The History of Taking a Bath

The History of Taking a Bath

Oh, to have a room of one's own! A bathroom of one's own, that is.

It is quite easy for us moderns to forget how truly recent a historical phenomenon it is to own a private, in-home bath.

Somehow, ideologically, we can accept that it must have been difficult to haul all that water from some nearby stream, and then to heat it all over a fire, followed by bathing in a tub or bucket in the kitchen ? now isn't that quaint? Ah, the idyllic country life! How charming. But of course, we with our love for the personal daily shower, we would have gone to all that work to be clean. Surely.

Well, how many big kettles of water does it take to fill the tub? Imagine carrying that, by hand. Now, imagine carrying that, but it's cold outside, and your kettle of water is perhaps a bit'sloshy. Next, of course, you have to heat it all. What is it that they say about a watched pot coming to a boil? Now, imagine plunging in to that lovely bath, except your house does not have central heat either.


In Farmer Boy, which takes place in the 1860?s in the United States, Almanzo Wilder complains of how much work it was to haul the water, heat the water, and strip to take the bath in the cold of the family kitchen in winter. Being the youngest, Almanzo had to go first in the ritual of the weekly Saturday night bath, to get ?that lovely Saturday night feeling? ? but no matter how wonderful it felt to be clean, Almanzo said he would have preferred not to bathe until Spring. Why?

Well, have you ever sat close to a fire, and gotten uncomfortable because the fire was too hot on your face? But, when you turned around, your face felt miserably cold, while your back was so hot it was almost prickly?

Here's another thought ? Almanzo got to go first on bath night, which meant the water was fresh for him. What was that tub like by the time it got to his father?s turn, head of the household of eight? Eight farmers, that is, who worked all day in the dirt, among animals, doing manual labor.

Let?s just say that the kitchen bucket bath appeals to me a lot less than my natural-stone-tiled, rainwater-imitating shower. I might have to agree with Almanzo. Baths can wait until spring.

For centuries, only the richest had access to a personal, private bath. This meant that the vast majority of people bathed very minimally or not at all, most often restricting their washing to an Eliza Doolittle style bath ? you know, ?I washed my hands and face before I come, I did.?

The general populace of Europe had nearly given up on the act of bathing altogether during the late Middle Ages, following suspicion that the Plague was spread by bathing ones? body in water. Despite the high intellectual achievement and scientific advances of the Renaissance period, several major historical figures were considered remarkable in their personal dedication to bathing ? including the noble Elizabeth I of England, whose house staff commented on her fastidious bathing habit. Her monthly baths were apparently gossip-worthy.

And though we may sometimes feel that we cannot quite wake up in the morning without our daily ritual shower, for a Hindu, a bath in the Ganges River cleanses not from physical dirt, but from sin.