The bathroom, as we know it today, has been a commonplace fixture in our homes for less than 100 years. Before this, baths were unwieldy metal-lined wooden affairs that were brought into the kitchen for the weekly bathing event and filled with hot water from the stove to be shared by everyone.
Bathrooms in Ancient Times
The first records for the use of baths date back as far as 3000 BC, where they were used not for hygiene, but for religious purposes. Water was seen as a purifying element for both body and soul, and it was common for people to be required to cleanse themselves before entering a sacred area. Baths have been recorded as part of village and town life throughout this period, with a split between cold baths in Asia and steam baths in Europe and America. Communal baths were erected in a distinctly separate area to the living quarters of the village, with a view to preventing evil spirits from entering the domestic quarters of a commune.
In and around 2800 BC, toilets and sewers were invented in several parts of the world, built into the outer walls of houses. They had vertical chutes, through which waste fell into street drains or cesspits. Many houses had their own bathing rooms, which were generally located on the ground floor. The bath was made of brick, sometimes with a surrounding curb to sit on, and the water drained away through a hole in the floor, down chutes or pottery pipes in the walls, into the municipal drainage system.
The first known bathtub can be traced to the Palace of Knossos in Crete at around 1700 BC, which bore a remarkable resemblance to many of the baths of today, both in looks and in the kind of plumbing works that surrounded it.
The Greeks recognized the value of bathing as an important part of their lifestyles. The Greek cities of Pylos and Tiryns had bathrooms with water supply and drainage systems, and later Greek vase paintings indicate that the Greeks even used showers. Poets and writers such as Homer had their heroes bathe in warm water so as to regain their strength; it is perhaps notable that the mother of Achilles bathed him in order to gain his invincibility. Palaces have been uncovered throughout Greece with areas that are dedicated to bathing, spaces with clay bathtubs, as well as sophisticated drainage systems.
However, it was the Romans who really turned bathing into an art form. As early as the 3rd century BC, elaborate baths were being included in the villas and townhouses of wealthy Romans. With separate rooms for damp and dry heat and warm and cold baths, the buildings were heated with hypocausts, furnaces with flues extending through the floors and walls of the building. They also built large purpose-built thermal baths, marking not only an important social development, but also providing a public source of relaxation and rejuvenation. Here was a place where people could meet to discuss the matters of the day, and enjoy entertainment.
The Fall and Rise of the Bathroom
Although some of the sources we have suggest that bathing declined following the collapse of the Roman Empire, this is not completely accurate. It was actually the Middle Ages that saw the beginning of soap production; proof that bathing was definitely not uncommon. It was only after the Renaissance that bathing declined; water was actually feared as a carrier of disease and so sweat baths and heavy perfumes were preferred. Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the use of public baths declined gradually, and private spaces were favored, thus setting down the foundations for the bathroom.
Britain’s first bathroom is recorded in the mid 17th century and was recently unearthed in a long-abandoned outbuilding at Bolsover in Derbyshire, where Sir William Cavendish pioneered the new fashion for “bathing rooms” after the English civil war.
The Age of the Modern Bathroom
At the end of the 19th century, John M. Kohler, founder of the Kohler Co, and originally a manufacturer of cast-iron farm implements, saw an opportunity to sell to a new market. He modified a horse trough by enameling it and adding legs, then sold it as a bath to meet the growing demand for bathroom fixtures. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, steps were taken to mechanize the bathroom. Hot water could be purchased for use in the home, and so personal bathing became much more common. As plumbing techniques improved and modern bathroom suites were manufactured on a mass scale, bathrooms were made into self-contained areas and bathing became an increasingly private affair, far removed from the communal behavior of the ancient civilizations. Now the time had begun where the bathroom was seen as more than simply a room of function.