Indoor plumbing was almost unknown at the beginning of the 19th century; and before cities and towns introduced a supply of water under pressure there were no plumbing fixtures in houses, stores, and shops. Homeowners were obliged to get the water for home use in buckets at the public wells, located in the streets. Many houses had also rainwater cisterns built in the yards from which water was obtained either by pumping or by drawing it in buckets. Using an antique tub was not an easy process. Waste water from houses was at first simply poured out into the street gutter; later cesspools were built in the rear yards. These also contained a common privy vault, which at that time was in universal use.
The service pipes which conducted the water from the street-mains into the houses were at first manufactured of lead, cast in lengths of about six feet. Only a few of the better class of houses were supplied in this way. The plumbing conveniences of the earliest period were restricted to a single faucet for drawing water, placed either in the kitchen (where if there was an antique tub for the household it would be used in this room) in the extreme rear of the house, or else in the yard. Often hand hammered copper tubs were used in this capacity.
Before indoor plumbing, bathtubs were viewed as furniture and were movable, that is, could be pulled out of storage when needed. Often the design of antique tubs was that of a glorified wooden barrel. Painted or marbleized tin tubs were reserved for the wealthier bathers and would be found in a dressing room or bedroom. Because an antique tub required the slow and arduous task of being filled bucket by bucket by hand (often with cold water) and were cramped in size, their popularity was limited. In the early nineteenth century, a person utilizing one of these bathing fixtures was referred to as a patient who required care for nerves, indigestion or blood circulation … bathing had very little to do with cleanliness. This type of antique tub had a particular shape to coincide with the illness.
Antique Tub: Sponging Bath
The Hip Bath (similar to the Sitz bath) was designed to impact those organs which lie between the hip bones. Because of the form of the hip bath, it was filled only one-third full of water, otherwise it would overflow on the bather sitting down in it. The Foot Bath was designed for heating and stimulating the feet. The water would be hot enough to redden the skin, and the vessel was a shape and dimension to permit the water to reach the knees. Salt and mustard were often added. The legs and feet would be quickly wiped dry and woolen stockings worn after the bath; or the bather would go to bed directly afterwards.
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The most convenient form of cold bathing was the Shower Bath. Shower baths made with curtains were more popular that the old-fashioned wooden-cased ones. In 1851, William S. Burton’s General Furnishing’s at Perry’s Place, London, advertised “All the New Shower Baths” similar to the antique tubs shown. A “Portable Shower Bath” with curtains, from 7s. each; “Pillar Shower Baths” with copper conducting tubes, brass force-pump and top, complete, with curtains, and japanned, from 60s.; and “Hand Shower Baths” japanned, 3s. each. There were various patterns of shower baths for children and others, very small and portable, and of reasonable price and varying forms. The hair was protected, if desired, by an oil-skin or India-rubber cap.
Left: Shower Bath with pillars, brass pump
and pipes, and a waterproof curtain.