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The History of Baths

A good long soak in the bath is a perfect way to end a day of hard work taking part in the daily grind. There’s something about soaking in a hot tub of water that drops us into a deeply relaxed state, especially if you add bubble bath! While many of us may have showers these days, the bath still holds a special place in our hearts and it’s still nice to have one every now and again, even if you have the option of taking a shower instead. But how exactly did this activity of sitting in some water for a while - both for cleaning and relaxation purposes - get started? We can’t tell you exactly who decided that sitting in some water would be a good idea, but we can take a stab at talking about its origins. Let’s first return to ancient times; a place where bathing was more common that you may have initially believed.

Ancient Soaks

The Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro

Despite the belief that people in the past were a bit, well, stinky, it’s not actually the case. Sure, ancient people weren’t exactly as clean to the point of today’s obsessive standards, but they like to be free from grime and have their relaxation time just as much as Dave from accounting today likes to have (he also has a little rubber duck and a toy boat, but don’t tell anyone). One of the earliest known baths originates from the Indus Valley Civilisation; a technologically advanced ancient civilisation that was spread across what is now modern day Pakistan and existed around 3300-1300 BCE. Excavations of their ancient settlements have revealed that they possessed knowledge of sanitation, making them the creators of the world’s first urban sanitation system. This system was so advanced that it is even said to be more efficient than those present in many areas of India and Pakistan today. Homes were connected to this sanitation system, with rooms specially dedicated to bathing and waste water directed into covered drains. There is also significant evidence for what may have been a public bath, in the form of The Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro; said to have been built around 3000 BCE (you can see a picture of it above). This consisted of a large “public water tank” with two wide staircases leading into it and a hole a one end of the bath that may have been used to drain away water. The reason why it’s considered a bath is because the bricks are lined with bitumen, a natural tar that could prevent water from seeping through gaps in the bricks.

The earliest findings of actual bathtubs date back to the mid-2nd millennium BC at the palace complex in Knossos, Crete, Greece. Interestingly this palace also contained the first water flushing toilet system; a seat over a drain that was flushed by pouring water from a jug. However, the actual bathing area was in the adjoining bathroom that became known as the “queen’s bathroom”. Here the room was decorated with wall frescoes, held plaster stands with washing basins, and also included a five-foot long tapered bathtub made of painted terra cotta and decorated with watery reeds”. The bath had to be filled by someone first heating water, before carrying it to the bathroom and pouring it into the bath, which must have been a bit of a pain when you got someone who loved a long bath and didn’t want the water to go cold!

The Greeks are also known for constructing public baths, particularly around gymnasiums where they would be used for both hygiene and relaxation purposes. Initially, these baths were akin to large swimming pools and mostly cold water, but in Olympia they eventually developed into small bathtubs in rooms with heated floors, water heating furnaces and rooms with baths of different temperature. These places became a hub of social activity, with adjacent rooms used for conversation, food vendors for a bite to eat, and built near areas where sporting events would take place (so those taking part could wash before and/or afterwards). They even contained showers, which we discuss further in our ‘History of Shower’s’ article.

A plan of the old baths at Pompeii

The Romans continued the tradition of public bathing with Thermae (from Greek Thermos meaning ‘hot’) and balnea facilities. Thermae were larger imperial bath complexes, whereas balnea were smaller facilities, both private and public, that were numerous throughout Rome. In fact, most Roman cities had at least one of these buildings and, like the Greeks; they were used not just for bathing but also for socialising (containing libraries, theatres, sports halls, restaurants and even places for ‘special time’ with another). Those with a bit more wealth may have had their own private bathhouse too. Water for these bath houses was supplied using nearby rivers or streams, or by the impressive aqueducts that brought water into Roman settlements. The water was then heated by a log fire, before being channelled into hot bathing rooms through a Hypocaust system. In this system, the floor was raised above the ground by pillars, with a layer of concrete and another of tiles on top. This would leave a space between the pillars, which would allow hot air and smoke from furnaces to channel through the entirety of the room through the use of flues in the roof. However, due to the need to constantly attend to furnace fires this was largely only a feature in private villas and public baths. It apparently made the floor so hot that bathers had to wear special shoes that would protect their feet from being burnt!

