The Birth of the Bathtub

By Kerry Knight

One of the greatest philosophical question has always been, "Where did I come from?"  Or, if you're more the intellectual, "From whence did I come?"  We all love ORIGIN stories.  

Have you ever wondered about the origin of the bathtub?  Maybe it's not the most pressing subject on your to-do list, but it is very interesting.  And if you are into decorating ideas for your bathroom, you may just love this little tidbit of knowledge.

Pot de chambre 3
Pot de chambre 3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So, let us begin.  Before indoor plumbing, most homes or hovels used chamber pots or washbowls for bathing.  They were portable and could be put away easily, and since bathing was not as popular pastime as today, it seemed to work just fine. 

Around the 19th century, bathtubs became the product of tinsmiths, the tubs often being formed out of copper or zinc.  In progressive houses with water heating devices, some had tubs made of lead sheets in a coffin like wooden box.  For those today who know the dangers of lead poisoning, the idea of a coffin box was somewhat prophetic.

We actually owned a 19th century tub made of zinc in a rectangular box of mahogany.  It was show piece, but not very practical since it was only about 48 inches long.  While transporting it from one warehouse to another, it was left on the trailer too long and someone proceeded to steal it.  I'm sure they had no idea what they had.  Maybe it should have been made of lead.

English: Kids bathing in a small metal tub. Th...
English: Kids bathing in a small metal tub. The tub reads "SWANCE". (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Someone came up with a not-so-bright idea of a portable canvas tub, much like the pot-bellied cot.  We can all see through that one.  No pun intended.
There was even the Mosby Folding Tub.  You know, like the Murphy bed that fold's up.  Again, not a winner.

In the late 19th century, tubs were cast in iron and copper, but problems of rusting and corrosion was a real handicap.  In the 1880s, J.L. Mott was among the first to solve the problem.    The result was the porcelain enameled, cast iron, footed tub.  In addition, the ubiquitous claw foot type style is still working well for thousands of people today.

In the 1920s the vitreous surface inside was all white, but the cast iron exterior was often painted, with colors, stripes and even designs like Greek frets.  Foundries became quite talented at creating designs for the feet, such as eagle claws, bear claws, lion claws and more traditional designs.

The original foot tubs came in a variety of lengths and designs.  Most were 60 inches in length with an oval shape and rolled edges.  Then came the slipper tub with the high arched back and dual sloping ends that make it perfectly symmetrical.

Because some people complained about cleaning behind the footed tub, the ringed or skirted tub was created with the oval pedestal base, instead of legs.  This gave the tub a majestic, almost regal, look.

Slipper bathtub in Amsterdam store window.
Slipper bathtub in Amsterdam store window. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Today, the old cast iron foundries are gone in the US.  But you can still purchase these beautiful pieces of 19th century art.  They are still made in many parts of the world, and a few U.S. companies import and stock them for their customers here. 

An ad appeared in a retail catalog back in 1910, which read, "Why shouldn't the bathtub be a part of the architecture of the home?"  Many are finding that to be good advice, even a hundred years later.

In this article, I shared with you the history of bathtubs. How they have come from chamber pots, to lavishly decorated status symbols and finally the state of the art modern day bathtubs. If you found this article useful or enjoyable, please pass it on to your friends and neighbors. If you have a comment, leave it in the Comment section below. If you have a question, feel free to contact me at the number or email listed at the end of this article.

Alan & Kerry Knight are the owners of Tub King, Inc and in Jacksonville Florida. Together they have many years of experience in the antique and senior bathtub industries. Their companies not only provide superior products they are also award winners, winning the best of Jacksonville Chamber Award three years running. If you would like to contact them call (800) 409-3375 or (800) 843-4231 or email them at

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1 comment:

  1. It's amazing how many modern conveniences we take for granted.