Quick History: The Private Bath

Quick History: The Private Bath

Anna Hoffman
May 19, 2011

Last week we looked at the long history of public baths. Now let's see what private bathing looked like before modern plumbing.

Perhaps the earliest known bathtub is from the palace at Knossos from the late Bronze Age (c. 1500 BC). The bathtub belonged to King Minos' queen and was made of painted terracotta. Although the palace enjoyed running water carried from an aqueduct via terracotta pipes, the bathtub was evidently filled and emptied by hand, since there was no hole for drainage. Legend tells us that Cleopatra bathed in ass's milk to keep her skin soft and youthful — perhaps it was the same for Minos' queen?

In ancient Rome, public baths were an important center of social life, but the rich and powerful still sometimes opted to bathe in private. Wealthy and even middle-class homes were connected via lead pipes to the aqueducts, and people could turn the flow on and off with taps. Several Roman aqueducts were destroyed or neglected during the Empire's fall, so running water became a rare luxury.

Still, private bathing was also frequent during the medieval era. Even lower-class people kept basins and ewers with fresh-ish water to wash their hands and faces before meals and throughout the day. Wooden barrel-like tubs were lined with fabric and used for personal baths. Often the water would be cold. In winter months and wealthier households, the water would be heated in kettles or by throwing stones on the fire and then plunking them in the cold tub. Mostly these tubs would be brought into the bather's bedroom (if it was separate from the other rooms), but some fancier homes had dedicated bath rooms, sometimes with tiled floors and hot water heaters. Since tubs were portable, they could also be brought out of doors for plein air bathing, and wealthy travelers would bring their own tubs with them for bathing on the road.

It was considered a necessary part of polite hospitality to offer your houseguests a bath. Bathers were often served food and drink in the tub, and bathed with the help of servants.

During the Renaissance, water was seen as a potentially lethal substance. The French royal surgeon Ambroise Paré, who treated four 16th-century French kings, warned of water's effect on the body, "the flesh and the whole disposition of the body are softened and the pores open, and as a result, pestiferous vapour can rapidly enter the body and cause SUDDEN DEATH, as has frequently been observed." Since the appearance of cleanliness was important, medical manuals would advise people to only wash those parts that were visible to others: faces, hands, ears, neck.

In fact, hygiene took a bit of a nosedive in Western Europe at this point, a fact we can glean from the bathing habits of various royals. Queen Elizabeth I was considered a paragon of cleanliness because she insisted on bathing at least once a month. In Inquisition-era Spain, bathing was forbidden and public baths shuttered because of the association with Jewish and Muslim ritual cleansing. Conversos were occasionally spotted and arrested because they would wash up before bedtime. Queen Isabella was shocked when Columbus reported that the Taíno people bathed daily; she claimed to have bathed only twice in her whole life.

Even those royals who bathed might not have smelled so sweet. Henry VIII was lucky enough to have his water heated on a stove and then pumped through pipes into his tub, but to this water he added the musk of a civet, which is a type of cat whose musk was thought to help heal the varicose ulcers on his leg.

In the early 18th century, linen came into use as underclothes, and it was thought to wick away perspiration and dirt, so that one only had to change one's underclothes in order to keep clean. But the smelliness of the French court has been greatly exaggerated. By the mid-18th century, French monarchs would bathe in copper tubs that were rolled into their rooms on casters. In most bathrooms throughout Versailles, servants carried cold water in and heated it in charcoal-fueled boilers. By the end of Louis XV's reign, he had running water in his bathroom, and he could control the temperature with taps. The destruction of Versailles' many bathrooms in the mid-19th century contributed to the general understanding of the palace as particularly filthy, but it wasn't really all that bad!

In the 19th century, medical development finally made the connection between hygiene and health, and frequent bathing once again became the norm. Most homes in London had running water by the 1830s, which meant that tubs could no longer be portable and therefore could use more heavy-weight materials. A typical early-19th-century bathtub was made of sheet copper, lead or zinc and clad in wood. By the 1860s, tubs were made of cast iron or solid porcelain, and started to look like our modern bathtubs.

The first clawfoot tub is generally attributed to both Kohler and the company that would become American Standard. Now that tubs were stationary fixtures in dedicated bath-rooms, they needed style to match the furniture. By the early 20th century, a new modernist focus on hygiene led to built-in tubs with no hard-to-clean floors beneath.

1 An illumination of Mary in her Bath, c. 1400-1410, from a Book of Hours now at the Hague, via larsdatter.com
2 A Roman porphyry tub used by the imperial household, 2nd-3rd c. AD, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
3 Jakob von Warte in his bath, an illumination from the Menasse Codex, c. 1300-1330, via the University of Heidelberg
4 A woodcut from Brunschwig, Buch zu Distillieren (1500), via gallowglass
5 A medieval-style bath set up at Leeds Castle, via Squidoo
6 A cartoon caricature of Queen Victoria in her bath, by Georges Tiret-Bognet (1855-circa 1930), via galerie-creation.com.

Related Post: Quick History: Public Baths & Bathing

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