Throughout human history, bathing is an often overlooked but integral aspect of any society. Early plumbing systems can be traced back to nearly 6,000 years, whereas early bathtubs can placed 3,000 years later, but when was the first bathtub invented? When was sanitation widely popularized? Let us explore the history of the bathtub that lead us to the modern era.
The roman empire – 500 AD
Life under the Roman Empire brought a great degree of culture and enlightenment, principal of which was sanitation and personal health. Bathing in the Roman Empire was actually of great importance with a comprehensive sewage system built in many large cities comprising of lead and bronze pipes as well as marble fixtures and bathtubs. Public baths were very common and actually quite extensive with sauna rooms and baths that resembled a large swimming pool. They had three principale baths, one warm, one hot and the large, cold swimming pool to cool their bodies after. While the private baths of the elite were not as numerous, their bath was the size of a small pool with neighboring smaller rooms for more extensive washing. Surprisingly, much of how the Romans bathed is replicated by us today with the application of scented oils and the desire for heated water.
Europe and the plague
With the fall of the Roman Empire, the concept of sanitation took a massive hit. Bathing was relegated to local estuaries and streams, but the concept of public paths and more specifically, plumbing was non-existent. This lead to a great deal of refuse and waste crossing with rivers and streams, effectively contaminating the same water used for washing and cooking. This was wholly manageable in the countryside, where much of these conditions were staggered, but in major cities that saw heavy foot traffic, conditions were apaling, with refuse on the streets constantly. These conditions carried on for years until the outbreak of bubonic plague or “Black Death” that systematically wiped out close to a third of Europe’s population and decimated much of the known world. With so many dead, areas of Europe tried to improve sanitation but indoor plumbing wasn’t widely instigated until the beginning of the 19th century, so Europe would be without a plumbing system for several hundred years.
The invention of the toilet and indoor plumbing in Europe
The first fully functioning toilet was invented by Sir John Harrington in 1599. Although highly rudimentary-it consisted of a water pan sealed by a leather valve, the lavatory helped to dispose of waste properly and start multiple iterations of his invention. He constructed one for himself and then the Queen, prompting the latter to forgive him and reinstate him from exile. After his exile, he published a book describing his findings, for which he was posthumously dismissed and laughed at. However his findings would allow significant advancements in his design nearly 200 years, creating a water closet that would be the foundation of the modern toilet.
The first bathtub in America
On the other side of the world, America was slow to uptake the integration of bathtubs with chamber pots and outhouses being the norm. However, two key breakthroughs occurred in the 1800’s, one being the importation of cast iron pipes that improved the quality of plumbing in America. Second, was the invention of the bathtub by John Michael Kohler in 1883 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Creating a horse trough out of cast iron, he attached four decorative feet and covered the whole thing in an enamel finish. His company, the Kohler company who made their living off of creating products out of steel and cast iron, quickly changed production with Kohlr’s invention, producing more and more designs in enamel. Another company, the Crane Company, would go onto the invent many of the bathroom fixtures such as sinks and faucets to the US Market in 1928.
Notable mentions of bathtubs in American culture
According to popular legend, President William Taft was so large a man that he got stuck in his very own bathtub in the Oval Office. Now, whether or not that story is true, we do know that the man was quite large, clocking in at 350 pounds, the man had multiple bathtubs made specifically so that he could fit in them. The first of these commissions was seven feet long, forty one inches wide and weighed a ton, easily fitting four grown men inside comfortably. Constructed by Mott Manufacturing, three of these bathtubs were made specifically for him, breaking world records for world’s largest bathtub in the day.
The evolution of the bathtub
As stated previously, the first bathtub in America was a horse trough constructed from cast iron then finished with enamel. In Europe, the clawfoot was a popular staple of the wealthy elite for years before. Over the years, the bathtub has morphed to accommodate the landscape of the world and specifically, the way people bathe. With the advent of World War 2, America saw a boom of construction, but even still, clawfoots existed in only one percent of most homes by 1921, with rural areas favoring outhouses still. This saw the adoption of the apron-front drop-in bathtub, a now staple of the modern home from 1930-1950. These bathtubs were usually acrylic and fiberglass and easily made bathtubs more mainstay as they were much easier to install and easier to use than the old Victorian-era clawfoot tubs. Nowadays, you can find bathtubs in any shape or size, modern and classic, with modern freestanding bathtubs coming back with a mind towards material integrity and aesthetics.
It is safe to say that bathtubs will continue to evolve, with digital improvements today such as automatic water temperature settings, smart water for conversing water or pressure settings for massage jets. As bathing is an integral part of our daily routines, who knows what the future will bring?