Top Navigation

From the Docent: Victorian Era Hygiene

During the Victorian period, if you were wealthy, using your bedroom for bathing was normal during the 1800s. There would be a commode near your bed, the closet chair, with the pot hidden, or there would be a chamber pot. Placed near the bedroom furniture, you would have a washstand with bowl and accessories used for grooming. Water carriers used for washstands would be either a can, pitcher or jug. 

For bathing, you would enjoy the convenience of a hip tub, called a sitz (German for “to sit”) bath. This type of bath was where only the hips and buttocks were in the water. It’s as if you were sitting in a chair and you would bathe in a sitting position. These tubs came in large and medium sizes. The Victorian hip tub was made of varnished oak and marble. These conveniences, which were used in the bedrooms, were necessary because the bedrooms were warm, as the hallways were unheated.  Bathing was mostly sponge baths.

The hip tub was invented in 1842 in Malvern, England, where it was famous for the discovery of the curative powers of spring water. Bottled and shipped all over England throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, doctors prescribed the water to their patients. Clinics were set up for hydrotherapy in Malvern. This type of tub was invented to be part of the program for patients going to hydrotherapy at the clinics. The sitz bath was thought to help with things like digestive problems, liver obstruction, constipation and hemorrhoids.

America was behind Europe in plumbing. Chamber pots and outhouses were the norm. In the 1800s, with the importation of cast iron pipes, the plumbing improved in America. By 1883, John Michael Kohler invented the bathtub in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He created a horse trough out of cast iron and attached four decorative feet and covered it with an enamel finish. His company, the Kohler Company, made products out of steel and cast iron. The Crane Company invented many bathroom fixtures, such as sinks and faucets, in the U.S. in 1928.

A legend has it that President William Taft, being such a large man, got stuck in his bathtub. He was quite a large man at 350 pounds and had multiple bathtubs made especially for him. One was 7 feet long, 41 inches wide and weighed a ton.

In Europe, the claw foot was popular with the wealthy for years. With a boom in construction, about one percent of households had claw foot tubs in 1921 in America. Rural areas still had outhouses. Finally, the apron-front drip-in bathtub was in the modern home from 1930-1950.  They were acrylic and fiberglass, as they were easier to install rather than the Victorian claw foot.

On the back porch of the James E. Merrill House Museum is the full-size wash tub used for bathing the children. In the master bedroom of the Merrill House, you will find a hip tub. Being so low to the ground, this tub is extremely hard to get out of. Wanting to experience what it felt like, I sat in the tub. It was comfortable but I had to tilt the tub on its side for me to get out.  Thank goodness no water. When the Merrill House was enlarged in 1886 in this Eastlake Victorian design, the only running water in this four-bedroom house was the kitchen sink!

We welcome you to visit the James E. Merrill House Museum and see the many items on display. They all have a story.

Nancy Gandy
Merrill House Museum Coordinator

Copyright © 2019 by Jacksonville Historical Society

THE JACKSONVILLE HISTORY CENTER