When Did We Start Showering Standing Up?

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From the mundane to the quirky and outdated, Here's the Thing explores the histories and legends of the objects in our homes.

Lower Manhattan was, in the late 19th century, a dirty place. Street cleaning was irregular, apartments were small, and indoor plumbing wouldn't become required by law until 1901 (and even then, many tenement buildings got just one toilet per floor).

If you wanted to get clean, you had a few options — one was to take a bath at home, in a tub filled with water warmed on the stove. But in big, busy families, such soaks were far from luxurious. Your best bet, if you wanted to wash, was to head to one of the public bathhouses dotting neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. For a nickel, you'd be guaranteed a few minutes of (mostly) warm water, a small piece of soap, and a towel (though you wouldn't get to keep it). The bathhouses, throughout the first decade of the 1900s, were wildly popular — at one bathhouse on Rivington Street, an especially hot day nearly caused a riot amongst would-be bathers.

The Asser-Levy Public Baths building, on East 23rd St. in Manhattan.

Bathhouses in New York were strictly the domain of the working classes. Uptown, the wealthy were still bathing in copper and porcelain tubs, filled by servants and later via taps connected to the city's water supply system.

That's because the shower, despite its ubiquity in American households now, wasn't especially popular upon its debut in the mid-1700s. In 1767, a stove maker named William Feetham patented a shower meant to be pumped by hand (the idea was that a servant would do the pumping). This would have held huge appeal for servants, who would, if Feetham's invention caught on, be spared the task of hauling heavy buckets of water up and down staircases each time their employers wanted to bathe.

Drawing of William Feetham's shower patent, c. 1767

Amongst those likely to use the shower, Feetham's shower held less appeal — not only was it constructed to recycle the same water over and over (so: not actually very clean), there was no way to heat the water, meaning it was cold showers only for anyone who dared to install one. This wasn't entirely unpalatable — in The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, historian Katherine Ashenburg notes that writer Charles Dickens had a cold shower installed in his London home, telling a friend that a cold shower was "a positive necessary of life."

As improvements on Feetham's design continued to be made in the 19th century, the focus of showering was one of economics — unlike costly (and inconvenient) baths, a shower was a way to get large numbers of people clean quickly and cheaply, which is why many early shower prototypes were installed in places like boarding schools and military barracks.

In 1883, the Berlin Public Health Exhibition called the shower "the simplest, quickest, cheapest, cleanest, and withal best bath for people's bath houses; the one which requires the least space, the least time, the least amount of water, the least fuel for warming water, the least attendance, the least cost of maintenance."

Bathhouses sprung up in major cities, but showers in American homes took a little longer to catch on. Part of this lag was the difficulties of enforcing plumbing-related laws like New York's Tenement House Act — in 1940, according to the census, a full 44% of American homes still didn't have a bathtub or a shower connected to running water. As the 20th century moved forward, and access to running water became more of a given, especially for Americans leaving cities and moving to single-family homes in the suburbs, the shower became not just more palatable but a regular part of bathroom design. In 1954, Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs postulated in a story on the plumbing industry that the industry "confidently predicts that the day is not far off when a bathroom and bathtub (with shower) will become a necessary adjunct to every bedroom in the home."

Bathroom image (with bathtub shower) from American Radiator & Standard Sanitary Corp. catalog, 1945.

Design, too, caught up with the interest in showering — in 1927, Kohler became the first company to introduce matching bathroom fixtures. Looking at plumbing fixture advertisements from the 20th century, showers slowly started to be integrated into bathtub suites, which is how we got the elaborate showers (rainforest-themed! Individual shower heads for five people! Light shows powered by water!) installed in many homes today.

While most of New York's public bathhouses have closed, there's still plenty of evidence that ample bathing space isn't always a given — see, for example, the number of apartments that come with showers ... in the kitchen.


Angela Serratore is a writer and historian whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Curbed, Lapham's Quarterly, Smithsonian Magazine, Buzzfeed, the Cut, and more.

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