Bathtubs: A brief (and limited) history

Search the web, and you’re sure to read that America’s first bathtub was installed in 1842—December 20, to be exact. It would be nice if such a mercurial vessel had so neat a beginning—even H.L. Mencken, the newspaperman who concocted this hoax as an uplifting wartime news story, would agree. What is true is that no accessory embodies the metamorphosis of bathing equipment (from moveable furniture to plumbed-in-place fixtures) or helps define the use and look of a bathroom in any era as much as the bathtub. (Source link, Old House Journal)

… Before indoor plumbing, bathtubs—like chamber pots and washbowls—were moveable accessories: large but relatively light containers that bathers pulled out of storage for temporary use. The typical mid-19th-century bathtub was a product of the tinsmith’s craft, a shell of sheet copper or zinc. In progressive houses equipped with early water-heating devices, a large bathtub might be site-made of sheet lead and anchored in a coffin-like wooden box.

Later, there were ingenious (though ultimately impractical) hideaway alternatives, like the portable canvas tub (similar to a pot-bellied cot), or the Mosely folding bath tub—an armoire-like contraption with a hinged door that pulled down like a Murphy bed to reveal a bathing saucer.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History does not have images of a Mosely fold bathtub as best I can tell, but it has images of early American tubs in its collection. Supposedly “The earliest known bathtub was found in Greece, and was found in the Palace of Knossos, in Crete, dating from 1700 B.C. Excavations of Greek cities have turned up alabaster and ceramic tubs, as well as sophisticated hot and cold water systems providing indoor plumbing to the bathers. We are more familiar with ancient Roman baths, where bathing took on great societal and public importance.”

The first baths weren’t about getting clean or relaxing, according to JSTOR Daily. “In the 1860s, experts agreed that the best kind of bath was a brief plunge in cold water… The focus of bathing was not to remove dirt, and few experts suggested the use of soap. One physician suggested soap only for excessively dirty bodies, since it removed necessary oils from the skin.”

Taking a bath can actually improve your health, according to some (“help you sleep better” AND “wake you up”? Make up your mind, Town&Country). But bathtubs are not just for bathing. Rose Heichelbech of Dusty Old Thing offers readers Our Lady of the Clawfoot Tub: The History of Bathtub Madonnas.

posted by Bella Donna (18 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

a large bathtub might be site-made of sheet lead

God, can you imagine lead-lined baths, prescribed as some sort of curative. One of the scarce blessings of this nightmare age is that we are on our last generation of leaders that spent their formative years soaking in lead; I thought that was just about gasoline, but literally bathing in the stuff!? Damn.
posted by mhoye at 11:05 AM on August 23 [2 favorites]

Obligatory, perhaps?

Marv helps you learn the importance of bathing.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 11:21 AM on August 23 [2 favorites]

Marv looks like a guy who would be described in many languages, as well as in ASL, as a creep.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:14 PM on August 23
Which is not to dismiss the link, Insert Clever Name Here. Well done!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:14 PM on August 23
Did the US manage to develop with no tradition of public, communal, or joint baths? Neither the Roman nor the Germanic type? I suppose the English colonists first came over in the depths of the English repudiation of “the stews”, is that why? Did we drop a German tradition in the cultural repudiation of WWI, or was it being renamed by the YWCA &c? Huh.
posted by clew at 12:54 PM on August 23
(That script for ‘Marv’ was actually written by the poet John Ashbery for the Guy Maddin film. Apparently Ashbery wrote a lot about the bath.)
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 2:21 PM on August 23 [1 favorite]
I wish I liked bathtubs more, but unless they are of the fancy spa variety, they are just so uncomfortable to sit in.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:24 PM on August 23
Did the US manage to develop with no tradition of public, communal, or joint baths?

Plenty of public baths in NYC, now long gone. There were also ‘private baths’ in places like Coney Island in Brooklyn. I visited this one with my dad while I was not quite a teen, not very long before it shut down. I remember there being a large room filled with clawfoot tubs. And, I may be mistaken, but I think there were both fresh and salt water taps.

Of course, if you really want a culture which knows how to bathe (and soak) together, look to the Japanese. Still one of the best parts of my time there.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 2:56 PM on August 23 [1 favorite]

Those are all post-Civil War, and they are being described as innovations in that article, Insert Clever Name Here. Why was this novel in the US then?

Paris had commercial baths by the 18th century, according to Wikipedia. I haven’t found anything specific to the early modern era for baths in Germany because there’s so much about the long history of spa baths, at least suggesting that the German states didn’t get rid of bathing as part of the Reformation and never had to re-introduce them. One of the proponents in the article you link is German, too.

tl;dr NYC is not always the forefront of everything.
posted by clew at 3:34 PM on August 23

I guess we’re a modest people?

(sorry…couldn’t resist.)
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 4:06 PM on August 23

Grubby, but modest!
posted by clew at 4:07 PM on August 23
This was a great read, thank you for sharing. The concept of folding bath containers distresses me, perhaps because I’d never considered them before.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 6:27 PM on August 23 [1 favorite]
Grubby, but modest!

Mostly grubby.

The concept of folding bath containers distresses me,

I can’t be the only person who has had a folding chair collapse unexpectedly; that isn’t something I want in my bath right when I am at my most vulnerable.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:01 PM on August 23 [1 favorite]

I wish I liked bathtubs more, but unless they are of the fancy spa variety, they are just so uncomfortable to sit in.

Thankfully, in our home which was built in 1913, none of the prior owners ever even considered removing the nice clawfoot tubs.
posted by mikelieman at 8:12 PM on August 23

I was surprised at how late ceramic and cast iron tubs were, though in hindsight I shouldn’t have been. So big.
posted by clew at 9:01 PM on August 23
My new place does not have room for a tub. Eventually I will find a rental that already has a bathtub or has enough space for me to add a tub because soaking in a tub is a singular pleasure. The idea of a Murphy-bed-style folding tub may be impractical but the idea calls to me. I really miss my tub.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:20 AM on August 24
My current apartment has a soaking tub, and now that I’m looking for a new place to live, my heart falls every time I find a regular tub as the only option. I’m hooked! I love the idea of a clawfoot tub but that’s unlikely in apartments, and rental homes remain just out of reach.
posted by taterpie at 1:23 AM on August 24 [1 favorite]
It’s been 6 hours and I am still having a steel is heavier than feathers moment about foldable bathtubs
posted by Kitchen Witch at 1:28 AM on August 24 [1 favorite]

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