The bizarre story behind why there are such a lot of cut up loos in San Francisco properties

My first time in San Francisco will never forget looking for a place to live.

My husband and I saw a dizzying number of places that day, unsure of which neighborhood to live in, and mostly dazed with sticker shock at each new place. But the jaw-dropping prices weren’t what stood out the most that day – it was one of the first places we saw in Noe Valley. As an old Victorian apartment, I was immediately delighted with the bay window and high ceilings. Then I opened a hall closet door, which I assumed.

There sat a lonely pink toilet – the only one in a confined space. My confused reaction was evident. The real estate agent who showed us around knew we weren’t from here and immediately said, “It’s a shared bathroom.”

More than five years later, I’ve seen tons of shared bathrooms at friends’ homes, and most are just like the first ones I saw – no sink, with the sink and shower in a separate room next door. The occasional “lucky few” huddled or wall-mounted a small sink in a corner, but that was likely an addition to the tiny space in later years, said Bonnie Spindler, a real estate agent and “Victorian specialist” of San Francisco.

When most houses were built in the Victorian era, there was no toilet in the house at all as most people would still have used an outhouse and / or chamber pots. Indoor plumbing was just becoming the norm, so Bay Area residents may have installed their sinks and tubs years before adding an indoor toilet. Once they were able to add the toilet, it might make more sense to convert a nearby closet into a toilet room than to build it into the existing bathroom.

More likely, however, this is due to the Victorian era’s new obsession with hygiene. “The idea was to separate where you clean yourself and where you have bowel movements,” said Spindler. “You would have thought it would be most unclean to empty yourself in the same room that you take a bath and shave in.”

A shared bathroom in North Beach.

Ben Ramirez

Spindler also said that most toilets at the time did not have something called a “backflow preventer”, which prevents wastewater from flowing back through the toilet and onto the floor. Thus all incidents would have been limited to the small area. She said that the Victorians are also responsible for the proliferation of tile in bathrooms and kitchens as it is an easy-to-clean material.

Rob Thomson, president of the San Francisco Victorian Alliance, said Victorian-era residents were avid adopters of new technology, and there was no bigger story in the home than indoor plumbing in the second half of the 19th century. “This residential trend was compounded by the advent of consistent municipal water and sewer systems – these were the fiber optic data networks of the 1870s,” he said.

Open, multi-purpose floor plans like those common today were unknown. “In the houses, the Victorian and Edwardian San Franciscans were very aware that they should separate the space for different uses and users: double rooms, separate stairs and entrances for servants, and formal dining rooms played one role in both architecture and society special role, “said Thomson.

Shared bathrooms are particularly common in San Francisco, but they can also be found anywhere from Europe to Australia.

The Victorian and Edwardian San Franciscans were very conscious of separating the space for different purposes.  The shared bathroom is a good example of this.

The Victorian and Edwardian San Franciscans were very conscious of separating the space for different purposes. The shared bathroom is a good example of this.

Caroline Smith

Modern home design has its own version of the split bathtub in the form of a water closet, although these are usually included in a larger bathroom. Many San Francisco homeowners choose to convert shared bathrooms into one large bathroom during a renovation, Spindler said.

But more than a hundred years later, many homeowners and landlords with these old San Francisco homes have chosen to keep the shared bathroom simply because it is often more convenient for families or roommates.

I did and I loved it. Had 2 roommates so it was almost like having 2 bathrooms – one could use the toilet while another is showering or brushing teeth. I was really a great setup.

– Jeffrey Jones (@ JeffreyJones63) February 8, 2021

Multitasking is great, and I also like it a lot when the toilet and its aerosolizing properties aren’t near the sink and shower, toothbrushes and towels and – you get the picture.

– Eugene Archibald (@Dzhena) February 8, 2021

Loved it. Only 1 bathroom for 3 roommates, but rarely waited for “important business”. Used the sink when someone showered.

– Christine Herron (@christine) February 8, 2021

Loved it, was the perfect setup during the parties, we could keep a keg in the bathtub.

– Sammy the dead rat @ (@gmonie) February 8, 2021

Keeping a barrel in the tub is also a great perk for sharing bathrooms.

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