When Americans Started Bathing

When thinking about the lives of our ancestors, we sometimes overlook some of the major facts of their lives. For instance, take bathing.

Most Americans in the first part of the nineteenth century didn’t bathe. There was little indoor plumbing, and besides, everyone “knew” that submerging yourself in water was a recipe for weakness and ill health. Therefore, most people did not bathe for weeks or even months at a time, if ever. Some people could go from cradle to grave without ever immersing themselves in water.

Illustration of Thompson’s bathtub of 1842, published in the Chronicle-Telegram, November 18, 1935.

At first, bathtubs were expensive. The earliest ones were made of painted sheet metal that had to be carefully shaped from a single sheet, or crafted from expensive porcelain. Tubs made of copper or zinc-lined wood were a bit cheaper, but also more prone to leak.

The first bathtub in the United States was installed in Cincinnati 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. Medical authorities attacked it as dangerous to health.

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.

Still, the idea that a bathtub was a useful facility trickled down to the middle class through books and magazines about domestic life. In an 1861 Godey’s Lady’s Book feature on “model cottage” plans, the majority of the homes shown had bathrooms on the second floor.

In the nineteenth century, hot baths were a no-no, as was actually relaxing and enjoying the water. By the 1860s, expert opinion was nearly unanimous that the best kind of bath was a brief plunge in cold water to relieve congestion of the brain and fight anything from cholera to whooping cough.

“However pleasant a long-continued bath may be in hot weather, yet it is by no means to be recommended,” British domestic engineer J.H. Walsh warned in 1857. In fact, parents should yank kids out of their baths, lest they “dabble too long in the water and thus do absolute injury to themselves by carrying to excess what is otherwise a most valuable adjunct to health.”

Historian Jacqueline S. Wilkie explains how things began to change toward the middle of the nineteenth century in an article in JSTOR at https://daily.jstor.org/when-americans-started-bathing/.

3 Comments

First, I have to say that I do not fully trust all articles on the JSTOR site, as I have found several errors in historical information, as well as blatant exaggerations. The most recent one was about the use of gold as a medicine in the middle ages, and how one royal member used so much, that gold seeped from her bones and they found a pile of it under her skeleton. I decided to study that further, and come to find out, the peer reviewed research the author sited was clear that the researchers found gold in the hair that remained in the grave, and that there was no visible sign of gold anywhere, even in the hair itself–they only found the gold in the hair after testing it.
Having said that, I question that there are people who may have never been immersed in water their whole life. People had to have gone swimming, or fishing by getting in the water, or would get in the water to wash clothes in a stream, river, lake, etc. If we’re talking about actual ‘bathtubs’ here, then yes, I could see how many people would not have had a ‘tub’, so to speak. But I have found articles that refer to other historical references of only specific groups that believed in the evils of bathing, but that most people had the opposite view. In Biblical times, bath houses were common, and many people even in colonial America lived, if possible, near water sources (lakes, streams, rivers) because of it’s importance.
In any case, I don’t know if it’s fair to say that ‘most’ people believed bathing was bad and didn’t do it, but rather that there were certain groups that practiced that, and that most Americans/colonists would have at least done a sponge bath of some sort on a regular basis, perhaps in winter, and then utilizing nearby water sources in warmer weather to bathe. I only say that because of the following articles ,which, no, I haven’t checked their sources yet to see how accurate they are. So if I’m wrong, I apologize. In any case, in the comments section of the first article, it is clear that this is a highly debatable subject, wow!
http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2011/05/why-bathing-was-uncommon-in-medieval-europe/
AND:
http://www.medievalists.net/2013/04/did-people-in-the-middle-ages-take-baths/

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Terence L. Day terence@moscow.com
During the third century B.C. Romans washed arms and legs daily and their entire bodies every nine days. They also swam in the Tiber. Later, Romans began building bathrooms in their houses. And, of course, there were the public baths.

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