For most of us, bathtubs have played an important albeit overlooked role in our lives. Thinking back on my life I can think of dozens of stories that involve bathtubs. When I was a child, for example, I would throw a hissy fit if there was a hair floating in the tub with me (it resembled a snake too much for my liking). I found the most beautiful bathtub when I stayed at the dirtiest, dingiest hotel in Taiwan. It was long and deep and covered in tiny, colorful tiles. Then, of course, there are the memories of being in a large bathtub with someone else… but those are pornographic thoughts, wholly unsuitable here. Ahem.

I slept in a bathtub once.

Bathtubs have been around a long time. Bathing was not always considered a necessary or important thing to do. In ancient times, most bathing was done in public bath houses and throughout the middles ages it was thought to be a sinful act. It is not until recent history that bathtubs made their way into our homes. Before the advent of the shower, bathtubs were the primary method of bathing in the western world. However, nowadays bathtubs have been relegated to minor status in daily cleansing, for the most part, and play a more important role in relaxation rituals.

Bathtubs in Ancient History

One of the oldest known bathtubs was found in Knosses, the ancient Mionan city. Archaeologists at the site of the King Minos' palace found the remains of a 5 foot long, tapered bathtub, probably belonging to the Queen. It was most likely hand filled and drained since it had no outlet. It was painted terra cotta and covered in a bas relief of reeds. A sketch can be seen at

Bathtubs were almost common things in the homes of the wealthy in ancient Greece. Many bathtubs from around 500 BC have been found at various sites and they were very similar to modern day bathtubs. These tubs were self draining. It is apparent that the ancient Greeks sat up during their baths, probably because of the words of Hippocrates, who said that sitting while bathing is healthier than reclining.

Roman public baths are well known, but private bathtubs have also been found at the ruins of Pompei. To see a picture of a bathtub from Pompei go to Baths in the homes of the wealthy were not only self-draining, but also heated. Whereas the Greeks bathed in cold water, the Romans believed in hot and relaxing baths. No evidence of bubble baths has been found.

The Advent of the Modern Bathtub

Not surprisingly, the British town of Bath played a vital role in the introduction of bathtubs into the modern world. The springs here were originally discovered by Prince Bladud, father of Kind Lear, who founded the city of Bath and dedicated the springs to Minerva. When the Romans arrived, they rebuilt the splendor of the great baths back home on smaller scale, only about 23 acres. They utilized, of course, all their brilliant and innovate technologies of plumbing.

Around the 6th century, the Romans were forced to abandon Bath and the Isle of Britain altogether, and Bath was taken over by the Barbarians. These new rulers clearly had no idea how to upkeep or even use the Roman style baths and they quickly fell into decline. The middle ages were no better since the early Christians rejected anything Roman, for various reasons, and considered bathing an unholy act. Bath houses, and bathing in general, were considered an act of debauchery and decadence. Yay for the wisdom of early Christians!

The baths were restored in the 16th century and were relatively popular by the 18th century. Cleanliness, however, was still not a very important issue at the time, and people more often coated themselves with perfumes, powders and oils. A trip to the bath was a rare, perhaps annual journey. One person changed this however, a well known gambler and dandy by the name of Richard Nash.

Nash was a trend setter and before long, the site of Bath became a hot spot for loyalty and the rich and famous. Soon the healing properties of the baths became popular legend and people came in droves. Admiral Lord Nelson claimed that his health had been completely restored after one visit to the baths. It is around this time that a connection between cleanliness and good health was discovered.

Slowly, bathtubs became a fixture in most homes and the first bathtub in America is thought to have been imported by Benjamin Franklin. The first bathtub in the White House was installed by Millard Fillmore in 1850.

Interesting Bathtub Facts and Trivia

  • About 365 people drown in their bathtubs each year. By comparison, about 350 people get struck by lightning annually.
  • An old law in Kentucky required citizens to take a bath at least once a year
  • The longest Monopoly game played in a bathtub lasted 99 hours.
  • Edmond Rostand was a French writer who hated to be interrupted while he was working, but he did not like to turn his friends away because he was writing. So he spent much of his time writing while in the bathtub- and turned away his friends because he was taking a bath. In 1898 he published Cyrano de Bergerac.
  • A friend gave Dorothy Parker a small alligator. She put it into the bathtub until she could figure out what to do with it, then left for an appointment. When she returned, she found this note from the maid: "I have resigned. I refuse to work in a house where there is an alligator in the bathtub. I would have told you this before, but I did not think the matter would ever come up."
  • During the bombing of London in World War II, a young lady was taking a bath when her home was hit by a bomb. The bathtub was thrown in the air and came down upside down with the girl underneath it. The tub sheltered her from the collapsing rubble. Rescuers digging through the ruins looking for survivors were very surprised to find a naked girl unharmed under the bathtub.

The Bathtub Hoax

In 1917 H. L. Mencken wrote a history of the bathtub in The New York Evening Mail. In this article he claimed that the bathtub was first introduced to America by Adam Thompson, a rich cotton dealer from Cincinnati in 1842. Slowly bathtubs became popular, but the American medical profession claimed that baths were hazardous to one's health and bathing was only permitted with medical supervision in several cities. This idea was slow to be debunked and it was only when President Fillmore had a bathtub installed in the White House that bathtubs became common.

The history was quickly accepted as fact and made its way into reference works at the time. In 1926, Mencken, unveiled that the entire article had been a joke and was never intended to be taken seriously. He said he had no idea about the real history of the bathtub and that he had had no desire to dig it out. It kinda makes you wonder about so many other things doesn't it?

Pictures: ( modern Russian bathtub) ( modern cast iron claw foot bathtubs) ( 1880's bathtub) ( sunken bathtub) ( bathtub at Iowa State University residence) ( mysterious bathtub) ( famous bathtub) ( bathtub in a tent) ( bathtub racing )


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