The Bathroom: An Epic

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Thus, becoming ever more practical and affordable, the water closet also became ever more common over the course of the twentieth century. And while there have been many refinements during that time, the basic design of the toilet has changed relatively little. Other than style and the use of color, evolution has come largely in response to a greater awareness of water conservation. American toilets of the mid-twentieth century generally used 5 gallons per flush, this gradually being reduced to 3.5, but a federal law that went into effect in 1994 now mandates a maximum of 1.6 gallons per flush. This has been accomplished through redesign of the standard gravity flush toilet (a slimmer tank, a bowl with steeper sides) or through use of a pressure system, a costlier option.

Meanwhile, there had been a transformation of the “bath” side of the bathroom, beginning roughly at the turn of the nineteenth century. In the summer of 1799 Elizabeth Drinker wrote that she “went into the Shower bath. I bore it better than I expected, not having been wett all over att once, for 28 years past.”

IN 1836 ELIZA FARRAR COUNSELED, IN THE YOUNG Lady’s Friend : “It may shock the feelings of a young lady, to be told that. . . perspiration, which is constantly passing off through the skin, has an individual odor, more or less disagreeable in different persons; but it is nevertheless true. . . . Once at least, in twentyfour hours, the whole surface of the body should be washed in soap and water.”

What is remarkable about Elizabeth and Eliza is that so thoroughly divergent outlooks on personal bathing came so close together in time. For her part there was nothing extraordinary about Elizabeth. Reluctance to bathe was general. Innumerable were the M’s of this world, as recorded by Henry David Thoreau in 1852: “M—[a farmer] was telling me last night that he had thought of bathing when he had done his hoeing—of taking some soap and going down to Waiden and giving himself a good scrubbing—but something had occurred to prevent it, and now he will go unwashed to the harvesting, aye, even till the next hoeing is over.”

This does not mean no one ever got wet. There was sea bathing, and there were spas. Indeed Elizabeth’s last immersion had been in 1771 at Bristol Springs, on the Delaware River north of Philadelphia, then a popular resort for Philadelphians. But there taking the waters was social and restorative rather than hygienic. The Drinkers also went to the shore from time to time. Of a visit in 1776 Elizabeth recalled that her husband went sea bathing while she, not venturing in, took the waters in another way that was somewhat in vogue at the time. She drank a pint of sea- water, which, as expected, “Operated largely & speedily” on her system.

Bathing for cleanliness for the Drinkers was, as it had been over the years, primarily a matter of sponge and washbasin in one’s bedchamber. Whether this was done once a day or once a week, or only for special occasions, was a matter of personal choice, as was how much of the body was cleansed at any given time. Furthermore, soap was still for doing the laundry; it would not become common for personal use until after the middle of the nineteenth century.

But a hint of changing times was the shower bath that the Drinker family had rigged up in the back yard of their Philadelphia home in the summer of 1798 (it took a year for Elizabeth “to bear it,” but her husband and children apparently got wet right away).

Modern public water supply was just around the corner in Philadelphia that year, and notions of cleanliness had begun to change since Elizabeth had last got wet all over. Although she provided no details about the construction of the shower bath, except that one “pulled the string of ye shower” to use it, an account of another such device of the time notes that it was topped with a tin reservoir, and the shower taker “pulls at a cord and the water falls upon her through a cullender.” The usual practice at the Drinkers’ was to let the water stand for “some hours” so that it warmed to body temperature. A female—Elizabeth, one of her daughters, or the family maid—using the Drinkers’ shower wore a thin gown and “an OyI cloath cap.”

It was in this contrivance that Elizabeth broke her twenty-eight-year drought. Why so long? She simply didn’t believe bathing was important, let alone necessary. Since the Middle Ages it had been thought to be deleterious. The Puritans were particularly leery of the practice; after all, whatever was washed had to be exposed. Even into the nineteenth century there were municipal ordinances prohibiting one from taking a bath except on medical advice. As late as 1860 Godey’s Lady’s Book still told readers that bathing at night was definitely ill-advised, while bathing in the morning, briefly , was probably all right if not done oftener than once a week.