Walkabout: Let’s Talk About Bathrooms, Part 1

Hammam e Gangali Khan, Iran. Photo: jozan.net

Hammam e Gangali Khan, Iran. Photo: jozan.net

Read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 of this story.

Topped only by the kitchen, the bathroom is probably the most important, and therefore most installed or renovated room in any house or apartment. 21st century Americans LOVE their bathrooms. We love them so much; we want to have lots of them. Full baths, half baths, powder rooms, en suite baths, master baths, steam rooms and saunas.

The need for personal cleanliness knows only the limits of space and cash. Most of us know about the famous Roman baths, so we know this obsession goes way back, but how did we get from there to here? And what the heck happened to all of those years in the middle, or should we say, in the midden? Sorry – bathroom pun. Let’s talk about bathrooms, shall we?

Early man first visited the bushes, and then took himself to the river to clean up. So from the first, we really have two hygienic functions to talk about in the bathroom, and they weren’t joined together for a long time. The first bathtub was a body of water, with man/woman, first splashing to get clean, and then discovering the ability to swim.

There is not a culture on earth that does not value being clean, however they have to go about achieving that. Cleanliness is both a physical and spiritual state, so the first known bathtub or basin was a ritual pool where people cleansed themselves before worshipping, getting both their bodies and spirits clean.

By the third millennium, BC, man had invented indoor plumbing for both bathing and sanitation. Remains of ancient toilets and sewers show up in the ruins of ancient cities in the Indus Valley, in what is now Pakistan, dating from 2800 BC. Drains removed wastes to cesspits or drainage systems.

These same cities also had bathing rooms, which drained through pipes in the walls to a municipal drainage system. Indoor plumbing. Ancient toilets can be found in the ruins of Rome and her colonies.

The earliest known bathtub was found in Greece, and was found in the Palace of Knossos, in Crete, dating from 1700 BC. Excavations of Greek cities have turned up alabaster and ceramic tubs, as well as sophisticated hot and cold water systems providing indoor plumbing to the bathers. We are more familiar with ancient Roman baths, where bathing took on great societal and public importance.

Wealthy Romans often had private baths, but the grand public thermal baths were not only a place to get clean, but were also social gathering spots, where friends gathered, meetings and business deals took place, and entertainments were enjoyed. Today, especially via Hollywood, we find the Roman baths salacious and carnal, but for them, it was an important societal function and ritual. It wasn’t the bath that brought Rome down.

The bath was equally important to the societies of the Middle East, with ritual bathing, the mikveh, an important part of Jewish culture. Such baths were found in the ruins of Masada. The traditions of the hammam, or “Turkish bath” is equally well known throughout all of the Arab world, giving rise to bathing chambers of great beauty, admired to this day.

And in the East, the steam baths of Japan have been in use almost as long as the baths of the ancient Western World. Everyone loves a good bath.

That didn’t change for many centuries in the West. Although we like to think that the people of the Middle Ages were as filthy as the pigs the peasants kept, evidence has shown that they loved a good bath, as well. Bathing was encouraged by Gregory the Great, the first monk to become pope.

Medieval royalty was encouraged to wash up daily, wash their hair and hands, and clean their mouths and teeth. Scholars tell us that the wealthier classes in Europe often bathed together, sometimes in the old Roman baths left behind after the fall.

They stayed in the baths, soaking while eating and being entertained. Men usually left their hats on, and women kept their jewelry and headgear on, a veil on a woman indicating her status as a married woman.

Of course, there were certainly the moralists and those who screamed “sin” and hedonism at the whole affair. Depending on where you were, or who you were, bathing in the Middle Ages could be enjoyed or condemned, and as time went on, public bathing, especially in mixed company, was seen more and more as a prelude to sinful behavior, and the bath came indoors, or stopped altogether.

Some towns in Eastern Europe passed laws enforcing a bath at least once a week. If one did not, he had to pay a fine. Yet other populations could go for years without bathing, especially the poor and those in colder countries.

