Baths and Bathtubs

I can vouch for only two people who take baths: my sister-in-law Mary and me. Not that I diss the shower — I take one every other day on shampoo morning.  If I have nostrils and sinuses blocked with concrete-like mucous in February, I’ll steam up the bathroom and stand under a hot shower until I can breathe again. Showers are good, but why, in the last fifty years, have they become the ne plus ultra for personal cleanliness? Especially, as was not the case on the farm when my father was a boy, we all have hot running water?

The McArthurs took stand-up baths daily, but Saturday was full-frontal, and dorsal , bath night. The tin bathtub was pulled into the kitchen, water was pumped, then heated on the wood stove. There was a bathing hierarchy: Gammy first, then my aunts Charlotte and Franny, then my father, his father, and last into the cooling suds, the Hired Man. I think this was typical for farming families in the twenties and thirties, and I cheer for my grandmother when they moved to the city and hot running water.

Mary learned about the bliss of the bathtub from my mother-in-law Pat. Every night, about nine o’clock, Pat would retire to the bathtub, her hairdo protected, and have a leisurely soak with a romance novel, soothing away the slings and arrows of an underpaid Catholic school teacher’s life. It was a daily event with a capital E, never skipped on the family calendar, sacrosanct. In fact, Pat considered showers as a guys -only enterprise. The most prim of women, she once told me: “Margaret, a woman can’t be really clean unless she takes a bath.” It’s a tribute to my innocence and her tact that it took me five years to figure out what she meant. (Dear mother-in-law in heaven, a woman can be really clean if she unhooks the shower head and blasts her lady bits, but well, you didn’t know about such things.)

Mary built on her mother’s instruction and raised the level of the bathwater. She’s the only person I know who springs the big bucks for the new Catherine Coulter or Danielle Steele in hardcover, and to her niece’s bemused eyes: wraps them in plastic wrap so they don’t suffer steam or water damage. When she and Ron built the house where she now bathes in Cleopatra-like splendor, Ron got a swell separate tiled shower, and she bought a sybaritic Whirlpool — the jets and the water temperature can be adjusted with a little toe-twiddling. There’s a window at tub level with a view of field and forest, Hollywood lighting over the marble double vanity, the same Saran-wrapped novels. It’s a temple to the bath.

It failed her after six months, but she had a warranty. The Whirlpool dude came out and told her that the motor was blown, an almost impossible failure. Then he asked her about her bathing style and she said something like: “Two and a half hours a day, seven days a week.”  That was pushing the machine beyond its limits, but she got her replacement motor. A couple of years ago she welcomed me into her watery paradise ,and I emerged clean, relaxed and drowsy a half hour later. She exclaimed:”But you just went in there! Only half an hour?!”

I have the cheapest builder fiberglass shower/bathtub combo popular in the early eighties. Come to think of it, with the notoriously rusty ‘Ville water, I should probably leap up and scrub it this minute, but of course I won’t. That tacky tub kept me going over twenty years of child-raising and career stress and failure. I’d lower my (considerably younger) bod into the warm tub, and lie on my back emptying all thoughts of Power Points, gas bills, Tween brattiness, and the curse of that navy Ford Escort. Scrubbing happened. Then I’d flip over onto my tummy and just lie still: if I ever prayed, it was then.

Honor as infant hated her bathtime: her tiny body squirmed in fury as I attempted to  apply the Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and caress her clean in the kitchen sink at 1208 W. Lexington. I can’t believe that I figured out the obvious. In that apartment we didn’t have a shower, only the classic claw-footed bathtub.

When Lou came home from work we filled up the tubbie, he sat down in it, and I handed him his three-month old daughter. Magic ensued. I wish I had a picture of that baby, her blonde ringlets emerging, lying against her father’s chest. But what I remember best is Lou’s adoption of her as a bath toy — he’d swirl her around in the warm eddies, making her giggle. He’d dip her up and down, wash her hair, then take her in a long trip around the tub’s perimeters. She cooed, he beamed.

You all know that I’m a DIY person on any project that doesn’t involve sweat or skill. I mix Dead Sea salts with bergamot essential oils. I’ve turned out bars of goat milk soap in Silpat molds in the shape of cartoon flowers. I need to figure out what to do with two pounds of dried rosebuds from Romania. But that’s just fun, although I swear by my eucalyptus soap in a hot shower in a Chicago February.

Wanna see some bathtub porn?

(Photo: DIY

This copper beauty:


I hear the usual dissidents:

  1. “Oh, yuck, you’re sitting in your own filth.” OK, if you’re so Calvinist that you think you’re filthy, do it the Japanese way and take a shower before or after  your spell in the tub.
  2. “I’ll have to clean the bathtub.” Well, yeah. My daughter said that one of the best things about staying in an hotel is that you can take a bath and someone else will clean up. She leaves a nice housekeeper’s tip.
  3. “It takes longer than a shower.” That’s the point: when you have the time, make the time.
  4. “I get cleaner in a shower.” Not. Washing feet is much more efficient in a bath tub.