It’s obvious that Roman baths were popular, as they have been discovered across the entirety of the Roman Empire – even as far as England. Some of these places have been beautifully preserved, such as the Roman baths in Bath, England and the baths in the ruins of Pompeii. To get the full picture of just how the Romans kept clean and enjoyed themselves you should really visit one of these places. But with the collapse of the Roman Empire, what would happen to their famous bath houses and how would people bathe throughout the next few hundred years?

Medieval Baths

Today there is this popular misconception that the Middle Ages were a time where you’d have to hold your nose if you were to travel back in time to this period. While it’s true that your average Middle Ages street may not have been as sweet smelling as roses, it is mostly a myth that, in the hundreds of years of history that make up this period, that nobody ever thought it was a good idea to have a bath. However, it is true that the advanced sewer systems of the Roman and Greek eras had crumbled along with their empires, but people in this era still had their own ways of sanitation and keeping clean. The culture of bathing may not have been as widely prominent as it was in the past, but it was still around.

A painting of King Louis XIV of France.

We know that they did have baths, because works of art and literature from the period both depict people taking baths, but we also know that it was done infrequently. For example, King Louis XIV was said to smell, thanks to allegedly only taking two baths in his entire life. The reason for this terribly infrequent bathing was the odd assumption that avoiding bathing would be healthier. It was believed that water would carry disease into the body through pores in the skin, and if you were to bathe in warm water it would make you even more susceptible to disease as the pores would further wide (the air would have easier access to your body, thus carrying disease straight to you). Thanks to this, people tended just to wash hands and parts of the face, and rinse their mouths. However, they also believed that washing the entire face could weaken the eyesight, so they had to be careful to avoid splashing water all over their face. It’s all complete hokum of course, but people in that period believed some quite odd stuff. Not everyone agreed that having a bath was bad though; the fourteenth-century writer Magninius Mediolanesis wrote that “the bath cleans the external body parts of dirt left behind from exercise on the outside of the body”

Medieval Style Bath

Bath houses did exist in England; it’s just that they often had the unfortunate problem of doubling up as brothels. The religious authorities were obviously quite appalled by this, eventually proclaiming that people shouldn’t excessively bathe and that public bathing and bathing naked was immoral. Bath houses remained popular across Europe though, with Paris and London having more than their fair share. However, their bad reputation forced Henry VIII to close them all down in 1546. It is also said that the spread of the plague and other diseases (particularly those contracted sexually) may have put people off using the bath houses, forcing them to shut.

Those that could afford to have their own personal bath had to make do with a wooden tub. This was similar to the Greek personal baths mentioned earlier, in that people had to bring jugs full of water to the bath in order to fill it up. These fifteenth-century baths were topped off with a tent-like cloth, with roses and herbs in the water and a few sponges for comfort and cleaning. All this sounds pretty luxurious for the era, which is why they were largely the domain of Kings (King John had a bathtub that he we would take with him on his travels around England). Those aristocrats that didn’t have baths would often use scented rags, perfumes and bags of sweet smelling herbs to mask the stench of body odour instead.

For more on bathing in the Middle Ages, take a look at this article.

The Evolution of Baths

Middle Ages woman hand washing clothes

The 16th century kicked off a change in the clothing that people wore. Woollen clothing was largely dropped in favour of linen clothing, subsequently adding to a decline in bathing practices. Because linen was a far easier to clean and maintain material than cloth, people’s clothing looked less ravaged as a result. So, even if you hadn’t bothered bathing, your clean white linen shirt wouldn’t give people the impression that you were dirty, although I’m not entirely sure that the smell would remain fragrant too. This heralded a time when a well groomed appearance was starting to become important, and having lots of clean clothing was a sign that your social status was on the rise. It didn’t help that medical opinion also supported the notion that hygiene was less important than appearance, as they believed that odours found in dirty clothes would cause disease. By bathing you would let the ‘bad air’ into your body through the pores, so instead of bathing you should wash your clothes instead; which is probably why they were so many laundresses around during this period. It’s funny that the odours of the body supposedly didn’t count, but if I had been around and pointed this flaw in their theory I probably would have been labelled as some sort of witch and subsequently dumped in the nearest river.

This attitude would change in the 18th century, no doubt leading to a population that at least smelt a bit better than a pig who’s just rolled in his own muck. Theories began to be put forward that bathing would actually lead to better health, despite what had been believed for years. Public baths began to come to prominence once again while a major scientific breakthrough took place in the form of the germ theory of disease. No longer was it believed that disease was spread by odour, but rather due to microorganisms that could cause disease. This theory is why we have such a strong attitude towards maintaining cleanliness today, and it’s why disease is so prevalent in countries that don’t have sophisticated sanitation systems.

