The year was 2017 and it was not a good time to be a bathtub. Across America, homeowners were ripping out their bathing receptacles and replacing them with something cooler, less archaic, and less annoying to clean: the capacious, easy-to-wipe walk-in shower.
The New York Times declared that New Yorkers were over tubs, hungry for something, a hack, that would create the illusion of space in their tiny apartments. Showers were the answer, they seemed to agree. That same year, a Houzz survey found that 91 percent of people who ditched their tubs did so because they wanted to make room for a larger shower. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, people wanted to “hang out” in their bathrooms, and the shower seemed like the feature that would allow for a more recreational bathroom experience. You could install a bunch of rain heads, put in a bench, and pretend to be in a fancy steam room or under a waterfall; no one with testicles would have to enter this space on their hands and knees.
A few years later, the tub seems to be making a wild comeback. Yet it’s not just any old basin that’s trending—it’s the freestanding tub. As a plumbing fixture, the freestanding tub has been around for nearly 150 years, longer if you count the various, mostly portable, vessels that people bathed in before John Michael Kohler affixed legs to a hog-scalder-slash-water-trough and marketed it as a bathtub. Over time, freestanding tubs moved out of slaughterhouses and into a limited number of homes, mostly Victorian or kitschy dwellings and luxury hotels and spas.
Today, this variety of tub has become the desired bathroom basin for all types of home styles, from modern to farmhouse to minimalist, and the chances of coming across a freestanding tub, digitally or IRL, are high. If Architectural Digest posts a picture of a bathroom on its Instagram feed, there’s almost always a freestanding tub in the frame; recent callouts spotlight it in the homes of actors Jessica Alba and Russell Tovey, entrepreneur Chris Burch, stylist Mieke ten Have, and tennis pro Maria Sharapova. The $7,000-a-night suite at the 1 Hotel Brooklyn has one, as do premium rooms at the Eliza Jane Hotel in New Orleans. Holly Freres, principal at JHL Design in Portland, Oregon, told me that homeowners have requested freestanding tubs in 90 percent of the bathroom renovations her firm has done in the last year; Studio Thomas, a Denver-based design company, gave me a similar percentage. Architects brought up freestanding tubs so often in the comments section of the American Institute of Architects’ 2018 design survey that the AIA added them as a feature to track in its next one. A year later, 34 percent of respondents felt like freestanding tubs were increasing in popularity among homeowners. The shift is a clue to the evolving role of bathrooms in our home lives.
The manner in which we experience bathtubs nowadays—generally filled with hot or warm water, meant for relaxation, a permanent fixture in most homes—wasn’t always the norm. How people bathed, who bathed, and what they bathed in has changed throughout history. The citizens of the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro, which flourished in the third millennium BC and is located in present-day Pakistan, are thought to have been some of the first bathtub owners. Their tubs, which were constructed of brick and mud, were connected to an advanced and elaborate system of pipes that carried water from homes into a sewer, which eventually flowed to a river outside of the city. The ancient Romans, among the forefathers of bath culture, also had tub-like structures for bathing, though private ones were limited to the upper crust of society; the average Roman made their way to a public bathhouse to wash, relax, and socialize.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europeans became skittish about bathing, and lingering in water was thought to bring on disease. Around the time that the plague was knocking people out in the 14th century, the medical faculty at the Sorbonne believed that “those who opened their pores in warm or hot water, in the baths … were much more susceptible,” Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, told Salon. While there’s evidence that people bathed in mineral or hot springs during this time with some doctors’ blessings, tubs didn’t regain a following in Europe until the early 19th century, says Selena Anders, co-director of the Historic Urban Environments research team at the University of Notre Dame. “Greater innovations in understanding of hydraulic engineering, scientific interest and innovations in the study of the importance of hygiene, and greater attention to infrastructure projects at the urban level for managing sewage and plumbing for all citizens made for a resurgence,” she tells me.
Around that time, tubs began popping up in American cities, too, and technically, all tubs in this era could have been considering freestanding, since they were more like portable basins, made out of tin, copper, and sometimes wood, that were dragged into the kitchen—or into the bedroom if you were wealthy—when it was bath time. “But bathing wasn’t done by just anybody, because it was a lot of work,” says Nancy Davis, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “You had to draw the bathwater, fill the tub, then empty it. It was probably done by people who had servants or slaves, which was to say, the wealthy.”
In the 1800s, physicians and Good Housekeeping advice columnists prescribed cold baths only. A “bath” probably wouldn’t even be the right word, since you certainly didn’t want to linger in your basin, just take a quick plunge. This method was thought to remove odors and poisonous substances and improve body vigor. “Bathing became an ordeal one suffered through for the sake of one’s health, not an enjoyable, refreshing interlude,” historian Jacqueline S. Wilkie wrote in her paper “Submerged Sensuality: Technology and Perceptions of Bathing.”
Americans’ attitudes toward bathing, and the vessels they bathed in, changed drastically with the advent of plumbing in the late 19th century. As cities scrambled to install pipes and drains and sewers, tubs, along with sinks and toilets, started to become permanent fixtures in more American homes. That meant a boom in tub manufacturing. In New York City, JL Mott Iron Works produced cast-iron tubs, and Kohler’s pig-trough-cum-bathtub lured other manufacturers into the nascent tub industry. Soon, production exploded: By the 1900s, manufacturers produced 10 tubs per worker per day, compared to one tub per day in 1870.
