Let Me Powder My Nose: A Brief History of Powder Rooms

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“Let me just powder my nose.” It’s a phrase we’ve all heard from time-to-time, and everyone knows that no powdering is actually going on, but we still use it. Why?

Recently, I came across an apartment website that boasted “powder baths” among its amenities. Not having heard this term before, which by-the-way I think is a ridiculous term, I decided to do some research and see what I could find out about it. My conclusion is that it is an awkward conflation of powder room and bathroom. Apparently powder room or half bath was insufficient to describe what this apartment community offers its residents. Then I found myself looking into the history of powder rooms, and of course, I have to share what I found out.

The Powder Room — A Brief History

Initially, the powder room was the place in an eighteenth-century home where one went to refresh the powder on one’s wig (or if you were powdering your own hair, and not a wig). It was also referred to as a powder closet or wig closet). In larger homes, there was typically a powder closet in a location that was convenient for guests to use without going into the private areas of the home (a function still a part of today’s half bath as it is sometimes referred to). This blog post, The Raucous Royals, explains the powdering process which involved an application of grease (bear grease no less!) or pomatum for the wealthier folk finished off with powder to be in the height of fashion.

Even after wigs fell out of fashion, the powder closet was still used as a station to repair one’s appearance and to powder ones (presumably shiny) nose. The powder chair was replaced with chamber pots and washing basins, and later toilets and sinks — the modern form we use today. The Victorians, known for their genteel verbal expressions, going so far as to call a chair leg a limb, for example, would have never referred to what actually happens in a bathroom, so powdering your nose, was apparently a socially acceptable way to excuse yourself from polite company.

Powder rooms have long been a part of public buildings, a place to check your makeup, and even revive yourself from being faint (early powder rooms featured fainting couches), or conversing with other ladies, away from the gentlemen — a trait that still happens today. In fact,  this blog: In the Powder Room is a modern incarnation of the notion.  Other examples of powder rooms can be found in Las Vegas casinos hotels, vacation resorts, and apparently in some apartments. Powder rooms, unlike powder baths, are charming, which is why The Book Nook Inn‘s bathroom door is labeled, Powder Room — because a room that features butterflies simply has to be charming.

 

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So, the next time you need to “powder your nose” you can thank those fashionable, wig-adorned people from the eighteenth century for bringing about a room to take care of the task!

 

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