Thursday, April 26, 2018

A to Z April Challenge: W is for Wash Stand and Washbowl

When my sister and I cleaned out our parents’ home, we had to make many decisions about what to do with all the stuff. Which things are truly “valuable” and which have only sentiment in their favor? Should we sell it, keep it, or throw it away? To help ensure a future for our family’s heirlooms, I plan to leave a booklet for my daughters telling the stories of what they will inherit one day. (Not TOO soon, I hope!) With this challenge I begin my book of Heirlooms.

is for wash stand and washbowl set. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the days before indoor plumbing, these were found in bedrooms, or at least among folks that could afford them. The washbowl set was the forerunner of the bathroom sink allowing people to wash themselves in the privacy of their own room. Usually water was carried by bucket to fill the pitcher and then poured into the bowl or basin where one could wash his hands and face. Afterwards the bowl was emptied either by throwing the water out a window or by dumping it into a “slop jar” to be carried away for more discreet disposal. Sets were made in plain white ironstone as well as fancy hand-painted china.

Washbowl Set
When my parents gave me and my husband a washbowl set for Christmas 1973, it was complete. The large pitcher was for cold water and the smaller one was for hot water; the bowl or basin was for washing. Completing the set are a small bowl with lid which held a cake of soap, a shaving mug, a toothbrush holder, and a chamber pot or “slop jar."

Unfortunately the toothbrush holder and lid to the chamber pot are broken thanks to little children throwing a ball in the house. (GRRR)

But back to the story. Washbowl sets were almost always placed on a small piece of furniture called a wash stand. Some had marble tops to protect the furniture from water stains.

Some had a rack for towels; some people used to hang a small quilt to protect the wall from water splashes. Almost all had a drawer for towels and a storage area large enough to hold the chamber pot.

In the 1970s and 80s, antiques were very popular but very expensive. On weekends Momma, my sister, and I scoured many a thrift store and antique shop in search of a bargain. Wash stands were high on our list, and we found quite a few.

Wash stand dining room
This wash stand in my dining room
holds serving pieces and candle holders.
Momma gave new life to an array of stands from the primitive to the more refined, although none with marble tops as those were too expensive. However, I inherited a walnut wash stand with marble top from my grandaunt Violetta Davis Ryan.
Living room wash stand
Walnut wash stand with marble top
from Aunt Violetta
Notice this one has a large back splash
plus small shelves to hold parts of the
washbowl set.

The wash stand currently in one of our guest rooms was in pieces when Momma found it. The top was separated from the rest and the doors were stacked inside. The towel rack was in pieces as well, and the rod for holding a towel was missing. The cost - $4. Since this project required quite a bit of gluing, Momma went to Sears to buy some clamps.

Wash stand in guest room
Bedroom wash stand in oak
is the most rustic piece.

The clerk was surprised that a woman was clamping anything. He obviously had not met my mother! She owned a drill as well as a belt sander, jig saw, and a host of smaller tools like screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, chisels, saws, and hammers.
Wash stand in family room
Wash stand made of poplar in the family room is just big enough
for a 52" tv. The drawer holds some DVDs, and the bottom part
of the cabinet holds the DVD player. 
Our neighbor once said, “It wasn’t officially summer until the garage door was open, old furniture was in the driveway, and Mary E. was in her white work shorts.” Those shorts were so covered in paint and wood stain that they probably could have stood on their own.

Oh, how clearly I remember those summer days as Momma’s assistant, both of us in rubber gloves with putty knives, a wire brush, and paint remover scraping through layers of paint to find that beautiful oak or poplar. My clearest memory, though, is that flicks of paint and chemicals STING!

© 2018, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. Oh yeah, that job is even worse than silver polishing. I found a matching set of a bed, a bureau and a wash stand that we had in our bedroom for years. I spent many hours cleaning the varnish out of the intricate wooden designs. My bestie bought it from me when I moved west, and she still has it!
    Your washbowl set is pretty, I've never seen one so complete. So sad the pieces got broken.

    My A to Z Genealogy Challenges

    1. Oh yes, cleaning out the grooves and around curves and such can be a struggle. I'm glad your friend appreciates your work.

  2. We had a wash stand, jug and bowl at home - no water direct into the house. Your 'slop' bowl was our 'goz under' as it went under the bed. I wonder what happened to them all.

    1. That's right - the chamber pot was often under the bed rather than in a piece of furniture. Handier that way, I suppose.

  3. Trying to comment on my nook but it isn't friendly with my wordpress address. But love the older furniture and wish I had room for more.

    1. I hear ya. I see beautiful pieces of furniture and wish I lived in a mansion so I could have it all.

  4. I never realized that wash stands were so sturdy and beautiful. Hats off to your mother for refinishing all that furniture. I never had the energy or stick-to-it for it.

    1. And they're just a nice size - not too overwhelming like old sideboards and bureaus.

  5. Wow, your mom was very industrious and knew how to use a lot of tools@ I'm sure you have great memories of working with her!


    1. She was multi-talented, that's for sure.

  6. I don't think I've ever seen a complete set like that. Good on your mom and how much you must have learned by her side!

    1. I did learn quite a lot. And it was fun.

  7. What a wonderful family history of Wash Stands, Bowls and Pitchers. I have not seen as full a set as you have...beautiful. Neat that you and your Mom were redo/repurpose gals. Great letter 'W' post.

  8. Your mama was quite a gal! Good for her for tackling these projects on her own.