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The Joy of Having a Luxurious Spacious Bathtub Is Sinking In

May 25, 1991

Luxuriating in a hot bath scented with herbs, frothy with bubbles, and secluded in a private, quiet space is surely among life's sybaritic pleasures.

These days, when bathrooms have evolved into spacious oases of self-indulgence, it is difficult to conceive that there were times in history when bathing was avoided and bathrooms were non-existent, reports Traditional Home magazine.

Indeed, appreciation of the bath has varied through the centuries. Ancient Romans were frequent and eager visitors to their elaborate public baths, where they indulged in oil rubs, massages, steamings and skin scrapings.

In 13th-Century England, on the other hand, King John reportedly bathed only three times a year--before major church festivals. Hardy Benjamin Franklin endured his cold baths, and Casanova recognized the bath's sensual possibilities, placing his tub--spacious enough for his current conquest--conveniently near his bed.

It was during the Victorian Era that the separate bathroom appeared. In 1837, when Queen Victoria ascended the throne, there was no bathroom in Buckingham Palace. Rather, the queen used a portable bath, which, in keeping with the day, was positioned in front of the bedroom fireplace and hand-filled by servants.

Preferring the queen's mode of bathing, upper-crust Victorians at first regarded the separate bathroom as vulgar--a modern convenience best left to showy parvenus.

Gradually, however, spare bedrooms were converted into bathrooms, appointed in the prevailing taste for the substantial with heavy draperies, dark massive furniture, and patterned carpets.

The bathtubs installed in these new rooms came in a variety of odd shapes--boots, slippers, hips, lounges--and were usually made of wood, copper or cast iron. They were immense, possibly to accommodate stout Victorian bodies.

Yet they were also surprisingly delicate, with tiny claw feet and porcelain enamel finishes, which chipped and scratched easily. Eventually, bathtubs became smaller and more streamlined, in the Belle Epoque taste.

Widespread enjoyment of bathing really began with the ancient Romans. Their public baths were regarded as social and political gathering spots. Endowed with gardens, libraries, markets and museums, Roman baths could be considered the forerunners to today's malls.

With the advent of Christianity, however, bathing declined, perhaps because early Christians regarded Roman baths as decadent, and considered filthiness a penance for sin.

By the late Middle Ages, however, monasteries boasted warm baths and running water, and public baths were revived in large cities. Men and women bathed together in large outdoor tubs while being serenaded by musicians and plied with food and drink.

Not surprisingly, the baths degenerated into brothels and were closed in England by Henry VIII, for both licentiousness and spreading of disease. From then until the Victorian Era, bathing was given short shrift.

The charm of the Victorian bath has recently been revived by interior designers as people rediscover the pleasure of a large, voluptuary bathroom.

Immense vintage tubs (which easily fit two) with claw feet and ornate taps are becoming increasingly popular. Reappearing, too, are patterned sinks, Victorian-print wallpaper (water-resistant, of course), lace curtains and silver vanity accessories.

Just about every fragrance and cosmetic company has created an extravagantly packaged and seductively scented line of bath products to enhance this new-found national interest.

While relaxing in a perfumed, steaming soak, it's hard to disagree with critic and essayist Edmund Wilson, who wrote: "I have had a good many more uplifting thoughts, creative and expansive visions--while soaking in comfortable baths or drying myself after bracing showers--in well-equipped American bathrooms than I have ever had in any cathedral."

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