By Ken Zurski
As America’s first diplomat in France, Benjamin Franklin thoroughly enjoyed the pleasures of taking a bath, a European luxury. “I have never remembered to have seen my grandfather in better health,” William Temple Franklin wrote to a relative. “The warm bath three times a week have made quite a young man out of him [Franklin was in his 70’s at the time].
Franklin’s desires for a bath may have been influenced more by the pretty French maids who administered it. “His pleasing gaiety makes everybody love him,” his grandson continued in the letter, “especially the ladies, who permit him always to kiss him.”
Regardless of Franklin’s reasons for taking a bath, he couldn’t help but to get clean in the process.
Franklin was certainly onto something and bathroom tubs were soon introduced in America. But it was a task just to own one. Before indoor plumbing, a large tub may have been made of sheet lead and anchored in a box the size of a coffin. Later when tubs became more portable, they were made of canvas and folded; still others were hidden away and pulled down like a Murphy Bed. They were called “bath saucers.”
However, throughout most of the 19th century, popular tub models were heavy and costly and used as much for decoration as for its other intended purpose.
It wasn’t that most people didn’t understand the merits of taking a bath, but it was a chore. Water had to be warmed and transported and would chill quickly; then when finished, it had to be dumped. Oftentimes families would use the same bath water in a pecking order. This surely forced the last in line, usually the youngest, to take a much quicker dip than the first.
In the later half of the 19th century, as running water became more common, bathtubs became less mobile. Most were still bulky, steel cased and rimmed in cherry or oak. Fancy bronzed iron legs held the tub above the floor.
Ads from the time encouraged consumers to think of the tub as ornamental. “Why shouldn’t the bathtub be part of the architecture of the house?” the ads asked. After all, if there is going to be such a large object in the home, it might as well be aesthetically pleasing.
Getting people to actually use the tub to clean themselves? Now that was another matter.
In Franklin’s case, when a large tub of warm water wasn’t present, he liked to take what he called “air baths” instead. Franklin thought being inside and cooped up in a germ infested, walled, and shuttered space, was the reason he got colds. So to keep from getting sick, Franklin would open the windows and stand completely naked in front of it.
Ventilation was the key to prevention, he explained.