The story behind the sink in the bedroom of your apartment and why so many SF homes have them

Searching for a new apartment in San Francisco is always an adventure. One shows you encountering a mysterious kitchen cabinet with its own window, while in another you discover a random sink in the corner of a bedroom.

It may seem a bit dorm-esque to have a sink in your bedroom, but it was actually quite common during the Victorian era in San Francisco. Before 1900, indoor plumbing was still a luxury, and most residents would have used buckets to draw water from outdoor wells to wash themselves and all household items. But as the modern innovation of backwater became more accessible, it became a common addition to homes as soon as a homeowner could afford it. If the house was originally built without interior plumbing, this was the first renovation feature on a homeowner’s list.

Even when indoor plumbing was integrated into these early homes, they usually only had one full bathroom in the house, so the sinks were also a convenient way to tidy up in your private space while someone else was using the master bathroom.

“Indoor residential plumbing was one of the great technological marvels of the Victorian era, so having sinks in bedrooms was a really handy amenity,” said Rob Thomson, president of the Victorian Alliance of San Francisco. “Think of it as if you had an iPhone charger at your bedside today.”

If the sinks are not in the open air of a room, they can be hidden in a small closet. Most people didn’t have much clothing back then, explains Bonnie Spindler, a real estate agent and “the Victorian specialist” of San Francisco, so closets were used to hide these kinds of amenities.

“Indoor plumbing was an innovation in the Victorian era,” said Pam Larson, the San Francisco Heritage museum and educator coordinator. “In middle-class homes, having a separate bathroom was often a luxury. Sinks in bedrooms that served as washing stations were common. This was the case for the staff rooms in the Haas-Lilienthal House. Since most employees had access to one full bathroom, a sink in their bedroom was a useful feature.”

Built in 1886, the Haas-Lilienthal House is a San Francisco-designated landmark and listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Operating as a Victorian-era house museum, having just reopened for tours, it is filled with period furniture and artifacts. Larson said there used to be a total of five sinks in different bedrooms, but now there are only three left.

But these weren’t just for the wealthy Victorians. Even middle-class residents had them as soon as they could afford them, Spindler said. The science of germs had picked up steam in the 1800s, and Victorians prioritized cleanliness in a way that previous generations hadn’t.

David Parry, a real estate agent at Sotheby’s International Realty, hypothesized that monthly water usage charges may also have played a part in these extra sinks. He referred to two water applications, one from 1891 and another from 1904, where you can see the price difference between different types of water appliances. In one application, the cost of a sink was only $0.05 per month, while a toilet was $0.22 per month and a bathtub was $0.32 per month.

Still, he believes the unique full bathroom was the main driver. “Normally in Victorian-era houses there was only one bathroom at bedroom level, accessible from the hallway, so the convenience of being able to wash your face privately before going to bed, without going into the hallway, must have played a part. a role in the design,” said Parry.

Even with the modern addition of multiple bathrooms in a home, Spindler has seen many Victorian remodels, and she said she doesn’t think she’s ever seen anyone remove the sinks from the bedrooms if they’re still intact. Most people, especially families, appreciate the convenience of having an extra sink, even if only to wash a child’s brushes.

Often, if they’ve been removed by a previous owner, she said, you can still see the water pipes sticking out of the walls. “Most people see [the sinks] and love them,” Spindler said. “But by the time split baths came on the scene, you don’t see sinks much in homes anymore.”

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