A Brief History of Bathing in General and the Clawfoot Bathtub
The earliest plumbing systems ever discovered date back nearly 6000 years to the Indus River Valley in India where copper water pipes were excavated from the ruins of a palace. Fast forward 3000 years to the island of Crete where the ancestor of a pedestal tub was unearthed – five feet long, made of hard pottery, its shape resembling the 19th-century clawfoot tub.
The Roman Empire from 500 BC through AD 455 championed the daily ritual of bathing and raised the bar for acceptable sanitation. They used lead and bronze pipes, marble fixtures, and created a comprehensive sewerage system. During this period, public baths were most common, and private baths resembled indoor pools usually encompassing an entire room.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire and descent into the Dark Ages, sanitation virtually disappeared. Bathing was replaced by the use of perfume. Waste was thrown out into streets or emptied directly into rivers that also served as the drinking water supply. In fact, the slang term for toilet, loo, is reported to have derived from the practice of the French yelling out the warning, “Gardez l'eau!” (pronounced gardy loo – meaning “mind the water”), before emptying the chamber pot from an upper level onto the street below.
Following the devastation of the Bubonic Plague, some areas of Europe attempted to improve sanitation by outlawing the practice of discarding waste on public streets. However, widespread installation of underground sewerage systems in European cities did not occur until the early 19th century.
In 1596, the first flushing toilet was invented by Sir John Harrington. He made one for himself and one for his godmother Queen Elizabeth. These were the only two ever produced. After Sir John published a book describing his invention, he was mocked into retirement for his foolish creation. It took almost 200 years before anyone else attempted to create a flushing toilet. In 1775 and 1777, Alexander Cummings and Samuel Prosser each made strides in the reemergence of the water closet.
In 1885, a revolution in toilet making occurred: Thomas Twyford created the first valveless toilet made of china. Until then, water closets were more commonly made of metal and wood. It is widely reported that Thomas Crapper invented the toilet. Not true. He did own a plumbing supply store in England and bought the rights to a patent for a “Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer,” but he should not be credited with inventing the toilet.
Up until the 1800s in the US, most water pipes were made of hollowed trees. Cast iron pipe imported from England had one of its first installations in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. By the early 1800s, cast iron production began domestically in New Jersey. In 1848, the National Public Health Act was passed creating a plumbing code for the US.
Almost simultaneously in 1883, both the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company (now American Standard) and Kohler began the process of enameling cast iron bathtubs to form a smooth interior surface. Kohler’s first clawfoot tub was advertised as a “horse trough/hog scalder when furnished with four legs will serve as a bathtub.” These tubs soon became mass-produced as they were recognized as having an extremely sanitary surface that was easy to clean, thus preventing the spread of bacteria and diseases.
Many media sources publish as fact a completely false account of bathing and bathtub history written by H.L. Mencken in 1917. In his story titled, “A Neglected Anniversary,” Mencken writes of laws prohibiting bathing, the first bathtub in America, and the first installation of a bathtub in the White House by Millard Fillmore. He wrote the article as a light-hearted farce during a time of war. None of it is true, yet it is often quoted in reputable publications.
The end of World War I brought with it a construction boom in the US. Bathrooms were fitted with a toilet, sink, and bathtub – mostly clawfoot bathtubs. But even in 1921, only one percent of homes in the US had indoor plumbing. Outhouses were still the norm in rural America. The Sears catalog, with its uncoated, absorbent pages, was a popular form of toilet paper often found hanging inside the outhouse.
Over time, the once popular clawfoot tub morphed into a built-in tub with apron front. This enclosed style afforded much easier maintenance of the bathroom and with the emergence of colored sanitary ware, more design options for the homeowner. It was Crane Company that introduced colored bathroom fixtures to the US market in 1928.
The trend today, though, is shifting back to the elegant style and luxury of a soaking clawfoot tub. Homeowners are tearing out their dime-a-dozen built-in tubs and replacing them with reproduction roll rim footed tubs. Now available in both the classic cast iron or lighter weight acrylic styles, clawfoot bathtubs are produced in a variety of styles and foot finish options.