Today, let's bathe. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
I opened my 1897
Encyclopaedia Britannica to see what's
listed under the word bath or
bathing, and neither word appeared. But
under the word baths is an eight-page,
double-column, fine-print entry dealing with the
way we clean ourselves. It treats Roman baths in
detail -- showing layouts, plumbing, and
accessories. The Romans didn't fool around when it
came to keeping clean.
Then the article goes into modern systems of public
bathing -- says they're pretty similar to the old
Roman baths. It talks about vapor baths and hot
springs. The section on The Action of Baths on
the Human System is an eye-opener. It's filled
with warnings about bathing in water too hot or too
cold. Does water seep in through the skin? What
does bathing do to the psyche?
This long article yields only one sentence about
domestic bathing. It says, "Cold and hot baths have
been introduced into [English] homes to an extent
never known before." So, scarcely a hundred years
ago, domestic bathing was still a novelty.
"Coeducational" public bathhouses were widespread
in medieval Europe. Then, in the late thirteenth
century, conservative voices closed them down. The
resulting drop in personal cleanliness left
populations vulnerable to the Bubonic Plague.
European personal hygiene standards stayed low for
a long time. It was common to go a year between
baths in our old West.
Private bathrooms equipped with a tub or a shower
were creatures of the new late-nineteenth-century
consumerism. They evolved while trial versions were
being sold. First were shower devices. A typical
one consisted of a treadle that you worked with
your feet to pump water into a handheld spray
The game changed with the development of public
water-supply systems. In 1885 George Vanderbilt had
one of the first in-house bathtubs supplied with
running water. Fifteen years later, my 1900
Sears Roebuck catalog
offers ten different bathtubs. Prices range from
$3.50 for a four-foot tin tub to thirty dollars for
a white-enameled iron tub with water faucets. No
more mention of showers.
I was raised in a large house, built in 1898. It
was typical of middle-class living in America until
after WW-II. It had one bathroom upstairs, a
washbasin in a downstairs coatroom, and an isolated
toilet under the basement stairs. The upstairs
bathroom had an iron tub and no shower.
In those days a tub faucet might've been fitted
with a hose and a spray
attachment . But full private shower stalls
(outside the tub or built into it) have come into
use only during my adult life. My 1897
Britannica recommends that bathing for
hygienic purposes be done before 1:00 PM and on an
empty stomach. That suits me. It's out of bed and
into the shower before coffee, before thought,
before deciding what program to write today. I find
it implausible that I once lived in a world where
that was unheard-of luxury.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gimpel, J., The Medieval Machine. New York:
Penguin Books, 1976.
Weaver, R., and Rodney, D., Machines in the
Home. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Consumer Guide. Sears, Roebuck, and Co.,
From the 1905 Sears and Roebuck
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.
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