What Is a Powder Room?

Did people really powder their wigs or noses in these small rooms? Two interior designers walk us through the facts and myths.

Just as language evolves, so does the terminology related to our homes.

Most people no longer use the word parlor or drawing room to mean a family room or living room. Bedrooms were once called chambers. And more recently, people retired the terms “master bedroom” and “master bathroom” from the popular lexicon for their racist and sexist overtones. Instead, it’s the main or primary bedroom/bathroom.

So that leaves the question: What about the term “powder room”? Experts Ariana Lovato, owner and principal home designer of Honeycomb Home Design, and Artem Kropovinsky, interior designer and founder of Arsight, share their insight.

What Is a Powder Room?

In its simplest terms, the powder room in a modern home is a bathroom with a sink and toilet. “It is not complete with everything one needs in a washroom,” says Kropovinsky.

The powder room is often situated in a more public-facing area or near a main entry, intended most often for use by guests, or as a secondary bathroom for residents.

Powder rooms usually have a mirror and maybe some other small furnishings, but never a shower or tub. These rooms are often tiny. Lovato notes that real estate agents, Realtors and listings will often substitute the name “half bath” or “half bathroom” for powder room, so some people use these terms interchangeably.

How Did the Powder Room Get Its Name?

The origin is surprisingly murky. Some, like Kropovinsky, believe it stems from an 18th-century term for a small room to powder wigs.

Some online sources say these rooms were also once called powder closets or wig closets. Others contend it’s unlikely such rooms existed in America at the time. Regardless, Kropovinsky says, the term “evolved by the early 20th century into a euphemism for a small, elegant guest bathroom.”

Some sources say powder rooms rose to prominence during Prohibition. According to Lovato, the term became popularized as a place for women to gather, socialize and touch up their makeup. She says the rooms may have had a mirror or a basin for washing up, but not a toilet, because indoor plumbing wasn’t widely available until the early 20th century.

Others contend it may have been coined as a polite euphemism, avoiding the acknowledgement that women used toilets. Grammarist notes that it also could have been takeoff on “take a powder,” a slang reference to leaving, or perhaps even a reference to the powders one might take to relieve constipation or other illnesses.

Lovato says historically, these rooms contain stools or settees for lounging or attending to one’s face or look. They could also be the place for a more private conversation.

Is the Term Powder Room Still Used Today?

Yes. Lovato says she and her interior design clients regularly say it. “People get what a powder room is more than a half bath,” Lovato says. Sometimes, she says, people don’t know which half they’re getting, but “powder room” makes it clear.

However, she acknowledges, some people use “half bath” because it’s what they see in real estate listings, or when they buy their homes. Kropovinsky confirms the term is alive and well on the East Coast as well.

What Are Some Design Considerations for a Powder Room?

“It’s important for people to know it’s a space to have fun with and express their style and personality,” Lovato says. “It’s a space guests will remember.”

And because the space is smaller and may be used less than other rooms in the home, it can be a place to take some style risks, whether that’s with color, pattern or fixtures.

If you have a choice, Lovato suggests keeping the powder room away from the dining room. “It’s such a faux pas, but we see powder rooms next to dining rooms a lot,” she says. Instead, think about giving guests privacy by tucking it behind a coat closet, near a front door or main entry, or down a hallway.

“We love designing powder rooms because there is a chance to be a little bold with your finishes,” Lovato says. Consider a fun paint color on a vanity, a dramatic tile pattern, wallpaper on the ceiling, or other bold statements. Lovato says her firm often uses 48-inch-high wainscoting, with wallpaper above that.

If you go dark in the small space (and that can work beautifully to create drama), make sure you install good lighting. You might consider swapping a traditional sink vanity for a trough, vessel or pedestal sink, beautiful options that wouldn’t be as functional in a bathroom with more traffic.

Finally, don’t forget some storage or a place to hide extra rolls of toilet paper, hygiene products or other supplies. Lovato says if you opt for a pedestal or vessel sink in your powder room, hang floating shelves above the toilet with decorative baskets. Or, if you have the floor space, tuck a basket with a lid into a corner.

Katie Dohman
Katie Dohman is an award-winning freelance writer who has written about home, design, and lifestyle topics for more than 15 years. Her work has been featured in Artful Living, Midwest Home, Star Tribune, and Teen Vogue, among many others. She is currently living her own how-to story as she and her husband work through a complete gut remodel on their 1921 home—while parenting three tiny tots and dodging their dog and cat, who always seem to be underfoot.