom for the next person. In and out. So, one bath wasn’t a problem. And the housewife was glad not to have to clean two….

  5. Art says:

    I have lived in a 1942 896 sq ft 2 BD/1BR home for 19 years, now; my neighborhood is full of these, and some slightly larger, and some much larger. It’s a good mix of architectural styles, and it makes walks throughout the neighborhood visually interesting. I find my house, though small, provides the necessary space to live comfortably. Everything new today is supersized. It’s a free country, but operating costs are also much higher on larger, newer homes. To each his own, but I enjoy the low cost living in a desireable, walkable/bikable neighborhood.

  6. alice welborn says:

    Hi All

    This is fascinating info. I grew up in Santa Rosa, CA and though our house was built in either the very late 40’s or early 50’s so much of this is ringing bells for me. Dad was a WWII vet (Pearl Harbor onward in the Pacific Theater)
    After reading about the Blandings homes I saw that we here in Sacramento have one. It is at 2167 Irvin way in what is called “Hollywood Park” a popular area. I am going by to look at it this week. Here is the link to a picture and most recent sell price. Not for sale now though. Great stuff, THANKS!!
    https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/2167-Irvin-Way-Sacramento-CA-95822/25806297_zpid/

    1. Shari D. says:

      That’s different. ???? Considering the promotion was run only for a few months in 1948, the build year of 1950 would tend to disqualify it as part of the promotion, yes?
      We all know – well, many of us anyway – that build years are notoriously inaccurate, but if the information comes to the selling agent already saying 1950, how can they come out and say it was part of the promotion?
      Not to mention that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the movie house. Some were changed in appearance, true, but still, what is it then about this house that makes it part of the movie promotion? Is there documentation? Photographs? Newspaper stories? The neighbor’s roommate’s sister’s cousin went to one on that street and is positive it was in that house? ????

  7. Mary Elizabeth says:

    I spent the first ten years of my life in a government housing project built during WW II to house defense workers. My dad, a returning vet who worked for the defense industry, was able to obtain a 2-bedroom, one bath apartment there before I was born, when he and my mom had one baby. Then, when I was three and Mom was expecting #3, we moved to a three-bedroom in the same complex. Even the three-bedroom apartments had one bath, with a tub (no shower) and a medicine cabinet that included a slot for disposing of old razor blades. Unfortunately the medicine cabinet was lined up perfectly with the one in the next apartment, so that when you looked into it you could see into your neighbor’s bathroom through the razor blade slot. And sometimes his razor blades fell into your medicine cabinet instead of into the space between the studs in the wall. 🙂 The floors were all linoleum or painted wood. The wood floors were painted battleship gray. Why? Because the paint came from the Department of the Navy. It was actual battleship deck paint. But I was lucky. Some of my friends and classmates lived on the Naval base in Quonset huts. These were cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer, so hot that when I had a sleepover at one of their houses we had to abandon the house and sleep outside on the ground. Nostalgia? I don’t think so. Unless you take it in the Greek sense, which is “returning home pain.”

  8. William R says:

    Interesting reading.

    To supplement some of the other stories, I’ll add that my mother and sister were some of the first residents in New Helvetia, Sacramento’s first public housing project, started in 1941, with the first residents moving in in 1942.

    While the project was started as public housing, once the US entered the War, the project became “defense housing.” My mother was a civilian employee at an Air Corps base, and then she joined the Women’s Army Air Corps — which meant she had to give up her “defense housing” and move into barracks.

    I never saw the apartment, but my mother and sister described it as being “very nice,” small, but more than adequate for their needs. A real luxury, it had two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, and living/dining room. The rent initially was something like $14 a month. Although my sister only lived there for a little over a year, she always spoke fondly of her time there. My mother said she wished they could have lived there longer.

    Here’s a story about New Helvetia that readers may find interesting (it includes mention of materials shortages due to the War):

    http://www.livingplaces.com/CA/Sacramento_County/Sacramento_City/New_Helvetia_Historic_District.html

  9. SalllyMu says:

    I really hate that snide hootenanny-era song about postwar public and private housing developments. (“Little Houses Made of Ticky-Tack” or something by a girl with a poor singing voice.) I’m glad there was public housing and small Levittown-type homes.

  10. Katie says:

    Regarding the “tile box” bathtubs, my in-laws have one in their house, which was built in the mid-1960s, the builder offered it as a custom feature, and they have always enjoyed it. My FIL is 6’3″, and enjoys having a bathtub that is big enough for him to soak in comfortably.

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