Over a period of 200 years, washstands went from being a genteel luxury to a mass-produced commodity, reflecting
changing tastes and social attitudes on the way
A washstand can be an impressive piece of furniture, and its appearance and value are greatly enhanced when it is accompanied by an array of matching china fittings, including chamber pots
Before the widespread introduction of bathrooms, the washstand was - an indispensable item of bedroom furniture.
Until the 18th century, though, there was no such object as a separate washstand - people used a jug and a basin on a table.
Custom-built washstands began to appear in the mid-l8th century.
They were invariably made of mahogany, then the most fashionable wood.
The earliest published designs are those by Thomas Chippendale in his Gentleman and Cabinet Maker Director (1754). These were simple tripod stands in mahogany with a hole in the top for a bowl, and two small triangular drawers set halfway down.
Chippendale also illustrated a small cabinet with numerous drawers, which he called a shaving table. The top opened to reveal a basin, smaller dishes for soap recessed into the wood and a mirror frame which could be pulled up and held on a catch.
By the time Hepplewhite and Sheraton published their pattern books at the end of the 18th century, the two Chippendale designs had merged. The outcome was the corner washstand.
In contrast to the sweeping Rococo style used by Chippendale, these later 18th-century washstands exhibit the much straighter, simpler lines typical of the period.
They were usually of mahogany, with a shelf halfway up and a wooden top with one large hole for the basin and two or more smaller holes for various dishes.
A splashback, also in mahogany, was fitted at the rear to protect the wall. More elaborate stands incorporated a
'night convenience' (chamber pot).
By the time Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, washstands were wider than they were tall and were so large they looked like sideboards. The mahogany tops and splashbacks were replaced, at first by marble, then by tiles.
Cast-iron washstands came in during the later 19th century. This material was strong, took
decoration easily and, above all, was sanitary, being much easier to keep clean than wood.
Londoners bought their washstands in Tottenham Court Road, where there were many furniture shops, or visited the new department stores such as Whiteley's in Bayswater, where they could buy a total off the peg' look for their bedrooms.
It was much the same in any other large city.
After 1880 running water was fitted into the majority of new houses and bathrooms began to be built in.
However, until well past World War 1 the painted washstand was still common in houses throughout the country.
The best washstands were made of mahogany or occasionally of walnut.
Less expensive was beech, which was particularly favoured if the washstand was to be japanned or
Bamboo was in vogue from about 1880 to 1914. Sometimes beech was turned in order to simulate bamboo.
The cheapest and by far the commonest timber used for washstands was pine, which was invariably painted.
Using paint to simulate the grain and texture, skilled makers could disguise their softwood washstands as mahogany, walnut, or any other exotic wood. By using stains, they could make them look like satinwood.
Sadly, many of the splendid painted finishes have been taken off in recent years as a result
of the fashion tor stripped pine. Try to preserve any original finish, as in the future such
pieces will be quite rare.
If the washstand has already been stripped, check that all the caustic soda,
which shows up as a white powder, has been removed. You should avoid pieces with wide gaps in the grain of the wood
- this has been caused by poor stripping which has eaten into the wood itself.
The pine washstands were at first topped with marble, but the increased demand from
the new cities was for a cheaper, more adaptable material and tiles were used instead. As so often, necessity was turned to advantage and these became the main decorative feature of later washstands.
Check marble and tile tops and splashbacks for chips. The top and the splashback should
be original (this does not necessarily mean in the same style). Check inside any drawers to make sure the handles are the original fittings.
The art nouveau style had a huge influence on all the decorative arts in the period from about 1890 up to World War 1. The most striking feature of the style was the use of flowing forms like the tendrils of plants.
Read articles and references: Good standards are Warman's
English & Continental Pottery & Porcelain (Susan and Al Bagdade), and Marks
& Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain (William Chaffers).