In this new series of posts, I will be proposing questions that I think ought to be on the U.S. citizenship test. For each question, I’ll first give you the average British person’s answer, just to show what an uninitiated, unassimilated person would say. Then the Gringo’s response with my explanation. Previously: What is Cream Cheese Served With?
Question: How many bathrooms does the average family home need?
One upstairs, and a downstairs loo if you’re posh.
U.S. Citizen’s answer:
Oh wow, well at least one bathroom per person living in the house, plus an extra bathroom for non-blood relations, obviously. Actually make that two extras, just to be on the safe side. Or you know what? Let’s say 2.5 bathrooms per every other room in the house. That might be enough. (Should we put a little bathroom inside the master bathroom? Is that ok? I feel like that’s ok.)
Ok so here’s the thing about the bathroom obsession in U.S. houses (and in this obsession I include the whole two-sink thing).
It kinda implies that Gringos are either completely revolting — so gross and stinky that even their family can’t stand to share a sink with them — or that the entire nation has an OCD-level germ phobia.
I’m inclined towards the latter, given the weird etiquette rules about not sitting on public toilets or pooping in other people’s houses (that’s a whole other blog post folks).
Does your wife really make so much mess that you can’t bear to share the same sink as her?
Or are you all so very, very pressed for time in the mornings that you can’t, like, wait five minutes for him to finish brushing his teeth?
Turning over a whole extra room in the house to save five minutes once a day seems like a rather drastic solution…
Of course, there’s a whole bunch of domestic-labor gender stuff going on here. When I look at real estate listings and see more than one bathroom, my first thought it: who wants to clean one bathroom, let alone 3.5?
The snarky answer is that the kind of people who can buy a house in a city like Chicago these days are the kind of people who don’t clean their own bathrooms.
But I don’t think that’s the case. The multiple bathroom thing is not just a rich person thing (although it is certainly that). It seems to be increasingly the norm in regular family homes.
There are some great histories of bathrooms out there. But recently, I read a fascinating article by the anthropologist Krisztina Fehervary, describing the aspiration for “American” kitchens and bathrooms in postsocialist homes Hungary. What Hungarians considered to be American bears no relation to what people in the U.S. today – or in the 1980s – would consider typical.
But her larger insight is into the extent to which aspiration domestic architecture captures changing ideas of what is ‘normal’. If multiple bathrooms are now normal in the U.S., what does this say about expectations of cleanliness, housework, and inter-family privacy?
My own sense is that the proliferation of bathrooms had come about at the same time as the vogue for open-plan living spaces.
When there are no internal walls separating the shared living spaces, when kitchen, dining room, living room, and downstairs hallway are all one ‘seamless’ space, it certainly makes a house look big and airy. But it also means that the people living there can’t escape each other.
Of course, my reaction to the rash of bathrooms is shaped by my experience of living in tiny British houses, which are shrinking every year, and my membership in the generation who will probably never be able to own my own house.
The last place we lived in Chicago was a beautiful old apartment complex in Lincoln Square. Right opposite stood one of those typical Chicago two-flats: a solid, spacious building housing two family-sized apartments. Over the course of several months, this building was ‘gut-rehabbed’ and turned into a one-family house with four bedrooms and five bathrooms.
Think about that: putting all those bathrooms halved the number of families who could live in this building, in a city that has a chronic lack of affordable houses.
That building stood empty for over a year, before someone eventually brought it for $1,325,000.
All across the major cities in the U.S. the same thing is happening. Think of all those bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms turned into extra bathrooms so that the kind of person who can afford to put down over a million dollars can support their germ phobia.