A Brief History of the Wonderfully Weird “Folding Bathtub”

published Aug 26, 2023
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Credit: Courtesy of Kavanagh Auctions

Have you ever stood in your small bathroom and thought, Man, I’d have so much more space if that bathtub wasn’t there

To be honest, I haven’t. Getting rid of a bathtub seems like a bad idea. But folding it up into the wall like a Murphy bed? Now that’s a space-saving solution I could daydream about.

It turns out “folding bathtubs” were very much a thing in the 19th century. In the late 1800s, the Mosely Folding Bath Tub Company in Chicago introduced a product that could turn any room into a bathroom. Their closet folding bathtub was encased in wood and, when folded up, looked like a wardrobe. It also included a built-in mirror on one side for added primping value. 

This invention was a welcome one for individuals and families in the late 19th century — many of whom were migrating from the country into overcrowded cities with no running water and, thus, sanitation problems. The folding tub allowed people to bathe in small quarters like tenements and still have plenty of living space. 

Credit: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-037365

In Mosely’s advertisements, they touted the tub’s ability to be “turned into a hot bath at a minute’s notice, and be used in the bed-room or anywhere.” Even homes without running water could fill the bath with water brought from buckets. The inside of the folding bathtub contained a heater that would heat the water once filled, eliminating the need to heat it on the stove or, worse, take a cold bath. After the bath, the water was drained into a basin that then had to be emptied. (The tub could also be connected to hot water pipes if they were installed in the house.)

Around the same time, a company called Bruschke & Ricke introduced a similar creation: the combination sofa and bathtub. Sadly, reports of sofas catching on fire and people getting burned while bathing made this a short-lived product that quickly fell out of favor. 

Credit: Division of Home and Community Life, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Still, multipurpose furniture remained popular. Beds in particular were often combined with other furniture so they could serve several uses throughout the day. The Mosely Folding Bathtub Company even referenced folding beds in their ads as a way to explain how their bathtub worked. Elsewhere in the U.S., Charles Hess obtained a patent for an Improved Combined Piano, Couch, and Bureau in 1866. In 1885, Sarah E. Goode, a former slave living in Chicago, obtained a patent for her folding bed that fit into a writing desk, dubbed a Cabinet-Bed. These inventions, among others, were precursors to the Murphy bed that was patented as William Lawrence Murphy’s “Design for a Bed” in 1916.

Credit: Jeff Dunn for GBH, (c) WGBH 2023.
The folding bathtub on an episode of "Antiques Roadshow"

As for the folding tub, clearly the design did not have long-lasting appeal. But for a short time, it allowed for people living in crowded homes to indulge in a hot bath every now and then. Today, it’s difficult to find a folding bathtub in the same style as the original Mosely models, but there are a number of companies that offer modern folding bathtubs made of plastic and rubber that can act as a tub or cold plunge. (See also: The latest Geico commercial where a real estate agent touts the beauty of a DIY “Murphy tub.”) Standing tubs can come in handy if your home doesn’t include a bathtub, but you still want the option to soak rather than shower. Perhaps the folding tub will make a comeback after all.