A caricature from The Times in July 1855 that’s commenting on a letter from Michael Faraday on the state of the River Thames. He described using torn pieces of white cards to gauge the Thames’s “degree of opacity”

Until the 19th century water to individual residences in Britain was still a rare occurrence, although the development of sanitation systems was well underway in western cities like London (read our 'History of Sewers' article for more information). People would collect water from nearby supplies, which they could then heat up for use as bath water. As industrialisation took place the Saturday night bath became a common occurrence. People would often have half a day off work on a Saturday, and it commonly ended up being used for the laborious process of getting water, heating it up and filling the bath. Because it took so much work to fill a bath the entire family would have to share it. The oldest members of the family normally got prioritisation over everyone else, so the children would often end up with the dirtiest water. This is where the saying “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” originates from.

Copper baths gradually began to replace wooden ones from the 1800’s onwards, and these could be moved around the house as the majority of residential places did not have bathrooms. People with significant wealth tended to make use of a claw-foot tub, made from cast iron and lined with porcelain. Even today these baths can command a high price, so you can imagine how much of a luxury they were considered back then (although modern technology has made them somewhat cheaper with the introduction of acrylic, fiberglass and other modern baths). In 1883 in the USA, Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company and Kohler Company began to produce cast-iron bathtubs with smooth interior surfaces (while other inventors attempted some ambitious, although ultimately failed, designs like the closet folding bathtub). Thanks to this smooth surface that bath was far more sanitary and easier to clean, combating the increasing fears of germs. Kohler’s first tub was advertised as a horse trough/hog scalder, when furnished with four legs will serve as a bathtub”. It wasn’t long before companies like Kohler began to transform the bathtub into a more attractive looking well-designed feature of a growing trend for indoor bathrooms. The Crane Company would introduce coloured bathroom features into the US market in 1928, which ultimately led to an increase in design options (such as baths without feet that would fit flush to a wall, an option that is still incredibly popular today) and a decrease in traditional options like the claw-foot bath.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that Britain began building bathrooms into new houses, although bathrooms were still somewhat counted as luxury. Even as late as the 1960’s there were a fair number of bathrooms that still didn’t have bathrooms, so people had to make use of an outdoor toilet, and wash in a bath that may be plonked in front of the fireplace. The same goes for the USA, where outhouses very much remained the norm - even after the construction boom following the end of World War I.

A Fictional Bathroom History

We can’t talk about bathroom history without at least touching on Henry L. Mencken’s great hoax. On December 28, 1917 the journalist published an article titled “A Neglected Anniversary” in the New York Evening Mail. In it he described a false history of baths, including a fabricated story about the first bath installed in the White House. Mencken said he didn’t intend for it to be any more than a joke, and didn’t think anyone would take it seriously, but in reality it was done to test the gullibility of people; especially journalists. The story was treated as real by newspapers, which would reprint details from the ‘history’ for quite a while. Even actual historians would mistakenly reference it. Even to this day you can still see references from the hoax popping up, even though Mencken revealed his hoax 8 years after it was first published.

So, if you ever hear anyone quoting these things as fact, you can now prove them wrong! You can read the full hoax history here.

Modern Baths

Modern Styled Baths

Today we enjoy a massive choice when it comes to selecting the right bath for our bathroom; and companies are investing in increasingly high-tech ways to make sure how baths give us the most relaxing experience possible. Today it’s possible to buy baths with Jacuzzi style jets, baths that will automatically fill up before you get out of bed in the morning and a multitude of other options that you may or may not need. Traditional baths are also making a comeback though, following the trend for all things retro. It’s not possible to get hold of the claw-foot baths of old, whilst even copper baths and wood baths can be bought from select retailers. Although the latter are seen more as luxury baths, with acrylic baths current dominating the market at a range of prices to suit all customers.

It could be said that we’ve reached the peak of bathtub development, but who really knows what will happen in the future? After all, I doubt the average Roman bloke could have envisioned what taking a bath would be like 2,000 years in the future.

Learn about The History of the Toilet or why not check out our Toilet Infographicif you are short on time. 

Words by Thomas Mulrooney

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