By Kerry Knight
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What I’m about to share with you might shock you. As much as it’s become a near-daily ritual to we moderns (especially in the U.S.), throughout human history, bathing has not always been considered a necessity. Even within the last two hundred years, bathing was considered a luxury in which few availed themselves.
Back in the 1980s when I toured the castle at Versailles, outside of Paris, I was astounded to discover there was not one bathtub in the entire castle, and not even one bathroom. If royalty wasn’t bathing, imagine what the common people must’ve smelled like.
Now let’s fast forward to the Old West in our own country. A cattle drive from Kansas to Texas would take a month. Did they carry a bathtub along? No. How about a wash basin? Not likely. Many rashes and serious skin conditions were caused or aggravated by a lack of proper hygiene. Infrequently, if the cowboy got to the point that he just couldn’t stand himself, he might go to a take a dunk in a nearby river or stream, but that was it. He would sometimes pack a bar of homemade soap in a saddle bag. If they did stop to take a bath, most would put the same dirty, unwashed clothes back on. Even as late as the early 1900s, bathing was considered of minor importance. Many believed that bathing too much could cause illness.
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While to discuss the sweet-scented history of perfumes and colognes would take an entire article ― an interesting one at that ― suffice to say that in lieu of bathing frequently, early Americans, like many other cultures throughout the ages, used scents and perfumes to help mask the scent of their not-so-clean bodies. In early America, the first were colognes and scented water were exported by French explorers to New France (a vast portion of Canada and the U.S., encompassing the Great Lakes all the way down to New Orleans). Also popular was a scent called “Florida water,” which was a simple mixture of eau de cologne with a dash of oil of cloves, cassia, and lemongrass.
As a young boy, I heard stories of great uncles who lived on a farm. They would take a bath in the spring as the weather began to warm. In the winter they would wear the same long johns all winter long. They must’ve smelled pretty darn “ripe” come spring time. Aren’t we all glad we didn’t live back then?
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I’m sure many of the cowboys of the Old West, when they got to town after a cattle drive, would go to a bathing house and pay a nickel for some warm water and a tub, especially if they were looking to find a woman later on. Bathing was just not catching on, that is until the advent of indoor plumbing. You see, early tubs had to be filled by hand. Water would be heated over a fire and poured into the tub. By the time it was full, the water inside the tub was already turning cool. Tubs were made of tin, zinc, copper and wood. I personally owned a tub that dated back to the mid to late 1800s. It had an interior made of zinc and the outside was mahogany. It was very small, only about 48 inches long.
Interestingly, due to inadequate nutrition and other factors, people weren’t as tall back then, especially the ladies. Usually houses were much smaller back then, sometimes just one room. Including a bathtub was considered a waste of valuable space. Again, men would choose to bathe outside, in a lake or stream, when the mood hit them. Women were more confined to the inside, with a basin of water and a wash cloth. On rare occasions, like a wedding day, they might visit a lake with a bar of soap.
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Eventually people began building a separate room for their bathtub, and even turning this small room into an attractive addition. With the advent of the cast iron and porcelain sink and Clawfoot tubs, the stage was set for a bathing revolution. Even in the Old West, the finer hotels offered the beautiful and stylish Clawfoot tubs and Slipper tubs. Many movies have immortalized this relic of antiquity.
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Those today who wish to add this gorgeous Victorian look to their current bathroom can do so with the resurrection of the old porcelain tubs. Classic porcelain tubs such as the Roll Top, Slipper, Double Slipper and Dual-ended can be purchased today. They are newly cast and offer attractive designs and finishes on the majestically sculptured legs that support them. Who knows? Two hundred years from now, your great-great grandchildren might be talking about your Clawfoot tub. It will still be there long after we’re gone.
In this article, I talked about the history of bathing and bathtubs in the United States, particularly in the 19th century and in the western portion of our country, commonly referred to as the Old West. I talked about bathtub designs, materials, the “how-to” of bathing back then and more.
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Thanks again for visiting with us.
Alan and Kerry Knight are the owners of Tub King, Inc., and SeniorBathtub.com 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, receiving the “Best of Jacksonville Chamber Award” four years running. If you’d like to contact them, call (800) 409-3375 or (800) 843-4231; or send an email to Alan@tubking.com.
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