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

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

It may seem a little dorm room-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 been using buckets to bring water in from outdoor wells to wash themselves and any household items. But as the modern innovation of indoor water became more accessible, it became a customary addition to homes as soon as a homeowner could afford it. If the house was originally built without indoor plumbing, it was the first renovation feature on a homeowner’s list. 

Even if indoor plumbing was integrated into these early homes, they typically only had one full bathroom in the house, so the sinks were also a convenient way to be able to clean up in your private space while someone else was using the main bathroom. 

“Indoor residential plumbing was one of the great technological marvels of the Victorian age, so having sinks in bedrooms was quite a convenient amenity,” said Rob Thomson, president of the Victorian Alliance of San Francisco. “Think of it as akin to having an iPhone charger at your bedside today.”

If the sinks aren’t out in the open of a room, they may be hidden within a small closet. Most people didn’t have a lot of clothes back then, explains Bonnie Spindler, a real estate agent and “the Victorian Specialist” of San Francisco, so closets were used to conceal these types of amenities.

“Indoor plumbing was an innovation in the Victorian era,” said Pam Larson, San Francisco Heritage’s museum and docent coordinator. “In middle class homes, having a separate room for bathing was often a luxury. Bathroom sinks situated in bedrooms to serve as a washing station were common. For the staff bedrooms at the Haas-Lilienthal House, this was the case. Because most of the staff had access to one full bathroom, having a sink in their bedroom was a convenient feature.”

The Haas-Lilienthal House was built in 1886 and is a San Francisco Designated Landmark and listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. It operates as a Victorian era home museum, which just reopened for tours, and is full of period furniture and artifacts. Larson said there used to be a total of five sinks in various bedrooms, but now only three remain.

But these weren’t just for the wealthy Victorians. Even middle class residents had them in their homes as soon as they could afford them, Spindler said. The science of germs had been picking up steam in the 19th century, and Victorians prioritized cleanliness in a way previous generations did not. 

David Parry, a real estate agent with Sotheby’s International Realty, hypothesized that monthly water usage cost may have played a part in these extra sinks as well. He referenced 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 wash basin 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 singular full bathroom was the primary driver. “Typically, in the Victorian-era homes there was only one bathroom on the bedroom level, accessed from the hallway, so the convenience of being able to privately wash one’s face before getting into bed, without going out into the hall, must have played a part in the design,” Parry said. 

Even with the modern addition of multiple bathrooms in a home, Spindler has seen plenty of 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, see the convenience of having an extra sink, even if it’s just to wash a child’s paintbrushes in. 

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