The Greeks, the Romans, the Turks, the Japanese all knew about the power of a tub of warm water. Ignorant as I am, they taught me that the bath ritual doesn’t require chanting, prayer, history or even soap. It only wants an abandonment to pleasure, of the cheapest and cheeriest kind.



Filed under Body, Free, History, Home, Scent

9 responses to “Baths and Bathtubs

  1. Kelly

    Oh, lordy. I go to open houses just to look at the bathrooms. I’m a bather, last one, just this past Saturday eve. And Maeve’s dad did that with her, too. I have a great photo of her asleep on his chest in the bath. She was a bit colic-y. It calmed her.

    Great post!

    • I’m so flattered, Kelly. Thank you. I’m too old to be current on the parenting books, but I know babies like floating on that wide Sargasso amniotic sea that is a deep, warm bathtub.

  2. sparrowgrass

    I am a bath person, too, at least in the winter. In the summer, I spend an hour or two every day in the pool–so all I need is a shampoo.

    If I ever win the lottery, the first thing I will buy is a hot tub. And then, assuming I win big, a pool house.

  3. My last bath was in 2001. We’d gone to close up the Alabama house, for we’d persuaded Caro to come here to be near us—we’d bought THIS house with the thought that SOME of the children might make use of some of this space.

    The tub down in AL was immense, in a way-down-the-hall garden bathroom with fluffy carpeting (of the Christmas Champagne/ants infamy), and it was SO soakable, with soft music and candlelight and my favorite lavender bubbles. In Winter, my after-dinner-dishes event was a long soak with a book, sometimes with a mug of cap or cocoa to hand on the wide tub rim.

    I just don’t TRUST hotel tubs, somehow, even though we travel with spray cleaners, etc., and just never give a thought to whiling away the time in a hot bath.

    I’m tapering off from my three-showers-a-day habit of the Summer, (and sometimes, just to freshen up a wee bit from the hot kitchen, a quick sloosh between finishing up dinner, and sitting down to eat) for we have the best big all-tile bathroom (you could actually open the door and hose it down, fixtures, floor and all), with a huge rainshower head and rows of lovely scented goodies and sponges and scrubbers.

    Some of our neighbors down next to the railroad “took in” railroad men for a night’s rest and their supper, and provided a big sun-heated barrel of water on top of the garden shed, which provided several showers worth down onto the slanty, greening wooden floor. In my bathtub-only childhood, I LONGED to stand under that thing and try it out.

    And unless it’s a REALLY frosty night, with the moon just right and that cocoa silky perfection, I don’t think I’ll crave a bath for another nine years.

  4. Patty

    We have never been tub people as you know, I have heard your brother-in-law make that comment ‘sitting in dirty water’. When we built our mtn house, none of its 6 residents ever took baths, so we built the house with 4 bathrooms, not one had a tub. ( I didn’t want to clean them.) For relaxation we put in an outdoor hot tub, but that really didn’t count. So over the last years we realized if we wanted to ever sell the house we better install some bathtubs. One got a jacuzzi and a 2nd bathroom got a soaking tub… I can count the number of times they were used on one hand, but they sure look beautiful. All I ever needed to do was dust them.

  5. Kim Shook

    Me, me !!! I adore baths! I shower for speed, but bathe for relaxation and luxury. I decant something that smells lovely, pour a big glass of my favorite drink, grab my current mystery, pile something sweet and something salty on a plate and soak for hours, periodically using my big toe to trickle in additional hot water. My only sorrow is that I have promised not to smoke on the second floor (bedroom level) and I so miss that luxury. I used to bathe a lot more – when I was young and somehow even MORE uncoordinated than I am now, I found it impossible to shave standing up. And like Miss Pat I worried about the problem of CLEANLINESS in a shower without a handheld shower head (that cracked me up). In fact I still don’t feel completely rinsed in a fixed head shower stall!

    I drool over the amazing bathrooms and beautiful tubs on HGTV! And reminisce about the gorgeous, huge claw foot tubs in my otherwise bedraggled and begrimed college/post college apartments. Odd that when I was poorer, I was more pampered. I remember baby Jessica floating peacefully in one of them and even taking little underwater swims (this was during the ‘Water Babies’ craze when you would blow in their faces and dunk them – I was an idiot).

  6. Kim and Kelly: Isn’t it so amazing that in our young child raising years a big warm tubby solved and soothed? Babies, bathtubs and fathers just go together.

  7. sparrowgrass

    My older boy was always a water baby–loved the pool, loved the lake, loved his ‘nice hot bass’, where he would stay til the water was cold and his lips were blue.

    When I took him to the lake, his first move was to say, “I going to the deep water” and run in until just his little nose stuck out. I had to stick close, because he was at the mercy of any passing swimmer or errant breeze, but he loved it.

    One day at home, I found him sitting on his potty chair in the (empty) bathtub. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was the lifeguard.

  8. Kim Shook

    I love that image, sparrowgrass!

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