Pleasure and utility : domestic bathrooms in Britain, 1660–1815
Graham, Elizabeth Ann
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The insertion of the bathroom into the floor plan of the traditional gentry house at the end of the seventeenth century disrupted the established sequence of rooms and the social order embodied in it. The gradual and uncoordinated trend towards bathroom ownership partook of the evolution of ideas about privacy, comfort and the specialisation of rooms in the grand house, and culminated in the compact bathroom. The revival of bathing took place against the backdrop of the Scientific Revolution, and was initiated by physicians. At first, the benefits of different methods of bathing were hotly contested. However, by the end of the century, physicians were beginning to believe that cleanliness, rather than cold water, was the key to good health. Although the rich often continued to build large plunge baths, this shift paved the way for the eventual dominance of the compact bathroom. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, a specialised bathing room within the house was out of reach for people of ordinary means. Changes to the plumbing trade were intertwined with developments that were to bring bathroom ownership within reach. In eighteenth-century Scotland, increasing numbers of bathroom projects might have been expected to expand the work of plumbers, but technological, commercial and legislative change—in particular the separation of design from construction—undermined their monopoly on their craft. Goods that had been manufactured on site and with local materials at the beginning of the eighteenth century were, by the beginning of the nineteenth, designed by a new breed of entrepreneur–inventor, manufactured by less skilled workers, and could be purchased in a shop and installed by a handyman with no particular trade identity. However, knowledge about the health benefits of bathing and technical advances are, in themselves, inadequate to account for the growing importance of bathrooms. The explanation lies in social, not technological or scientific change. Visiting public bathhouses exposed bathers to physical, moral and social pollution, at a time when failure to comply with the dictates of bodily cleanliness could provoke the disgust of one’s peers. Disgust constructed and policed the boundaries between social groups. Private bathing facilities met the requirements of bodily propriety without the risk of contamination. Moreover, a privately owned bathhouse in the grounds provided a focus for tourists or a site for intimate sociability. Bathhouses were a means of displaying wealth, taste and the fruits of the Grand Tour. Visitors could identify themselves with owners through the consumption of culture, improve their aesthetic skills through writing and drawing, and make claims to gentility through their appreciation of what they saw. As owners began to withdraw from the ever-increasing numbers of tourists, and from the formal sociability of the country seat, their bathhouses became a place for sociability in retirement which offered all kinds of entertainments, from boating and fishing, to cards and music.