The BathTub: Archimedes, Eureka, The Bath And Beyond
by Marjorie Dorfman

When did people first start bathing? Was it a private affair or were all welcome on alternate Saturday nights? Where did the idea of a bathtub come from? These and other cleansing questions will be addressed below. Grab your soap and sit down for a read. (Don’t turn on the shower, whatever you do. It will defeat the purpose.)

Archimedes, the greet Greek mathematician discovered his Principle of Floating Bodies and possibly his own true self while bathing. So elated was he to discover that the amount of water that overflowed in the tub was proportional to the amount of his body that was submerged, that he ran naked through the streets of downtown Syracuse shouting "Eureka" (I have found it!) The original concept of bathing, however, had nothing to do with finding things, proportions or even removing dirt. It was steeped in religious ritual and intended as ablution, which means to remove the invisible stains contracted by touching the dead, and by contact with murder, persons of inferior caste or disease. (This term should not be confused with abolition, which is a more political term involving the elimination of politicians who treat their constituents like slaves.)

When in ancient Rome, one bathed as the Romans did, as they were the first to use baths as a means of ensuring physical cleanliness. The Thermae, or public baths, were a social meeting place for men and women although they never bathed together. The baths were not free and children weren’t seen or heard for any price, as they were not permitted at all. At one time, there were as many as 900 public baths in ancient Rome, although none ever beheld the bathtub, which would not be invented until many centuries later.

The baths had hot and cold pools, towels, steam rooms, saunas, exercise rooms and hair cutting salons. They even had reading rooms and libraries. Roman bathing was an elaborate ritual that lasted for hours and was carried out at approximately the same time of day following an elaborate preparation process. The first stop was the unctuarium, where oil was rubbed into the skin by slaves followed by the tepidarium or warm room, where bathers would converse about the fluctuations of their empire with other tepids. The next stop was the caldarium, similar to a Turkish bath, hot and steamy. Here perspiration occurred and skin was scraped with a strigil, a curved metal tool, and (probably the forefather of the squeegee). Attendants served snacks and drinks and then came one more dip in the calidarium and a quick dip in the frigidarium (cold bath). The baths were as much of a social event as the theatre or chariot races, a far cry from our concept of bathrooms and privacy today.

The need to be clean has not always been as pressing as we know it to be today. During the Middle Ages the average person bathed about once a month; royalty even less frequently. (Castles were cold, dark and probably had few towels or bathrobes.) It is a wonder that people could even stand next to each other during those times, especially during the warmer months, without passing out, much less managing to propagate themselves into the Renaissance. The United States today is one of the few countries where most citizens consider a daily bathing to be a necessity. Today, that bathing is usually a shower while a bath has become synonymous with leisure time, relaxation and pampering.

Notwithstanding the course of history, we move now to 19th century America when in 1883 a man by the name of John Michael Kohler came up with the idea of a modern bathtub. As the owner of the Sheboygan Union Iron and Steel Foundry, Kohler produced cast-iron and steel implements for farmers in the area, castings for the city’s furniture factories and ornamental iron pieces that included hitching posts, cemetery crosses, urns and settees. He took a product into his line called a "horse trough/hog scalder." He got the idea to heat it up to 1700 degrees (930 degrees Celsius) and "sprinkle it with some enamel powder." He featured it in his catalogue and told potential customers that it was "a horse trough/hog scalder which, when furnished with four legs, will serve as a bathtub." In 1911, Kohler invented the "one-piece built-in bathtub with apron."

Still, there is some controversy over who really is responsible for the first American bathtub as there is some evidence it was a part of our history long before the 1880s. In 1752 Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have imported the very first bathtub. He studied it and like the true inventor and innovator that he was, created a new one that was more comfortable. As the demand for soap grew within Colonial America, Franklin was reputed to have spent much of his time "reading and writing while soaking". (It’s a good thing he didn’t come up with idea for electricity while bathing. Consider and shudder at those ramifications!) More than one source also claims that Napoleon Bonaparte (of pastry fame) was taking a bath in 1803 when his brothers forced themselves into his room and told him how angry they were about his sale of Louisiana to the barbaric Americans. He was said to have splashed hot water onto one of his brothers, causing a nearby valet to "faint dead away."

The question of which American president was the first to introduce a bathtub into The White House has several answers, most of which can be considered correct, depending on your point of view. (After reading, pick one from column A, B, C or D). Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) is most often given credit for the first tub, which he supposedly had installed in 1851. At the core of the debate surrounding Fillmore is a story by the prominent journalist, H.L. Mencken, which appeared in the December 28, 1917 edition of The New York Evening Mail. It related the tale of a mahogany and sheet lead tub built in 1842 by Adam Thompson of Cincinnati, Ohio. Fillmore was said to have inspected the tub while visiting the town as Vice President in 1850, and was so impressed that he ordered it for the White House after succeeding Zachary Taylor to the Presidency later that year. Mencken later explained that he concocted the tale as a diversion for a country suffering from the ravages of World War I. That admission led to the story being subsequently referred to as "Mencken’s Hoax." The article continued to be printed as fact, however, long after the author’s confession.

James Madison (1809-1817) is said to have had a bathtub installed in 1814, but the water had to be heated on a stove and carried in a bucket. The tub got even hotter when in August of that year the British set fire to the White House. It was Dolly Madison’s cool thinking that saved the priceless Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from burning up in that fire. (Perhaps her husband was too busy looking for a towel to quickly dry himself!) The next tub was purchased by the next president, James Monroe (1817-25). It was a tin cylinder that cost twenty or thirty dollars. A "wash bin" is mentioned in an 1825 inventory list, lending speculation to the laundry being scrubbed by day and the President by night. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) modernized the White House in 1834 and introduced "fresh spring water" into the cold and shower baths. According to the Portsmouth Ohio Times, Abraham Lincoln "holds the distinction of being the first president to splash his way to cleanliness in a White House tub, the first one having been installed during his presidency." The 1932 article does not list its source, citing only a water consumption report.

Truth be told, the very first bathtub at the White House was the Potomac River. Just who discontinued the practice of outdoor bathing and when (weather permitting, of course) is a source of some contention. If the beat goes on for Sonny and Cher, it continues here as well. Some claim that Lucy Hayes, wife of Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881) was the first first lady to insist on a bathtub. Lending credibility to this claim is Mrs. Hayes’ reputation for having a domineering personality. In a 1934 Saturday Evening Post article, Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) is credited with having introduced plumbing to the White House as his "two bathrooms were converted from virtually public baths into private ones."

Some presidential anecdotes worth mentioning include William Howard Taft (1909-13) and Harry S. Truman. Taft weighed 330 pounds and was far too heavy for a standard sized tub. He had one custom made for his extra large frame and after it was made, four men fit inside the tub for a photograph. President Truman’s tub had a hidden message carved in glass on the backside, which read: "In this tub bathes the man whose heart is always clean and serves his people truthfully."

And so my very clean friends, this impromptu and highly controversial study must draw to a conclusion. Perhaps there are no definite answers here, but if you had a good time, there’s some chance you may have forgotten the questions. I would stay longer to chat, but I hear the water running and its calling to me. It’s just hot enough. And so, ta, ta.

To the bathtub. May its truth always ring free and true.

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2004