A Brief History of American Bathing

As we pointed out last week, Life Free or Die is more or less a show about the cool crafts, structures and appliances you can build without the need for such modern luxuries as electronic power tools and handymen. Tonight’s episode delivers on the promise of household appliances reborn sans-tech: in the opening sequence, outdoorsman Gabe demonstrates how his makeshift bath, complete with its own warming and water collection system, works.

Historically, bathing is not necessarily in the outdoorsmen canon – in the days of Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett, few bathed. But while the “rugged frontiersman” lifestyle falls somewhere high on the spectrum of iconic Americanness, so too does bathing. In fact, contemporary bathing habits and more extreme expressions of personal cleanliness are a uniquely American export.

The United States didn’t start out this way. Throughout colonization and the first century of the nation, few bathed regularly or used soap. There were wash basins and tin baths dragged out occasionally to be shared by each member of a family, one after the other. The modern bathing and hygiene revolution really took off in the mid-19th century as a sort of war of amenities for the rich. According to Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, architects at this time began incorporating bathrooms into floor plans and designs. High-end hotels in Boston and New York at this time also began competing to build the best plumbing systems to support luxury bathrooms and washrooms.

These architectural improvements facilitated bathing as the country became more concerned with hygiene as a public health issue. During the Civil War, many doctors and public health officials realized the value of washing patients as a way of cutting down on disease. Ashenburg hypothesizes that this helped encourage a more widespread acceptance of bathing as a cheap way of improving health in society. And while these achievements were necessary improvements on the status quo, it was the creation of the first modern sewage system in Brooklyn that brought plumbing to the urban masses, democratizing the bath. According to the Economist, public bath houses were created, partially as a xenophobic measure to clean up poor European immigrants, who some thought were more unclean. Bath house products soon became more mainstream – a few years after the sewage project was completed, Proctor and Gamble patented their iconic ivory soap bar.

Then came the ads. Ashenburg points out that the rise of bathing in the 19th century also coincided with massive advertising campaigns to introduce Americans hygienic products, while 1930’s advertisers played on the fear of social embarrassment as a motivator to clean up. In, soap makers bought so much ad time on domestic radio melodramas in the early 20th century that the genre of romantic and dramatic serials they sponsored became known as soap operas.

But where once bathing was a miracle to help cleanse America from diseases, we may have overmedicated. Some studies show that too much bathing is not only environmentally damaging – it also weakens our immune system.


  1. Louis Matos
    United States
    October 28, 2014, 12:46 pm

    Thank you for that little (tibett), very very interesting, love it!

  2. Chaliq
    November 2, 2014, 11:35 am

    The Romans had sewage systems & bathing long before America was known to anyone but the people already living there. If so many people didn’t jam themselves into cities & spread more out across the land we wouldn’t have had the Black Plague in the middle ages.

  3. Seema Tiwari
    February 17, 2016, 6:44 am

    What a interesting information, This is first time for me. Actually i know well before the American bathing process is much better than Roman. But we can say that the American bathroom interior is also much better than Roman bathroom interior. In both of countries the bathroom products has various design and they purchase it on offline and online store. In India peoples is also going to purchase bathroom products like washbasins, soap dish, paper holder etc from http://www.supplified.com