Comforts of Home


7. The Home Of The Porcelain Tub

'I AM very glad,' wrote Lord Chesterfield to young Mr. Stanhope, July 30, 1749, 'that my letter, with Dr. Shaw's opinion, has lessened your bathing; for, since I was born, I never heard of bathing four hours a day.'

Lord Chesterfield's surprise at the duration of his son's bath still leaves us wondering how that daily ablution was performed in 1749. Young Mr. Stanhope lived a long, long time before our Bath-Room Era, when every well-to-do home has a bath-room, and the daily bath is as natural a topic of conversation in polite society as the daily weather. He might, twenty years later, have gone to Dominicetti for the famous medicated bath which led Dr. Johnson to say to a gentleman who believed in it, 'Well, sir, go to Dominicetti, and get thyself fumigated, but be sure that the steam be directed at thy head for that is the peccant part.' Probably he bathed at home: a tin tub was brought by a menial into his apartment, filled with hot and cold water, tested for temperature, and the young man left alone with it. But, although this was better than no bath at all, it had serious disadvantages. When the water cooled, Mr. Stanhope had perforce to summon the menial, and either retire to his closet or remain sitting in his tub while the bath was reheated. Conventionally, I suppose, he was considered invisible to the menial. If he splashed he splashed on the carpet; and when the tub was carried away, however carefully, it left a damp spot. He had to hang his towel on one chair, and his clothes on another. His soap must have embarrassed him. According to all modern standards it was a makeshift kind of a bath.

We have changed all that. In every house is a bath-room, so much like the bath-room in every other house that a stranger guest feels more immediately at home there than anywhere else. We bathe daily, and talk about it in public: or, to be exact, many bathe, and even more talk. We have become skilled--I am referring, of course, to that important section of society whose members, often otherwise useless, all together establish the amenities of civilization--in leading conversation tactfully up to this topic. A few avoid it, but these are of a passing generation, and regard even the porcelain tub with disfavor. It is, so they say, dangerous: a treacherous, slippery contraption that you have to be careful getting in and out of. The mid-Victorian bath-room, with its painted tin tub built in by a carpenter, suits them better. If perchance their eyes fall on this essay, they will close the book hastily, perhaps destroy it, for in their time nice people did not talk, nor essayists write, about baths and bath-rooms. It was as much as ever if an author hinted, by some guarded, casual reference to soap when his hero came down to breakfast, that the dashing, well-groomed fellow had but just risen from a tub. Only heroes admittedly took morning baths. Occasionally a heroine may have--but wild horses couldn't have dragged the information out of her; and the boldest novelist would have held back from admitting that he knew anything about it. Indeed, how could he?

But a different point of view came in with the porcelain bath tub, which, as an advertisement so justly intimates, is less like a tub than like a great white china dish. One had to talk about it. It dignified the bath-room; it added beauty to bathing (which had hitherto depended entirely on the bather), and at the same time struck peremptorily that keynote of simplicity which has since remained the bath-room's distinguishing characteristic. The white purity of the tub forbids the introduction of any jarring note of unnecessary decoration: one cannot imagine a bath-room with pictures on the walls, a well-chosen bit of statuary in the window, and photographs on the shelf under the necessary mirror--except sometimes the photograph of the gentleman who invented the talcum powder. Even the rug that lies in front of the tub is always inscribed BATH, yet here, if anywhere, the home of the porcelain tub might be given a touch of originality. Another motto might be substituted for BATH.--'Welcome, Bather.' 'Dine and the world dines with you; bathe, and you bathe alone.' 'I am always drier on the other side,' etc. But the bath-room, after all, is nobody's single possession, and the motto that pleased one bather might seem a false note to another. Perhaps it is wiser to stick to BATH, and rest content with providing at their best those commonplaces which would have seemed such luxuries to Mr. Stanhope--the soap (imagine his delight) that floats, and the shower (imagine his astonishment) that simulates the fall of rain from heaven. I am surprised, however, that no manufacturer of porcelain bath-tubs has yet thought to embellish his product with the legend in golden letters: 'One for All--and All for One.'

I am speaking, you understand, of the bath-room ordinaire. There are, I believe, bath-rooms de luxe, in which the bather, soap and sponge in hand, gravely descends white marble steps into the bath. I have never done this myself; but I can see that gravely descending marble steps has more personal dignity about it than the commoner method of entering the bath by climbing over the side of the tub. It is like a low white wall: and only a little imagination is necessary to feel that there may be a sign somewhere,--

No Bathing in This Tub.
Police Take Notice.

