A small history of bathrooms
By Geneviève Lacroix
To bathe or not to bathe?
Presenting the Middle Ages as squalid, where our ancestors positively wallowed in their own filth, terrified of water and cleanliness gives a murky, unhealthy image which has now been totally discredited. More to the point, there is no basis for it. This is a 19th century fabrication by historians imbued with progressive attitudes and keen to put their own era in a positive light. They imagined the Middle Ages to be primitive, underdeveloped, dirty and grotesque so their own time would thus emerge greater by comparison.
In reality, the 19th century was characterized by a crucial issue – an urban proletariat – a brand new phenomenon. Hordes of uprooted people swarmed into city centres and suburbs which were singularly unable to cope, causing slums and squalor.
Such low standards of living and health were quite simply unimaginable in the Middle Ages where people had respect for human beings and their bodies, believing them to be created in God’s image. Whether or not he was a fervent believer, medieval man held his body in high esteem, because it symbolized the purity of his soul. Outer appearance and inner essence were inseparable. Public baths were well frequented. They were generally mixed, recreational places where it was possible to unwind, relax, meet friends and acquaintances, neighbours and business contacts in agreeable and pleasant, not to say bawdy, circumstances.
The wiping of a towel
The Renaissance brings new medical knowledge and practices in its wake. This gives rise to the concept of the individual, and a more private, intimate and complex relationship with the human body is born. People fear that contact with water will dilate the pores of their skin and make them receptive to the miasmas prevalent in the surrounding atmosphere. From now on, only towels will be used for sponging off the “humours” emanating from the body. Perfumes used to mask bad odours must also serve to destroy the miasmas in the air. People walk round enveloped in scent for their own benefit and as a protection from others.
Hot and cold, pleasure or renewed strength?
It is only at the beginning of the 18th century that baths come back into fashion. Hot baths usher in the trend, although they are difficult to prepare as even the most modern palaces are not equipped with running water. They are also costly, as the transportation and heating of water requires a lavish outlay in terms of servants and resources. Hot baths become a byword for luxury, with all their attendant sensuality and latent eroticism.
Conversely, cold baths come into vogue soon afterwards. The occasional dip in the river show a concern to toughen up the body, skin and muscles, and reflect the willpower of the swimmer. It is of course common knowledge that the most robust amongst us do not need to do this. Cold baths are simply a stimulating and radical way to combat the relaxation and sense of languor created by hot baths and their implicit moral laxity. General health rather than cleanliness is at stake.
In the latter half of the 18th century, technical and scientific progress made personal hygiene easier and more “fashionable” but this was the prerogative of the wealthy and enlightened. Small “cabinets de toilette” began to make their appearance in some houses right next to bedrooms, but rare were those with a bath. Baths are taken in independent establishments that begin to spring up in cities and are patronised only by “forward-thinkers” with liberal, innovative ideas. Some specialists develop a baths at home business: they come to the client’s home with the equipment and toiletries required and take the portable bath away with them when ablutions are over.
Tub or shirt?
The 19th century had an almost scary relationship with the body. Either washing oneself all over is not done, or it is limited to a cursory wash of what can be seen, i.e. the hands and face or again people wash themselves in a shirt, even when quite alone.
General improvements in the supply of water, increased private rentals, and more modern methods for the evacuation of waste water/sewage, lead to a gradual increase in baths and greater water consumption. Using a tub is an easy intermediate solution; it is relatively cheap, involves reduced water and heating costs and is an invigorating experience upholding moral propriety as wallowing is not an option.
The fight against bugs continues
Louis Pasteur’s discovery of microbes caused a wave of terror in the enlightened society of his day. These tiny, invisible, threatening and unpredictable organisms gorge themselves silly on dirt. Washing is now an act of resistance, a question of hygiene and preventive medical measure. Sensuality has nothing to do with it.
Private houses and mansions begin to install bathrooms on a more regular basis. Where washrooms usually just had a basin, these new bathrooms were often built next to kitchens to make the most rational use of water, electricity and gas installations.
The moralistic and hygiene-oriented trends adopted by the “benefactors” of the poor, led to the creation in cities of public baths targeting those for whom the very idea of a private bathroom was anathema.
César Ritz was the first hotel owner to provide a bathroom and WC for every room in his brand new establishment, the Ritz in the Place Vendôme in Paris, which opened in 1898. This was the very last word in luxury, modernity and hygiene, a very fashionable theme but not very prevalent in real terms at the time.
Le Palace Hotel in Place Rogier, Brussels, built in 1908-1909, was the first hotel in Belgium to provide every room with a real bathroom. Every room has air conditioning.
- Georges Vigarello, Le propre et le sale, L’hygiène du corps depuis le Moyen Âge, Seuil Histoire, Paris, 1985.
- Jean-Claude Bologne, Histoire de la pudeur, Paris, éd. Pluriel (O. Orban), 1986.