Evolution of the Master Bedroom

Did you know the master bedroom— the one with an enormous bathroom and walk-in his-and-her closets— has only been a common element in American real estate for the past 25 years or so? Also known as the master suite, these bedrooms evolved from “McMansion”-type homes that sprung up in the mid-1980s.

Let’s do a little history lesson on the master bedroom.  For many people in the 18th and 19th centuries, homes in America were utilitarian. While the rich could afford countless bedrooms and sitting rooms, the majority of Americans— especially in geographic locales susceptible to cold winters— slept in one room. Or, if they were lucky, they had two bedrooms— one for the parents, and one for the kids. Each room was heated by a fireplace, as pictured below in this Eastville, VA home that was built in 1785. Many rooms were smaller to retain heat better.

Circa 1785 home with fireplace in bedroom:

So, what prompted rooms to get larger? It was central heating and its widespread use at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century that rooms began to expand, said architect Richard Taylor,

Even so, master bedrooms were rarely the size they are today. Prior to the 1950s people worked and had to be very wealthy to have leisure time, explains Taylor. With the advent of the 40-hour work week, people had time to relax.

“People started to look at homes other than just shelter and started to look at the home as a place of respite and retreat.”

The master bedroom, in particular, was no longer just a place to sleep but a place for the masters— the owners of the home— to enjoy. Master bedroom sizes began to increase post-WWII along with the growth of a strong middle class.

1955 California rancher with larger bedroom closets:

This California-style ranch home was built in 1955 and has a larger master bedroom (pictured above) than what is often found in earlier construction. The home is listed on the Walnut Creek real estate market for $705,000.

Super-size it!

The big master bedrooms we see today in most new single-family construction came out during the mid-1980s and ’90s.

Following the gas crisis of the 1970s, energy prices in the mid-’80s were low, and a “huge house was no longer an energy drain,” said Taylor.

Land was opening up and was being developed into large lots and suburban neighborhoods at affordable prices. It was here that the concept of the “McMansion”— a phrase coined by architect Sarah Susanka — became common across the country. This home in Bothell, WA (pictured below), was built in 1986 and features a prime example of a master suite complete with large master bath.

In many luxury homes, the master bedroom is more of a suite than anything else, with walk-in closets, steam showers, soaking tubs and separate sitting areas.

What’s hot now?

The newest trend in homes, according to Taylor, is two master suites.

“We’ve seen a lot of people who love their house, and their neighborhood but they are afraid of not being to get up and down the stairs to their master bedroom,” Taylor said.

He has recently added second master bedrooms to the lower level of homes. That room can be used as a bedroom when the stairs become too much to handle as owners become elderly, or can be a room for in-laws.

“When kids are small, people want to have their bedroom upstairs, near the kids’ rooms,” said Taylor. “Later they can go down there and get away from the teenage kids.”

Another master bedroom trend he’s noticed is the movement away from big tubs.

“People imagine that they will use it when they buy house but rarely do,” Taylor said. “I’ve been putting in a much smaller tub or no tub, and a bigger shower.”

Want to peruse some master bedroom eye candy? Check out Zillow’s Dueling Digs.