But the gain is temporary. Sooner or later, in either case, the bather must sit down--and where then is his personal dignity? I have read also of bath-tubs made of glass; but here the effort to attain distinction is too transparent. And then there is a patent combination kitchen-and-bath-room: quite rare: I hardly know how to describe it: perhaps an excerpt from the unpublished novel 'Mary Brogan':--

'Mary felt tired, too tired to go out to the movies. The "words" that had passed between her and Mrs. Montgomery that morning, justified as Mary felt in her unwillingness to have another woman's child messing about in her kitchen--although smacking little Albert had perhaps been a too objective way of expressing this natural disinclination--had distressed a native refinement which it would have surprised haughty Mrs. Montgomery to be told was greater in her cook than in herself. Albert had been properly smacked, and there should have been an end of it. Nevertheless Mary Brogan felt tired. Was this all of life--smacking Albert and "rowing" with his mother? She finished washing and wiping the dishes slowly, put them away in the pantry, and sat down by the stove. It seemed as if there was really nothing left in the world that a girl could do to amuse herself.

'All at once, as if the friendly stove had suggested it, Mary remembered that this was her night to take a bath.

'Mary Brogan's kitchen was provided with a remarkable invention to economize space and encourage a hygienic habit. Most of the time it was a sink for Mary to wash the dishes, Monday it was a couple of convenient laundry tubs for Mary to wash the clothes, and once a week it was a fine large porcelain bath-tub for Mary to wash herself. Mary called it the "Three in Wan." She locked the doors and pulled down the window shades, so that she could neither be interrupted from within the house nor observed from without. And then, going to the sink, she turned the cosy kitchen into a laundry, and the laundry into a bath-room.'

Such bath-rooms, fortunately, remain exceptions to a desirable rule of uniformity. The bath-room de luxe is rare: it is possible that you, gentle reader, may gravely descend those marble steps, but it is very unlikely. Mary Brogan's bath-room (which, by the way, revives the colonial custom of bathing in the wash-tub) is a tour de force of invention that is obviously inconvenient for general family use. The glass tub is more dangerous. It appeals to the fancy with its indirect suggestion of Cinderella's slipper. Here and there already a householder has installed one; and the stranger guest feels stranger than ever when he takes a bath in it. One might get used to it, much as one would at first feel like a goldfish without room enough to swim; but there should be no rivalry between glass and porcelain. The tin tub passes: let the bath-tubs of the future be all of porcelain or all of glass.

Let us then tacitly agree to preserve the fine and simple integrity of the bath-room, with its slight, almost unnoticeable variations in wall-paper and the choice and arrangement of its normal impedimenta. Surely we do not want the home of the porcelain tub to express any single, compelling, individual personality: to say, in effect, 'I am H. Titherington Lee's bath-room,' or 'Betty Martin's,' rather than, as now, 'I am the Bath-Room.' Let Mr. Lee, if he will, have his initials, H. T. L., in gold on his tooth-brush: but let him not have them lettered on the white porcelain of the tub, or woven, instead of BATH, into the rug in front of it.

Uniformity, indeed, might comfortably be carried a little further, so that all bath-rooms should be equally warm and sunny of a winter's morning. One might think, sometimes, that people who build houses had considered the bath-room after everything else. The plans seem complete, and yet there is a vague conviction that something important has been left out. They go over them again and again, room by room: surely everything is as it should be--but the vague conviction still haunts them, and they have to put it out of their minds by force. The house is built: they move in, and somebody decides to take a bath. He starts for the bath-room. Presently his voice is heard, annoyed, astonished, and finally alarmed, anxiously shouting for the rest of the family. Together they go over the house from top to bottom. There is no bath-room! Luckily, on the coldest side of the house and far away from the furnace, there is a small hall bedroom intended for an emergency. The emergency has arrived: the hall bedroom is called for. In the shortest possible time the nearest plumber and carpenter make it over into a home for the tub.

But the ideal bath-room will have a southeasterly exposure, and the new-risen sun, that saw young Adam bathing in the Garden of Eden, will look cheerily in and add a sun bath. Place it not too near the guest chamber, for your guest is not sorry to be met on his way thither, clad in that gorgeous and becoming robe in which otherwise you will never see him. And do not clutter it, as some do, with extraneous objects. I remember a bath-room in which stood incongruously a child's rocking-horse. It gave the tub a kind of instability: and every time I looked at the rocking-horse, it seemed to rock.