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.
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.
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.
By the late nineteenth century, it was said that “everyone should bathe, some people more frequently than others.” The portable tubs of the early century were being replaced by freestanding bath tubs made of iron, copper, zinc, earthenware, marble, or, in short, of any substance which could be made to hold water. There was no question about which was the best. The porcelain tub was preferable to any other; after that was the porcelain-lined tub, which was made of iron with a coating of so-called porcelain over its inner surface.
Bathtubs at the end of the Victorian era became one of the most important fixtures in a “modern” residence. With the exception of tenements and old houses, probably every modern residence and flat in New York possessed a fixed bathtub; indeed, there were a few mansions with a “plunge-bath” in the cellar. Many of the new Victorian bathrooms were most luxurious; not only was the tub of porcelain and whatever plumbing there may be of silver or nickel, but all smaller fixtures, such as sponge-racks, soap-dishes, etc., were also of silver or nickel. The basin and pitcher were often of cut glass, while the tooth mug and other implements were either of glass or of fine china. The prevailing fashion among the rich and famous who were owners and occupants of the palace-like mansions that lined the eastern side of Central Park was to have their luxury baths as lavish and ornamental as their boudoirs and bedrooms.
The essential accompaniments to a bath were good sense, good soap, and a rough towel; the first and last to be used at each bath, the soap but once a week. The time occupied was considered important, only a moment for the plunge bath while the shower or sponge bath should not exceed five minutes; once a week soap and warm water would precede the cold bath. After a bath the skin would be wiped dry, and then rubbed with a coarse towel or “flesh-brush”. The best hour for taking the bath was an open question. To some a bath just before retiring motivated insomnia, while for others it acted as a sedative. Many advocated a warm bath at night and a cold plunge or sponge in the morning.
Valuable accompaniments for the nineteenth century lady’s vintage bath were bags of bran, oatmeal, or almond meal; it was only the wealthy who could indulge in perfumed toilet soaps. For people with greasy skin, a little borax or ammonia was added to the water. A bathing glove of Turkish toweling was used by those who preferred this to a sponge or washcloth. Hard rubbing with a rough towel after the bath was recommended. Needless to say, the lady residing along Central Park pampered herself with opulent luxury bath accessories.