The Bathroom: An Epic

Albany, with a population of 62,367 and just 19 tubs in town, was close to reflecting the country as a whole in 1860.

Now to Eliza Farrar. Middle-class attitudes toward cleanliness were beginning to change, particularly in England, by the mid-eighteenth century, as exemplified by the evangelist John Wesley’s admonition that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” On the medical side there was Edinburgh’s Dr. William Buchan, whose remarkably durable how-to-stay-well book Domestic Medicine first appeared in America in 1772 (and itself stayed well, through one revised edition after another on both sides of the Atlantic, past the middle of the next century). Buchan preached that perspiration was of such great importance to health “that few diseases attack us while it goes properly on.”

By the late 1790s public baths were beginning to appear in American cities, reviving a custom that had declined with the Roman Empire. Baths continued as a public institution into the early twentieth century. But for many there was not even the luxury of a public bath, let alone a bath room in one’s own home. Hence, as one observer wrote of New York’s poor in 1845, “The wealthy introduce water into their chambers . . . but for the innumerable poor, this is a luxury that can seldom, if ever, be enjoyed. Open bathing around the wharves is of course prohibited; and the labouring man has to walk three or four miles [to the ocean] to obtain a privilege so necessary to health.”

The first household bathtubs in America (in the modern sense, as opposed to small portable receptacles) began appearing at the turn of the nineteenth century, but these were rare examples and usually not yet connected to any form of plumbing. The proliferation of bathtubs, not surprisingly, coincided with the development of the piped-in public water supply. Hence by 1860 we find 3,910 tubs in Boston, a significant number relative to their near absence earlier in the century, but not a great many given that Boston at the time had 177,902 bodies to be bathed. Bostonians, with a ratio of one tub for every 45 people, nevertheless were statistically better scrubbed than Baltimoreans, who had a ratio of one for every 84 people, and far cleaner than residents of New York City, which had one bathtub for every 463 persons. Albany, New York, meanwhile, with a head-to-tub ratio of 1 to 3,282 (the population was 62,367 and there were only 19 tubs in town) was probably closest to reflecting the country as a whole just then.

ANOTHER FACTOR ENCOURAGING BATHING WAS the increasing availability of soap; as developing technology made its mass production practical, it came into increasing use, particularly among the middle class. Procter & Gamble’s Ivory soap appeared in 1879 and was advertised as suitable for washing fine laundry (silk hose, gloves, laces, and so forth) as well as being “purer and much more pleasant” than the run of toilet soaps. To emphasize its dual nature, the bar came with a notch down the middle. It could be used full sized for laundry, or, pulling a stout thread tightly around the notch, one could easily break the bar into two pieces convenient for personal use.

But the underlying impetus to washing and bathing was essentially the same as that spurring development of sewers and public water supplies: increasing knowledge of the nature of disease and hence the value of personal cleanliness. With exceptions (yellow fever, which is carried by mosquitoes, for example), it was correctly understood that disease was spread by germs, and germs could be combated through personal hygiene. On the eve of America’s entry into World War I, mortal conflict was no less to be faced at home than abroad; writing in the September 23, 1916, Collier’s , William J. Cromie warned that the “war of the body against invading germs [is] a great battle that one is called upon to fight . . . continually throughout life.”

The two principal bathroom appliances for bathing are, of course, the sink and the bathtub/shower. The sink is a relatively direct descendant of the bedroom washstand of old, just as the modern bathtub is merely a refinement of the portable tub that goes back to colonial times, its most obvious difference being its length, which, as a fixed rather than portable appliance, allows for a full-body immersion. Otherwise, the principal advances have been the use of color and of materials like porcelain enamel and fiberglass that are vastly easier to keep clean and sanitary than the copper or zinc with which nineteenth-century tubs were commonly lined.

At century’s end America surpasses all other nations when it comes to bathrooms. Roughly ninety-eight of every hundred homes have at least one complete, private bathroom.

The modern bathroom is essentially so fixed as to basic configuration—its essential layout, its compact space, its primary components—that we lose sight of the fact it did not have to be thus. After all, it actually accommodates very disparate, if not opposite, functions. Until the mid-nineteenth century, bathing and elimination had no connection.

When one bathed at home, using a portable tub, it was usually in the kitchen, and for good reason: That room had the best facilities for heating water, and it was normally the warmest room in the house. So much taken for granted was the kitchen as the bathing room that when a Boston merchant in 1846 advertised for sale “every thing appertaining to the kitchen,” he perforce included bathtubs.