Bathtubs and Bathing

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BATHTUBS AND BATHING. For most of history, bathing was a luxury associated with trips to spas and resorts. Even wealthy people did not routinely bathe with soap. They occasionally cleaned themselves using only a basin and washcloth. The desire to bathe became common during the nineteenth century, when greater wealth allowed more people to eliminate dirt from their houses, clothes, and bodies. However, at midcentury, only wealthy

Americans had bathrooms with running water. Typical families purchased washstands as furniture for their bedrooms and provided space for a basin, pitcher, and chamber pot. Most bathtubs were metal, portable objects that could be stored inconspicuously until needed. Because they were filled by hand with buckets of water, families still bathed infrequently, often in the kitchen, without bothering to change the bath water after each bather.

Once bathing became routine among the middle classes, they adopted new standards of cleanliness. Persons who wished to prosper bathed in order to advance socially and economically. By the 1870s, middle-class mothers had indoctrinated their children with modern standards and habits. A wealth of prescriptive literature encouraged their efforts, including advice from medical experts, who now considered bathing healthful. These new attitudes led schoolteachers and urban middle-class reformers to campaign actively to change the behaviors of an increasingly immigrant working class, whose lack of hygiene was seen as a threat to society. Since private baths remained prohibitively expensive, the reformers championed public facilities.

Modern bathrooms with tubs, sinks, toilets, and running water did not become common until the twentieth century, so business interests were slow to promote the ideal of cleanliness among the general population. A few corporations, such as Procter and Gamble, aggressively advertised soaps for the masses, but manufacturers of cast iron sinks and bathtubs did not sell products directly to consumers. They sold to jobbers—middlemen who linked manufacturers with the plumbers who installed products. Before 1920, even highly successful manufacturers of tubs and sinks did not produce toilets, which demanded a vitreous finish produced by potters rather than metal workers. Consequently, the plumbing industry remained decentralized, without an integrated leader who could promote hygiene aggressively.

In anticipation of the housing boom of the 1920s, dramatic changes occurred. Mail-order firms, especially Sears Roebuck, began marketing suites of low-cost toilets, sinks, and bathtubs. Recognizing the potential market, large plumbing firms such as American Standard, Crane, and Kohler consolidated holdings and adopted capital-intensive methods of manufacture. During the boom, they produced a great volume of moderately priced plumbing goods for the common bathroom. By 1940, roughly three of four urban families had residences with modern bathrooms. Within a decade, bathing had become a habitual activity for most Americans.

For two generations, Americans preferred less expensive, utilitarian plumbing, making it impossible for manufacturers to transform fixtures into luxury items. Families were most concerned with cost, especially as they began to add second and even third bathrooms to their houses. Later in the twentieth century, however, consumers began to purchase fiberglass spas and hot tubs. Often elaborate, these new fixtures reintroduced the concept of bathing as a luxury for the middle class.


Bigott, Joseph C. From Cottage to Bungalow: Houses and the Working Class in Metropolitan Chicago, 1869–1929. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Blaszcyk, Regina Lee. Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Bushman, Richard L., and Claudia L. Bushman. "The Early History of Cleanliness in America." Journal of American History 74 (1988):1213–1238.

Joseph C.Bigott

See alsoHygiene .