Clawfoot Bathtub History and the Evolution of Modern Bathing

Clawfoot tubs have long been associated with elegance, glamor and relaxation. They also exude a certain sense of nostalgia and old-world charm that instantly lifts the appeal of any bathroom. But why is it that these bathing fixtures are seen as oh so elegant? And where did they come from in the first place?

Read on to learn more about the history of bathing and of this timeless bathroom staple.

The Origins of Bathing

To understand the history of the bathtub, it’s key to know more about the role of bathing over time. Bathing has always been an important aspect of humankind. While our oldest ancestors often gathered in rivers or running streams, communal bath houses were actually the most popular way to bathe throughout history. In fact, ruins from many of these public bath houses remain some of the oldest and most interesting representations of early bathing.

Courtney Stanley at Culture Trip points to 10 public bathhouses and historical bathing sites that can be visited in cities across the world. These include the bathhouses, hot springs and natural pools in places like Turkey, Japan, Chile and Iceland. While it’s clear that people have enjoyed the mental and physical benefits of bathing for quite some time, the exact date and place of the first actual bathtub remains unclear.

Ancient Baths

There are some clues that can point us in the right direction, though. For one, Becky Goddard-Hill at A Beautiful Space points out that earliest records of bathtubs date back 6,000 years to the Indus River Valley in South Asia. Copper water pipes found in these Bronze Age ruins indicate that the palace had an early form of plumbing. This suggests that the people were bringing water into the palace to bathe, much as we do today.

The ancient Romans are another civilization whose remains show early evidence of bathing, according to Helias Taliadoros at TMI Sustainable Aquatics. In the Sparta area of what is now Greece, the concept of hot baths was developed. Rather than using plumbing systems to keep water warm, however, it was heated directly through coals or hot rocks before being poured into the bathing basin.

It is also believed that Greek inventor Archimedes discovered water displacement while soaking in a bath. Supposedly, as Miss Cellania points out in an article at Mental Floss, Archimedes noticed the water rising and falling as he got into and out of the tub. This helped him understand how to calculate volume, a critical element of modern physics.

clawfoot tub - bathtub history

The Role of Culture and Religion in Bathing

Religion and culture have both played a large part in the history of bathing. Different belief systems require certain types of bathing at specific frequencies, all of which influenced how and where public baths were built.

In Morocco, for example, a hammam is a public bathing house that exists as a basic public service in every community. To adhere to certain Islamic ablutions and cleanliness standards, these baths consist of a steam room, a warm bathing room and a cold room for exiting.

Similarly, in Japanese guest houses, it is important to cleanse one’s body in a pool before bathing. Japanese Guest Houses explains that in Japan, taking a bath is much more popular than taking a shower. Bathing is seen as a method of relaxation, rather than just a way to get clean; it allows the bather to enter a place of peaceful peace and mindfulness, which is a key part of everyday cultural values in Japan.

Tub Design

If we fast-forward to the early 18th century, we can get a feel for when clawfoot tubs specifically became a mainstream item.

Design historian Rebecca Gross explains that clawfoot details first emerged during this period on chairs, tables and other furniture. The craftspeople who likely invented these feet later applied the technique to bathtubs as tubs became more popular and fashionable in the 1800’s.

In the middle of the century, clawed feet as a design detail became so posh that they even emerged on showers. Interior designer Grace Mitchell at The Storied Style shows a number of shower stalls with elegant feet from days gone past. While this trend hasn’t lasted like the clawfoot tub has, it shows just how powerful of an influence clawfoot tubs have had on bathroom design throughout the years.

As for what these elegant fixtures are made of, Blake Lockwood at Decor Snob says the bathtub feet can be made from a variety of materials. The most popular include chrome, gold and bronze. However, satin nickel, pewter, and brushed metal have also proven to be popular in more recent decades.

When clawfoot tubs first emerged in the 19th century, they were made from cast iron and lined with porcelain. Maggie Burch at Southern Living explains that this was because cast iron helped retain heat, keeping bath water warmer longer and allowing bathers to enjoy theirs baths for longer periods of time. Since cast iron can also be heavy, however, revivals of the classic tub design are often made from acrylic or fiberglass.

hot spring - bathtub history

The Modern Bathtub

As we now know, the idea of private bathing wasn’t really popular with our ancestors. It was considered a luxury only afforded to the rich and powerful until quite recently, the Seattle Bathtub Guy explains. It all changed in the mid-nineteenth century, when attitudes about bathing and about the bathroom itself began to change.

Kate Wagner at Atlas Obscura specifically pinpoints the rise of the modern bathtub and master bathroom to 1986, when International Collection of Interior Design trade magazine issued this statement: “The era of the utilitarian, puritanical bathroom is over and now it is returning to center stage as the place for luxurious, sophisticated relaxation in the home.”

Financial and broadcast journalist Daniel Goldstein sees this same sentiment echoing strongly today, with many people upgrading their bathrooms for a more luxurious space. Master bathrooms are expanding to become closer to the size of the master bedroom itself. Expanding the size of the bathroom enables room for elegant luxuries like a clawfoot tub while boosting the overall value of the home, two must-haves among many modern homeowners.

In addition to bathrooms getting larger and more luxurious, the bathtub itself is seeing a major shift. In particular, more people are experimenting with where the bathtub should be placed. As ID Latinia Interior Design Studio explains, the bathtub has even found a home inside some master bedrooms. Outdoor baths are also becoming more popular, with elegant freestanding tubs appearing on terraces and in gardens.

This is exemplified in a roundup of bathtubs around the world, curated by Stephanie Wu for Travel + Leisure. From safari camps with deluxe soaking tubs to spa-like bathtubs on boats and freestanding tubs on island retreats, the idea of where and when people can bathe has changed dramatically since the early days of public bathing.

Images by: leungchopan/©123RF Stock Photo, kryzhov/©123RF Stock Photo, James Vaughan