Bathing in winter became very suspect, as steam baths were seen as a source of contagion. As plague ravaged the lands, public bathing stopped, as people thought that bathing with others would cause the plague to enter through “miasmas” of steamy hot water. This continued throughout the Renaissance. As time passed, steam baths, if possible, replaced soaking baths, and for the wealthy, perfume became the bath of choice.

Most of the public baths at this time were shallow rectangular pools, often side by side, where bathers sat and soaked, often eating, reading, or playing board games. A more portable bath was usually wood, similar to a Japanese soaking bath, or in the manner of a wine cask, with wood held together by metal staves, made waterproof with pitch, and usually lined with a cotton or linen cloth.

These baths would be filled with water heated on a separate fire, poured by servants or family members. Depending on social status and local custom, women would bath nude, or in thin chemise dresses. Men would also take care to cover their privates.

Throughout histories and cultures, herbs, flowers, salts and scented oils were used to make baths more fragrant, and help clean the body. Soap was in use by the Romans, the Gauls, and the Celts, but took a hiatus for several centuries, and did not appear in Europe again until the Middle Ages, centering in Marseilles, then Genoa and Venice.

Most Eastern and Central European countries didn’t see soap again until the 1500’s. Soap at this time was made with animal fats, lye, and ashes and could peel flesh. Scented soaps did not appear until the 16th and 17th centuries, and the formulas and recipes for fine scented soaps were a well-guarded trade secret, keeping prices up, so that these mild hand and face soaps were the property of only the rich.

Bathing, (or not) is only half the equation in the bathroom. Eliminating waste is the other half. Depending on where one lived and his/her station in life, this necessary function was either a nasty problem to solve, or a veritable goldmine.

Urine has long been used as a tanning agent for leather, and in the production of saltpeter, a component of gunpowder. People had businesses, going about collecting from wherever animals and man relieved themselves, storing it and selling it. It could be quite lucrative, although never very socially acceptable. There was good reason leather tanners were usually banished to the outskirts of town.

Night soil, however, did not have very much resale value. Meat eaters like humans don’t produce good fertilizer. So from the very beginning of civilization, there have always been those whose job it was to collect and cart waste somewhere else.

Most medieval castles or wealthier homes had garderobes; privy rooms in closets, where waste materials fell into a pit or midden, or worse, into a body of water. People who didn’t have these rooms often dumped their waste from the chamber pot into the streets.

It’s a wonder they didn’t all die of plague, and but for the nightsoil men, they might have. These individuals cleaned both animal and human waste from the streets, alleys, middens, sewers and trenches, and carted it out of town. Far out of town. Outside of London, one pile o’ poo was seven and a half acres wide, and was called “Mount Pleasant.”

As time went on through the centuries, the aristocracy in Europe began to once again embrace the bathtub. We find elaborate and costly tubs carved out of all kinds of stone in the palaces, country homes and city mansions of royalty and the gentry.

Very chic, and very hedonistic and naughty! By the 17th century, when Europeans began settling in North America in large amounts, the bathtub for your average home was a portable tub made of wood, lined with steel. It was brought out before the fire and hearth, and filled with heated water.

The whole family would take turns bathing in the same water, which would only then be dumped. This was usually a once a week affair, usually Saturday night, and everyone had a bath, if they needed one or not.

The homes of this time had privies in the back yard. By the beginning of the 19th century, when homes were being built in Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, and the other early settlements of New York City, there were no bathrooms in these houses.

There was the tub stored in the pantry, and a chamber pot under every bed, and the privy out back. This would not change until the dawn of the miracle of indoor plumbing, in the 1850’s.

Next time: Thomas Crapper, we salute thee! A continuation of the history of the modern bathroom.

Ancient Pompeii privy. Photo: bathroomhelp.co.uk

Garderobe shafts, English castle. Photo: geograph.org.uk

18th century Nightcart Man. Illustration: Wikipedia

19th century bath. Illustration: thesun.uk

The Royal Chamberpot at Versailles. Photo: travelpod.com

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