Ever since mankind sat in his cave and devoured the saber-tooth tiger caught from another successful hunt he has required the need to have a good wash. The sweat of the hunt and the mess that actually results from eating said sabre tooth tiger seems as good of a reason as any to find some water and have a bit of a splash around. Today we do less saber-tooth tiger hunting – thanks to the fact that they no longer exist – but we still love to have showers after a long hard day at work, or just generally in order to stay presentable and clean in today’s society. Over the thousands of years of human history that last point seems crucial today; humans have a need to be clean, for both health reasons and to stop your neighbours complaining of the bad smell every time you step out of your home.
Basically, the shower has been around a lot longer than the fancy electric one you’ve got installed in your bathroom. Where did it start and how did we get to where we are today? Let us take you on a journey through the fascinating history of showers.
Nature Provides Everything
Long before humans started constructing artificial showers there was a natural version. Early man wasn’t about to start coming up with fancy showering contraptions when the land around them would provide everything they needed for their tribe of 32 people (and a dog). People sought out waterfalls and used these to shower off. They correctly figured out that standing under running water would clean you far more effectively than sitting in standing water would, and it was a quick way to clean off rather than have to jump around in a pool or bring water to wherever they wanted to bathe. Of course, if it rained you’d get a bit of a wash too, especially given the torrential downpours that the hotter areas of the world the tribes inhabited.
Ancient Progress Brought Better Showers
As civilisation advanced and pots and jugs made their debut, ancient people figured out that they could create their own showers without the needed of a natural waterfall. They would fill up a pot or jug with water and proceed to pour it over themselves – or, if you were somewhat wealthy within somewhere like Ancient Egypt, you’d have a servant do it for you - although the water wasn’t going to give you the warm showers of today as it was quite often really cold!
There is some evidence to suggest that the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations had rudimentary indoor shower rooms where servants would carry out the showering as pointed out earlier. To own one of these would put you well above the common people, but the rooms only had basic drainage systems and water was carried into the room rather than pumped. While the Greeks would expand on this system you could say that these were the first proper showers that could be at least slightly compared to how we design and build showers today.
The Greeks were definitely quite clever when it came to dispensing of all that nasty waste that humans tend to produce. Their sewer systems were constructed of lead pipes, a system that also allowed water to be pumped into and out of communal shower rooms. However, unlike the Egyptians these rooms weren’t just for the privileged amongst the population; common citizens would make use of them too. Having a shower in one of these rooms was a sociable activity, and the rooms are comparable to modern day gym locker rooms (there was a gymnasium containing showers and baths in Pergamon); even including bars to hang up clothing. There is artwork from the era that depicts Greeks using these showers, and it’s amazing how close they look to modern showers.
The Romans also had advanced sewer systems and built an enormous amount of bathhouses across their vast empire, some of which still exist today (although obviously not in their original splendour). You may have got the idea that ancient people weren’t as concerned with hygiene as today’s modern society is, but you’d be wrong. The Romans may not have had 700 types of different shower gels in their local supermarkets, but they did believe in bathing at least a few times a week.
Both the Greek and Roman empires would eventually collapse, and, unfortunately, the sophisticated plumbing crumble alongside the civilisations. It would be hundreds of years until the world would see such systems again. At least for now the advancement of human showering was put on hold.
A Brief Stop in the Middle Ages
There is the assumption that people in the Middle Ages were quite a smelly bunch. To be honest, they probably didn’t exactly smell fragrant, but the idea that they didn’t wash much is a bit of a myth. That said, those assumptions weren't just plucked out of thin air and it may be correct to assume that some people didn’t get into the water an awful lot. As Christianity expanded at an ever increasing rate, so did beliefs that bathing was a sign of vanity and that it was letting the devil inside you (St. Francis of Assisi said that dirtiness was one of the signs of a holy person. He probably smelt a bit whiffy!). After the Black Death struck Europe in the 14th-century bathing to maintain hygiene became more popular. The link between maintaining hygiene and good health became more widely recognised, thanks to discoveries such as washing hands to attempt to deter the spread of the plague. However, the public were still being advised to only wash parts of their body visible to others – such as ears, hands, feet, face and neck – as late as the 18th century.
Showering as a means of washing was largely non-existent during this time, instead the common people took dips in rivers, lakes and ponds. If they did own a bath the water was shared between the whole family before being thrown out, which is due to water being difficult to gather. Lords and the wealthy were luckier and could have a room dedicated to bathing or a large bath that could be brought to them. They also had the advantage of heated water, ferried along by their servants, and a variety of perfumes, scented oils and flower petals. The most they came to an actual shower would be pouring the water over their heads.
The Advent of the Modern Shower
It wasn’t until 1767 that anything similar to our modern showers entered the playing field. William Feetham, a stove maker from Ludgate Hill in London, patented his shower invention during this year. This contraption had a pump that forced water into an upper basin above your head. You would then pull a chain to release the water from this upper basin, although you’d have to brace yourself for an onslaught of cold water. This system was deemed to be easier than having a bath as it didn’t require the numerous amounts of buckets full of heated water to be carried to and fro. Unfortunately, this system also meant that you were reusing the same dirty water every time you pulled the chain.
Next up was the English Regency Shower, which expanded upon the earlier design and made it far more effective. The shower was invented anonymously around 1810, so we’ll never know the person to thank for contributing towards the development of a nice hot shower in the morning. It was quite a tall contraption, measuring over 10 feet and made up of a number of metal pipes that had been painted to look like bamboo. Quite tacky by today’s standards!
As with Feetham’s invention, the shower had a basin above, which was filled up by connected pipes carrying the pumped water. The water was then pumped through a nozzle to spill out over your shoulders, before being collected and fed back through to the basin. So, it didn’t solve the dirty water problem but that wasn’t exactly on the minds of the people of the era anyway. The design would go through several renovations such as hand-pumped models, models with several sprayers (sort of like the multi-spray showerheads of today) and interchangeable nozzles.
By 1850, civilisation had figured out what the Greeks and Romans had pioneered long ago – reliable plumbing! This allowed free-standing showers to be connected to a running water source, taking away the effort of using them and allowing the user to relax more. This also allowed development of different types of showers; including such delights as the needle shower – a shower that sprayed jets of water all around your torso area – and canopy showers. The latter was a bath combined with a shower, starting with a bath as normal and rising vertically to create a shower wall. It was quite genius, although these days we make do with a shower being installed over a bath instead.
As much as showers had advanced they were still considered quite the luxury, and during the earlier 1900’s it was usually rich people who owned one for their apparent health benefits. By the 1920s the shower was spreading out to the general public, at least in the USA. In the UK, showers would remain relatively obscure in the private homes of common people until around the 1960’s. By the time that the UK would fully adopt the shower, the electric shower was on the market. This was able to generate hot water without relying on a hot water tank.
In the 1980’s demand for more functions in showers exploded. This led to the rise of body jets, varied shower heads and even coloured lights. Over the years, showers would become packed with even more technological features, eventually giving rise to the digital showers that are all the rage on the market these days.
The shower has now become so ubiquitous that 88% of UK households now have some sort of shower configuration; whether that be over the bath or in a separate shower enclosure. As a nation, we adore our showers, so much so that we spend an average of 8 minutes enjoying the warm streams of water traverse their way down our bodies. We see it was a far quicker way to get washed and having a bath has almost become a luxury in our hectic lifestyles. There is also the common belief that - promoted by our consumerist society - we need to wash every day. While there is some evidence to suggest we don’t need to wash daily it probably doesn’t hurt to make sure you don’t put out a pong!
Do you want to learn even more historical facts? Check out our The History of Toilets Infographic