Observations on the way to the bathroom - part 1
by Thomas Wagner
Mar 4, 2009

A bathroom is a bathroom is a bathroom is a... It would only be as simple as that if we existed in a total present without a past and a future. Yet who wants to give themselves over to such a sad illusion? Cultures change, and our behavior, our desires, preferences and things change with them. Generally however, the transformation is not radical; everything does not suddenly become different. Rather, what changes are the constellations in which generally constant social or aesthetic fundamental attitudes interrelate with each other. It sounds abstract, but actually isn't - as shown by several cultural historical aspects of bathing.

"Different times", writes Sigfried Giedion laconically in his hitherto unsurpassed cultural historical study "Mechanization Takes Command" of 1948, "had very different views on the essence and purpose of the bathroom. How they fit the bathroom into the cultural whole and the kind of bathing they preferred sheds light on the essence of an era". Does this mean we, too, are to see our era from the point of view of the bathroom? Perhaps this is not such a bad idea. At least it can't hurt if we try to see bathing as it is practiced today, in our time, from the viewpoint of the development of the bathing culture. So let's find out a little about what the bathroom was in times gone by and the ideas which have become associated with it. So let's set out, with Sigfried Giedion's help, on our way to the bathroom, to the bathroom of our time - if this even exists.

Giedion initially differentiates between types of regeneration and at the same time offers a concise sketch of the development of bathing: "The ancient world, Islam and to a certain extent also the Medieval world classified human regeneration among the incontrovertible social obligations. In the Renaissance this attitude began to falter, leading 17th and 18th-century society to virtually forget personal hygiene altogether. As the 18th century progressed, people gradually started to remember earlier times. In the 19th century, which observed so many epochs, the idea of a regeneration re-awoke. Around 1830 bathing was resumed: the return to nature in the form of cold-water treatments (hydrotherapy). Then, around 1850, it was the Islamic bath, which has recognized benefits; and the indoor steam room, which was promoted from around 1830 until the end of the century, the shower and sunbathing appeared simultaneously, and one after the other. The battle to decide which form of bathing would eventually triumph raged for a long time with no clear leader, until finally the bathtub was the clear victor." According to this historical outline, where the bathtub gains the upper hand at the provisional end in the mid-20th century, Giedion does not describe our preferred bathing style in a particularly flattering way: "The contemporary bathing style, the bathtub, is a mechanization of the most primitive of forms. It can be categorized in the area of exterior washing. The bathtub is considered an extension of the washbowl.

Nonetheless, no previous epoch considered the bath such a natural part of the bedroom as ours. Each of its components is the result of a lengthy process of mechanization and this explains the fact that the bathroom with running water did not appear until around the end of the 19th century and did not become properly established until the era of complete mechanization, between the First and Second World Wars. However, this does not change the fact that the bathtub is a primitive form, as can be found in Crete, for example, around 1800 to 1450 BC, before the dawn of the Greek gymnasiums." So, all those who like to glorify progress should remember that in the Minoan culture of Crete, around 3,500 years ago, at the zenith of the last matriarchy they already had bathtubs, water management and WCs. And it was Homer who, looking back, described the bath as medicine "for soul-weakening work". Thus initially, the bath was more important as a means of relaxation than purification. It follows that in ancient Greek culture, the bath represents, also in architectural terms, a link between gymnastic games and philosophical debate, and therefore between physical exertion and contemplation. The Roman baths, with the introduction of the technologically advanced hot air bath and its heated rooms at different temperatures - tepidarium, caldarium, laconium - far surpassed the Greek gymnasia. Here the place where people relaxed also became a social focal point: "The Romans spent the best part of their leisure time in the baths, which sprang up wherever Roman life spread." And thus Giedion maintains: "The spread of the baths coincides with the appearance of a new social element in history, namely, it was recognized that each individual has an equal right to regeneration, specifically regeneration within the cycle of 24 hours."

If we leave aside the Islamic form of regeneration, which also has religious overtones and in which, according to Giedion an "active attitude" is replaced by "passive calm", leading to the emergence of a completely different architecture and very different limb relaxing or cracking techniques as well as a special form of soap massage, and let us also skip the "sweat bath" as the original form of steam and hot air baths, it is clear that bathing in the ancient and Islamic worlds was a social institution. Even if we cannot trace this development with anywhere near as much detail as Giedion, we can make the essential points clear as follows: Whatever historical forms of bathing there may be, there are four aspects which not only describe the form of bathing, but also, depending on which is currently favored, or which combination of more than one form, decide the cultural significance of bathing. Does bathing help regenerate the body and soul or is its sole purpose to cleanse the body? And does this take place within a highly regulated procedure in public or in a closed, private area?

Thus there were many turns and changes in the development of the bathroom, indeed, people certainly did not always bathe and when they did, certainly not always in the same way. Yet Giedion is right when he sees in bathing a mirror of the age, which shows not just society's relationship to the body, but also whether this just needs to be cleaned or whether it requires more comprehensive forms of regeneration to keep it and the soul healthy and in good humor. Find out how bathing continued to develop in the second part, coming soon.

Rain shower for medical purposes, France about 1860 The english Bathroom, 1901 The american compact Bathroom, 1908
The american compact Bathroom, 1915