American exceptionalism takes on many forms, both flattering (our immigrant-founded start-ups) and unfortunate (our health-care prices). But perhaps no part of life in the United States is more unambiguously exceptional than this: We have so many damn bathrooms.
And the world wants to know why. The internet is filled with long threads, on sites such as Quora and Reddit, in which users swap theories on “What’s the American obsession with bathrooms all about?” and “Why do houses in the US have so many bathrooms?” “There are so many incredible America decadences that are mind boggling to foreigners when we first arrive here, and the sheer number of bathrooms in suburban houses is very high on the list," Tom Gara, an Australian who edits opinion pieces for BuzzFeed News, wrote on Twitter.
America’s love affair with private washrooms emerges from the country’s most obvious gift—an abundance of land and an eagerness to develop it. The typical new single-family house in the U.S. is twice the size of the average urban or suburban dwelling in the European Union—more than 2,000 square feet versus approximately 1,000 square feet. Compared with their overseas peers, Americans simply have more space to wash up.
But the U.S. wasn’t always so profusely bathroomed. In the past half century, the number of bathrooms per person in America has doubled. “We went from two people per bathroom to one person per bathroom in the last 50 years,” says Jeff Tucker, an economist at Zillow. “That’s amazing, because postwar America was already rich and booming, and we just, you know, kept building more bathrooms.” Across the country, bathrooms are multiplying—including in apartments and condos—even as American families and households are getting smaller.
Where did this American obsession with bathrooms come from? The full answer takes us back centuries and involves some bad scientists, some good inventors, and a dash of extremely American notions about space and luxury. What used to be the smallest room in the house now holds the key to our anxieties about hygiene, cleanliness, consumerism, and the power of a room of one’s own.
Baths—large public spaces—are thousands of years old. Bathrooms—small private chambers—are far more recent inventions.
The ancient Romans filled their capital with more than 1,000 public baths. Those privies weren’t remotely private. They “generally had twenty seats or more in intimate proximity, and people used them as unselfconsciously as modern people ride a bus,” Bill Bryson writes in his history of the modern house, At Home.
This type of bath went out of style in Europe for almost a millennium after the fall of Rome, thanks in part to Dark Age scientists’ developing the very unscientific idea that bathing in water invites a host of awful diseases into the body’s pores. For most of the Middle Ages, “most [European] people didn't wash, or even get wet, if they could help it,” Bryson writes. When John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, declared that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” in a 1778 sermon, he was talking about our garments, not our armpits.
It was another unscientific idea that led to the creation of the bathroom as we know it. In the mid-19th century, American sanitarians came to believe that disease stemmed from “sewer gas” emitted by toilets, which encouraged home builders to cram tub, sink, and toilet into one well-ventilated room with exposed pipes, in order to limit the spread of disease. While the sewer-gas theory would be overturned by the science of contagion, the three-fixture bathroom remained a staple of the modern American home. (Elsewhere around the world, the toilet is far more commonly found in its own chamber, separate from the bath.)
In 1940, only half of Americans had a three-fixture bathroom in their home. After World War II, several developments set the stage for the bath boom.
First, as The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker has written, new highways, pro-sprawl laws, tax preferences, and zoning rules “steered Americans toward living in detached single-family homes” in the suburbs, which have space for more than one full bath.
Second, the development of Formica, fiberglass, and other plastics made it cheaper to build bathrooms with that particular mid-century shine. From 1910 to 1940, the average sale price of a bathtub declined by 70 percent, according to the historian Alison K. Hoagland, the author of The Bathroom.
Third, suburban developers started offering, and middle-class consumers started expecting, an en suite bathroom in the master bedroom, which created a need for another bathroom that was accessible to kids and guests.
American bathrooms haven’t grown only in number. As the square footage per person in a new single-family home doubled from the 1970s to the 2010s, so too did the typical size of a bathroom—from 35 square feet to 70, according to Hoagland. They’ve also grown in importance, taking on new, ever more fanciful roles, serving as “powder room, laundry room, phone booth, library, gymnasium, storage closet, and, for the affluent at least, a place of sybaritic luxury,” as Newsweek wrote in 1965.
Larger and more voluminous bathrooms, with their deeper shower shelves and taller medicine cabinets, gave individuals more room for beauty equipment, lotions, serums, shampoos, conditioners, soaps, creams, and makeup brands. Since Diane von Furstenberg published The Bath, her influential ode to the commode, in 1993, affluent Americans have transformed their bathrooms into technological marvels, with Jacuzzis, steam showers, rainfall heads, and other gizmos to reproduce various tropical microclimates.
This is the bathroom’s impressive 100-year evolution in the United States: What was once a foul cesspool has become a human car wash.
You might think that we have already reached Peak Bathroom. But the super-rich have other ideas. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported on a Bel Air, California, home that listed for $49.9 million. It featured eight bedrooms—and 20 bathrooms. By any rational assessment, this is a ludicrous use of money, space, and plumbing. But the U.S. housing market is rarely restrained by rationality. Indeed, the share of houses with 10 or more bathrooms has doubled in the past decade. It would seem that the richest 0.01 percent of Americans are spending down their fortunes in an arms race for toilets.
Even among non-zillionaires, the numbers show that bathrooms are still the prize of the 21st-century American home. According to Zillow research shared with The Atlantic, a simple bathroom remodel—such as replacing the toilet, adding a double sink, or tiling the floor—carries the best bang-for-buck of any home renovation. At $1.71 in additional home value for every $1 spent, it’s three times as cost-effective as a kitchen renovation. (The simple reason: Different couples value different kitchen utilities, but there are only so many ways to use the can.)
“Bathrooms sell houses, period,” says Nadine Ferrata, a Chicago-based real-estate agent with Compass. “We’re so connected, so overworked, running around like chickens with our heads cut off—and this includes me, by the way—that when you close that bathroom door, you want to say ‘Ahhhh!’”
The empty room behind the bathroom door has become a sacred space. As The Atlantic’s Megan Garber has written, only in the past 20 years have television and film directors made a cliché out of the bathroom-mirror confessional—in which the protagonist splashes water on her face, looks up, and gazes in existential contemplation at her reflection.
In a world of constant connection, seclusion is the ultimate luxury. And the bathroom’s thicket of water-bearing pipes, once thought in the 19th century to carry disease, now convey the restful promise of pure aloneness. The bath, originally conceived as a place to convene with the world, has become one of the last places where we can truly disappear from it.