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An Ancient Luxury Becomes a Modern Morning Necessity

A Look at the Cascading Evolution of the Shower

Count yourself lucky for living in the modern world. If you’re like most people, you begin every day by taking for granted something that was not even available to some of the most wealthy and powerful people throughout history -- a shower.

Today, going without a shower for even a day is out of the question for most people, and to not shower for a week or more would be unthinkable. But most of us have ancestors who probably shunned bathing to the greatest extent possible. Even the Romans, who loved to bathe, took their baths in stagnant pools of dirty water that they shared with hundreds of their fellow citizens. They had no concept of bacteria of course.

In ancient times, the best a rich or royal person could do was to have a servant dump cold water over them as they stood in a basin -- hardly a relaxing experience by modern standards.

Today, manufacturers spend millions finding ways to make water do magical things in order to make showering a luxurious, invigorating and revitalizing experience.

The soothing massage of a specially engineered stream of hot water is what people seek in their showers today. We spend a lot of time figuring out how to make water create the sensation of a massage when designing shower fixtures Making the water droplets larger makes them feel warmer and the increased speed and movement of each drop gives the sensation of higher flow and higher pressure.”

You don’t get that sort of feeling from your average ancient servant with a bucket.

But, at various times throughout history, ancient cultures have embraced the notion of showering for cleansing. During excavation of the Egyptian city of Akhenaten at Tel-el-Amarna, which dates back to 1350 B.C., a small bathroom was found. Lawrence Wright's "Clean & Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the Water-Closet" reports that it was determined from the design of the basin, complete with splashbacks, that it was a simple form of a shower. It is believed that the water was most likely poured on the bather from servants holding vases.

Babylon had a series of aqueducts (the earliest ones on record) laboriously maintained to provide the well-to-do with water for their bathrooms. While the common people were bathing and washing clothes on the banks of canals or in cisterns, King Nebuchandnezzar (605 to 562 B.C.) bathed in a shower room where, you guessed it, slaves poured water over him as he washed with soap made of ashes and animal fat. The plumbing was advanced enough that a drainpipe took away the wastewater, something modern plumbers wouldn't accomplish until the 19th century.

In ancient Greece, citizens took outdoor showers by standing under a stream of water coming from spouts found on the sides of large fountains built in the cities. Grecian vases with paintings of people showering in this manner were found by archaeologists.

Unfortunately, the Western world’s showering advancements stopped when people began to think that bathing itself was not altogether necessary. Queen Isabella of Spain, who funded the voyage of Christopher Columbus, was proud of the fact she had taken only two showers in her lifetime. In fact, early Christians equated bathing with vanity and avoided it in order to be more holy. St. Francis of Assisi listed dirtiness as one of the signs of a holy person, St. Catherine of Siena avoided washing, and St. Agnes, who died at the age of 13, had never taken a bath.

Eventually, cleanliness began to come into vogue again, but only long after a third of Europe had succumbed to the Plague. In 1598, bathing rooms were added to Windsor Castle in London. It was here that Queen Elizabeth took a bath once a month whether she needed to or not.

As recently as 1812, bathing was looked upon as frivolous. When the Lord Mayor of London requested a simple shower bath in the mansion house, he was turned down by the Common Council on the grounds that no one had ever wanted one before. It would take 20 more years before one would be installed.

Showers, as we know them today without the pouring servants, came into use in the late 18th century. The first patent for a shower was granted in 1767 and owned by William Feetham. The earliest showers usually had a hand pump and became popular because they required a smaller water supply.

Showers had other advantages over the commonplace bathtubs. They were smaller, taking up less room in already tight areas, and they were cheaper to install. With showers, servants had a wider area to clean, but they also had less wastewater to carry away.

But by far the biggest drawback of the shower was the cold water shock that accompanied pulling the cord on the overhead tank. That reason alone kept many people in baths until the advent of piped hot water. They reasoned it was easier to slowly drop into a tub of cold water than to pull the cord and let it rain down upon them.

This shower Renaissance was brought on, in great part, by doctors prescribing water cures to their patients. The water was applied in a number of ways, including the Rain Bath -- simply a shower where the patient would walk in and the doctor would pull the cord on the nozzle to shower the patient.

Lawrence Wright includes this quote: ”It is no rare thing to see a subject who at this first shower betrays actual terror, shouts, struggles, runs away, experiences frightening suffocation and palpitation; and it is not rare to hear him say, after a moment, 'so that's all it is.'"

Shortly thereafter, showers started becoming commonplace. The plumbing industry responded with what some consider the first designer shower, the English Regency Shower. This 12-foot-high luxury shower was made of metal painted to look like bamboo. At its base was a basin with a drain and above it was a tank. A hand pump forced water from the basin into the tank and then over the bather's head. The main drawback of this design was that the same water re-circulated over the bather.

In the 1830s, another unique showering device hit the market, the American Virginia Stool Shower. This all-wood device resembled a quality piano stool with a rotating seat. Placed in the bathtub, the Shower Stool had a hand-operated lever that pumped water from the tub and over the bather's head and back. A scrub brush, attached to a vertical pipe, could be worked up and down the user's body with the accompanying foot pedal.

Advances in plumbing in the mid-1800s led to advancements in showering capabilities. It was about this time that plumbers began making freestanding showers with both hot and cold water.

In 1879, Warren Wasson and Charles Harris, of Carson City, Nev., patented a shower that required the bather to maintain a constant treading motion with the feet to operate a pump which recirculated water from the tub.

William Luther's 1891 shower patent in which a pump compressed air in a reservoir to force water up to a showerhead came into being. In 1882 was the first appearance of Ewart's Improved Spray Bath with no fewer than 10 controls that manipulated various body sprays.

In 1889, J. L. Mott Iron Works followed suit, offering a unit that could shower the bather from every angle. The company's catalog touted that the shower would provide for the bather "needle, shower, descending douche, liver spray and bidet" functions. Other manufacturers got in on the act and provided a variety of showering options like multiple heads, waterfall spouts and body sprays.

The desires of the showering public really haven't changed much when you compare these antique showers with shower suites available today. We’ve just gotten better at delivering what the consumer wants.

There are still waterfall spouts, rain-like showerheads and body sprays.

The biggest difference between showers of the 19th and 21st centuries is that today, the pipes are behind the walls and the hot water is a little more reliable. For the hot water, we can thank Edwin Ruud, founder of the Ruud Manufacturing Company, who in 1898 invented the automatic storage water heater. No longer would it be necessary to begin boiling water well in advance of a bath, or stand under the shower awaiting the shock of frigid water.

In fact, today's showering technology has even been able to remove the dreaded shock that accompanies the untimely flushing of a toilet or running of the kitchen faucet when another household member is in the shower.

Shortly after the shower renaissance in the late 19th century, showers moved back to being thought of as strictly utilitarian devices and the fancy designs disappeared until the 1980s when manufacturers began responding to the desires of their customers for more versatility in the shower.

Today, manufacturers are continually coming up with advances in showering technology. Manufacturers are constantly working on ways to deliver the optimal shower to keep the showering public clean as well as happy.

Or, you could just get yourself a servant and a bucket!

 

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