Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Whither the Tub?


I have had a good many more uplifting thoughts, creative and expansive visions--while soaking in comfortable baths or drying myself after bracing showers--in well-equipped American bathrooms than I have ever had in any cathedral.

--From "A Piece of My Mind" by Edmund Wilson


In the beginning, man stank.

My guess is, woman did too.

Body odor was considered to be a defensive shield, according to "The Body Shop Book," published for the corporation of the same name. (The book includes other tidbits regarding the history of the bath: Mary Queen of Scots bathed in wine; taking too many baths was believed to cause infertility; early Christians took pride in not washing; St. Agnes died unwashed at 13.)

The book identifies the 1883 Berlin Hygiene Exhibition as the site of the first hot water shower, posing the question: To shower or to bathe?


My wife and daughter are bathers, but I am not. They shop at sweet-smelling shops in malls and buy small bottles and packets nested in wicker baskets, wrapped with bows. They give them to each other as gifts.

I have watched my teenage daughter march up the stairs toward the tub. It is the beginning of a carefully planned, systematic mission that can last up to an hour. It requires a portable stereo, cordless telephone, beverage and enough towels to sop up a small gulf.

My wife starts thinking about the tub at the first hint of stress. After a hard day, she arrives home, drops her briefcase on the kitchen table, sheds her clothes as if they were on fire and within moments, there is the sound of water filling the tub.

They are representative of the changing role of the bath in contemporary American society. To get clean, people take showers--if they have them and if they are physically able. For relaxation, they soak, says Paulette Cleghorn, a spokeswoman for the Body Shop.

"I would say that has been the trend in about the last four years," Cleghorn says. "It began with the popularity of the spas in the '80s."

An in-house publication of the Kohler Co., manufacturer of, among other things, plumbing products, states that in the United States, showers were first used primarily in institutions in the 1920s to clean the criminal and the insane.

Initially Kohler manufactured cast-iron and steel farm implements, but in 1833 John Michael Kohler took a horse trough / hog scalder, heated it to 1,700 degrees and sprinkled enamel powder on it. That's how he got started in the plumbing business, according to company literature.


As a child, I took only baths because the houses we lived in had only tubs. I had an arsenal of empty plastic bottles, the poor kid's version of the rubber ducky.

The tub was a place of contemplation and imagination more than it was a venue for getting clean. It was one place in the world where a guy could be alone and naked with his thoughts--unless, of course, siblings had to pee. Not only did we not have a shower, we had only one bathroom.

It was a good place to practice holding my breath, and I recall looking up from the bottom of the tub at Prell submarines lurking above me as I counted silently to myself, stopping just short of losing consciousness and drowning.

The acoustics were top-notch. I remember singing a drippy little tune called "Travelin' Man," by Ricky Nelson, in the echo chamber of the tub.

When the applause ended and the lights came on, when the world was once again safe from enemy submarines, I would lay there as the final gurgle of water swirled down the drain, leaving me soggy and lethargic in a porcelain womb, as if the bones of my body had been sucked out of me, coolness settling in like a sea breeze on a steamy night. It was a good-and-bad feeling, a mixture of contentment and, somehow, hopelessness.

Perhaps it had to do with bathing on Sunday nights, knowing the weekend was over and only one night separated me from the unpleasant prospect of five eternal days in school clothes and classrooms.

I was introduced to showers in the boys' locker room of my junior high school, where emphasis was placed on not getting too wet. By high school, the locker room was a place of song, merriment and general horsing around.

Showers became habit. My last bath was in Detroit in 1989, while living in an attic apartment that lacked a shower. By then, baths made me feel like the last plate washed in the sink after a spaghetti dinner, and I soon moved, unable to regain the spirit of Sunday nights.

So now I shower, get it over with, hurl myself without contemplation, expansive thoughts or visions into the madness of the day, like many people, I suspect--like the criminal and the insane.

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