Bathrooms: The Decades-Long Rise of America's Obsession

How did Americans become so preoccupied with bathrooms?

Posted Jun 03, 2016

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Americans are in love—with our private bathrooms. We haven't always been, but we sure seem to be now. That's the conclusion I'm drawing from a report just released by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which documents the ways American dwellings have changed over the past four decades.

The report is about the characteristics of the places where we live, and not about the people who live in those places. But we already know that the size of American families and households has been steadily shrinking. And while the number of people in each dwelling grows smaller, the size of those dwellings grows larger. For example, the median size of a newly-completed "single-family" house was 1,525 square feet in 1973, and housed an average of about 3 people. By 2015, this jumped up to 2,457 square feet for about 2.5 people.

In 1973, when the Department of Commerce tabulated the number of bathrooms in newly completed single-family homes, there were so few homes with three or more bathrooms that the numbers were not even included in the tables; 40 percent of the new homes included, at most, 1.5 bathrooms. (Half-bathrooms do not include a bathtub or shower.) Another 40 percent included two bathrooms and the others included 2.5.

By 2015, the percentage of newly completed single-family homes with a maximum of 1.5 bathrooms plummeted from 40 percent to just 4 percent. The biggest category of houses now has three or more bathrooms, with 38 percent fitting that description. And remember, this is for homes with an average of only about 2.5 people.

Trends are similar among units of "multifamily dwellings" such as apartment buildings: In 1973, 68 percent of apartments included just one bathroom. By 2015, just under half (49 percent) included one bathroom. The decrease isn't quite so linear as it is for the single-family homes: From 2001 through 2007, fewer than 40 percent of units included just one bathroom; the low was 32 percent in 2005.

What's going on? Why do we want so many bathrooms?

When I interviewed people about how they live and how they most wanted to live for my book, How We Live Now, I found that just about everyone wanted some measure of privacy in their lives. Even people who, by choice, lived with a household of other people still wanted a room or suite of their own where they could close the door and not be disturbed. The desire for a bathroom of one's own may be part of that wish for some privacy, especially for one's most personal matters.

The desire for more bathrooms may also reflect the greater entitlement of recent generations, in which parents who could afford to do so have given their kids separate rooms and maybe separate bathrooms, too—or at least one bathroom for use just by the kids. When people become accustomed to such perks as children, they may find them difficult to give up as adults.

I confess: I'm part of the trend of wanting a house with more bathrooms than people. I've lived alone since graduate school, but I've always looked for a place with more than one bathroom. I can't pin it on my childhood: I grew up in a house with 2.5 bathrooms for six people—and that was only after a renovation added 1.5 bathrooms. My excuse is that I don't know how to fix toilets and I don't want to learn. I also stay up during the wee hours of the night when plumbers are unlikely to be readily available. I also enjoy having guests now and then, and when I do, I prefer not to share my own bathroom. So there I am, back to the entitlement idea.

And we don't just want more bathrooms, we also want more luxurious ones, with fancy fixtures, elegant cabinetry, and maybe even a Jacuzzi. If those items are budget busters, then people at least want stylish towels and shower curtains. I'm not sure all of that is specific to bathrooms; many Americans splurge throughout their homes (although there is also an emerging counter trend of simplifying and building tiny homes).

My guess is that the growing number of bathrooms is more about the increasing desire for privacy than the expanding taste for luxury. What do you think? What's this shift in American bathroom culture all about?

[Note: I'm using the conventional language of "single-family" and "multifamily" dwellings, but I don't like it. More than ever before, the people who live in these dwellings are not families at all, but people living alone or people living with non-family members, such as friends.]