At the turn of the 20th century, cold plunges gave way to warm submerges, and bathtakers were encouraged to linger in their new vessels. In books and articles, physicians and health advisors now wrote about baths as warming, comforting rituals, something that could help one wind down at night. Wilkie speculates that the shift was due to a series of cultural and technological changes, including greater access to plumbing. When tubs and hot water were scarce, the advice reflected that: Take short, cold baths. “The greater availability of plumbing apparatus eased the effort involved in taking an ‘all over bath’ and therefore supported the movement from bathing solely for health to bathing for regeneration,” she writes. Since relaxation is about slowing down rather than speeding up, it makes sense that baths would become more drawn out, and the higher water temperature made it easier to sit around longer. Dawdling in the tub might have also been a response to a chaotic outer world. “With industrialization, you had broad sweeping changes in American cities. It’s possible that people wanted to find an escape,” adds Davis.
In 1911, Kohler disrupted the bathtub space once again, coming up with a built-in tub that tucked itself neatly into alcoves and against walls. And there it remained for decades, as Americans turned their attention away from bathrooms and toward living rooms and dens and kitchens, spaces that were more outward-facing and communal.
Today, designers are seeing home dwellers funnel funds away from these shared spaces and toward bathrooms instead. “People are now spending a lot more money on their bathrooms, as they move to entertain outside of the home instead of in it,” says Deidre Lampley, principal designer at Southern Modern Studio in Nashville, Tennessee. “They want to spend on spaces that they can enjoy by themselves in the home.” A recent survey by Houzz found that people were spending five times more on master baths than dining rooms and 2.4 times more on master baths than living rooms.
Tubs give us a place to escape to. As wellness practitioners and influencers shepherd us away from screens and CNN and into the world of bath salts, crystals, and aromatherapy, it’s no surprise that bathtubs have risen to new prominence, given that many of the products peddled by the $10 billion self-care industry are for bathtub use. When I asked designers why people wanted these tubs, many talked about their clients’ desire to destress and get away. The stillness of the water during a bath can be soothing compared to the frenzy of one’s outside world—and the need for quiet, Davis speculates, might be one reason why gurgling Jacuzzis are less popular than freestanding tubs. Shutting yourself in the bathroom can drown out the noise and chaos and pressing responsibilities and injustice and harshness of the world. The bathroom’s barrenness compared to the rest of the home can also make it easier to implement no-screen, no-work, no-news rules. In all the other rooms, laptops and phones and invoices have a tendency to intrude; in the bathroom, the risk of electrocution and getting stuff wet can at least be a deterrent.
One could argue that you don’t need a freestanding tub to make a getaway; any tub will suffice. I’ve closed myself in my five-by-four-foot New York City bathroom and plunged into my alcove tub plenty of times. But I can’t really submerge myself. If I want to straighten my legs, my torso must remain above water. If I want my torso to go under, my legs will have to jut out at a 45-degree angle, knees locked as my feet hit the wall. If you really want to soak, properly, with all your limbs underwater, you need a large tub, one of these tubs—it’s a completely different experience.
And the true soaking tub is more than its dimensions. “A freestanding tub is a monetary symbol for a lot of people. It’s like getting a nice car,” says Liz Morgan, creative director at JHL Design. “I think there’s an association in one’s mind that it’s a luxury, because it used to be the kind of thing you only see in really nice hotels.” Whereas a built-in tub, the Ford Focus of bathtubs, is meant to be crammed into small spaces, the freestanding variety requires a certain amount of space and financial commitment—Freres and Morgan said one could expect to pay from $2,000 to $7,500 for one. The most expensive one they’ve installed was $24,000 and made of smooth Carrara marble.
“The greatest icon of the rise of wellness today is the bath itself: those with money and space use free-standing baths to display their devotion to relaxation,” writes Barbara Penner in her book Bathroom. The display aspect is key: A few of the designers I spoke with admitted that some clients will put in freestanding tubs even if they don’t take baths; the tub becomes just another part of the performance, another amenity that money can buy.
For those who do take baths, the ritual might be an escape, but it can also point to inner turmoil. Researchers at Yale found that lonely people tend to bathe longer and prefer warmer temperatures than people who are not isolated. Alienation is thought to be rising in many American cities and across demographics, so the fact that the freestanding tub is so popular now is telling. Perhaps the rise of the freestanding tub coincides with a need to withdraw a little more, to move inward, to obtain a warmth that isn’t available through human interaction, even during a time when we’re digitally “connected” more than ever.
In its earliest iterations, bathing was something that only the upper classes could afford to do—it costs not only money, but also time. Even now, with tubs more commonplace, there’s a vast gulf between those who can afford the $200 built-in kind and the $5,000 freestanding one. But whether we’re bathing in tiny rental-apartment tubs or precisely positioned claw-foot ones, we’re taking baths for the same reasons: Like the citizens of the Industrial Revolution, we’re longing for escape while participating in a widespread conversation about stress and self-care in a fragmented world.
Magdalena Puniewska is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in publications such as Vice, New York magazine, the Atlantic, Bon Appetit, and more.