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/.