Wednesday, June 10, 2015
The Old-Fashioned Powder Room
One of the many things I love about 1930s-era issues of House & Garden and House Beautiful is the attention given to rooms that once epitomized sophisticated living. Take, for example, the powder room. The powder room of yesteryear was a slightly different affair from today's powder room, which is basically a small guest bathroom with a sink and toilet. But back in the 1930s, the term "powder room" referred to a small dressing room that allowed ladies to powder their noses and touch-up their lipstick in privacy. Frequently outfitted with little more than a dressing table and chair, the thirties powder room rarely functioned as a lavatory. That role was left to the guest bathroom, which was typically, though not always, located adjacent to the powder room. (Take a look at the photos below, and you'll see that none of the powder rooms had sinks nor toilets.) However, space obviously dictated both the arrangement and the location of a powder room, because I have seen examples of old powder rooms with sinks as well as powder rooms- sans sink and toilet- situated far apart from a bathroom. Suffice to say, not all powder rooms were alike.
Just as they do today, decorators of the thirties-era understood that small spaces beg for outsized decorating. Look at the photos below, and you'll see that feminine touches abounded. (These spaces were, after all, dedicated to women and their personal grooming.) Swags, of both the wallpaper and fabric varieties, seemed practically a requirement for powder rooms, as did mirror, which was used on both walls and glamorously-appointed dressing tables. Pairs of small dressing-table lamps were ubiquitous in powder rooms, while perfume bottles, powder boxes, and brush sets ensured that ladies were equipped to refresh themselves.
I suspect that the Second World War rendered the old-fashioned powder room somewhat obsolete, because by the 1940s, magazines, having moved on to more practical domestic issues, devoted little if any space to the powder room. In fact, I wonder if the war and its subsequent housing and domestic-staff shortages meant that the powder room became a luxury that few houses could accommodate. Perhaps it was the post-war era that saw the powder room joining space and function with the guest bathroom, becoming the powder room that we know today. I'm not sure, and I need to investigate further. But what I do know is that the old-fashioned powder room, like those other lost-to-history rooms such as the cocktail room and the telephone room, harks back to a time when function and style often went hand-in-hand. After all, if one must powder one's nose or talk on the telephone, why not do so in style?