A Story About Bathtubs to “Whet” Your Appetite

By Alan Knight

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On December 28, 1917, the popular journalist H. L. Mencken (who had previously covered the aftermath of the Great Fire of Jacksonville in 1901) published an article in the "New York Evening Mail" titled "A Neglected Anniversary." It described the curious history of the bathtub in America, particularly how people, initially believing that bathtubs posed a health risk, were slow to accept them until President Millard Fillmore popularized them by installing one in the White House in 1850.

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“The first bathtub in the United States was installed in Cincinnati, on December 20, 1842, by Adam Thompson. It was made of mahogany and lined with sheet lead. At a Christmas party, he exhibited and explained it and four guests later took a plunge. The next day the Cincinnati paper devoted many columns to the new invention and it gave rise to violent controversy.

“During the same year the Legislature of Virginia laid a tax of $30 a year on all bathtubs that might be set up. In Hartford, Providence, and Wilmington, special and very heavy water rates were laid on persons who had bathtubs. Boston in 1845 made bathing unlawful except on medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed.

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“President Millard Fillmore gave the bathtub recognition and respectability. While Vice President, he visited Cincinnati in 1850 on a stumping tour and inspected the original bathtub and used it. Experiencing no ill effects he became an ardent advocate, and on becoming President, he had a tub installed in the White House. The Secretary of War invited bids for the installation. This tub continued to be the one in use until the first Cleveland Administration.”

The controversy reached other cities, and in more than one place medical opposition was reflected in legislation. In 1843 the Philadelphia Common Council considered an ordinance prohibiting bathing between November 1 and March 15, and this ordinance failed of passage by but two votes.
Some papers designated it as an epicurean luxury, others called it undemocratic, as it lacked simplicity in its surroundings. Medical authorities attacked it as being dangerous to one's health.

Nothing in Mencken's history of the bathtub was true. It was all a joke. Mencken later wrote, "My motive was simply to have some harmless fun in war days.” Mencken said he didn't expect anyone to take his article seriously. However, it literally took several years to straighten out the hoax.

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So, what is the truth about bathtubs today?  We have certainly come a long way.  Today the tubs are more beautiful, comfortable, and functional than ever before.  And contrary to the once-held erroneous belief, they are indeed good for one’s health and sense of well-being.  

Luxury Tubs. The newly reproduced cast iron and porcelain footed tubs are extremely popular among those who are seeking to add the element of elegance to their bath.  One of the more popular designs is the Slipper Tub.  It has often been portrayed in movies and television as the tub of the stars. With its high-arching back and sexy lines, it defines wealth and opulence. The robust, rich porcelain interior seems to speak to infer the opulence of royalty.  New styles that are patterned after those of yesteryear would include not only the different sizes of Slipper Tubs, but also the Dual-Ended, Pedestal, Double Slippers and Roll Top. 

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When you add plumbing fixtures made of chrome, brushed nickel and oil-rubbed bronze to your cast iron/porcelain tubs, you can really make your luxury tub stand out.  Matching the legs of the tubs with the same finish as the faucet, drain and water supply lines can really make the tub shine. Combined, all these cohesive design elements deliver the message of luxury and wealth.  

Today, prices have never been better for those looking to purchase a luxury bathtub.  Because of major production foundries in other countries, these porcelain tubs can be imported and sold at prices that anyone can afford.  Alan Knight, president of Tub King, Inc., cautions, “Just make sure you don’t go for an acrylic reproduction of the old designs.  We’ve found that over time, they don’t hold up to heavy use and they seem to lose their shape and finish very easily.  The right choice would be the cast iron and porcelain original designs.  These well-built tubs can potentially last for hundreds of years.  Plus they look like a million dollars.”

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Functional Tubs. Many people have trouble taking a bath because of mobility constraints.  They may still be young, but are suffering from an injury or an early debilitating disease like MS.  Then you have the growing senior population, who may have challenges when getting into and out of a traditional bathtub; it’s a real safety task.  The Walk-in tub was created to make bathing easier and safer for those in need of help.  With the addition of hydrotherapy in the form of air and water jets, the new tub became an instant hit.  Now, a person can access the tub through a low ingress/egress, water-tight door, sit down on a non-slip seat, and soak in warm water.  Within arm’s reach is a convenient hand-held shower sprayer.  They could also engage the air pump and create thousands of therapeutic bubbles to treat various medical conditions.  The water pump provides a complete massage system, pulsing water against various parts of the body that need help.  The inline heater allows them to remain in the tub as long as they want.  The greatest part of this entire package is the freedom.  Seniors can take a bath in privacy, without needing help from anyone.  

There are quite a few companies out there selling the Walk-in Tub with a high price tag.  Don’t get ripped off!  Do your homework.  Tub King, Inc., offers Walk-in Tubs at discounted prices and will even meet or beat any competitor’s price.  Don’t pay $10,000 for a Walk-in Tub when you can purchase the same tub with the same features for a third of that.  

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Today, numerous scientific studies show from a hygienic and therapeutic (and yes, psychological)
standpoint, frequent bathing is a healthy activity.  In fact, there’s an entire academic and real-world field focusing on the well-documented benefits of hydrotherapy.

In this article, I talked about H.L. Mencken’s historic parody about the growing popularity of the bathtub in the U.S., saying it was President Fillmore who helped popularize it in America back in the 19th century. I then went on to describe some of the various historic models such as the elegant clawfoot tub, which is making a comeback today. I also described the benefits of the modern-day Walk-in Tub.   

If you found this article interesting, please share and forward. If you’d like to leave a comment or question, please do so in the Comments section below. 

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Have a question?  Feel free to contact me at the number or email listed below and I’ll personally get back to you. Thanks for reading; it’s my pleasure to share this information with you.  Here's wishing all you have a healthy, happy and properous New Year. 

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Alan Knight is the owner of Tub King, Inc., and SeniorBathtub.com  in Jacksonville, Florida. He has many years of experience in the antique and senior bathtub industries. His companies not only provide superior products, they are also award winners, receiving the “Best of Jacksonville Chamber Award” four years running. To contact Tub King directly, call (800) 409-3375, (800)843-4231 or email alan@tubking.com.

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