old cast-iron claw-foot tubs
Photo: Allison Dinner

What You'll Learn

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In the first half of the 19th century, taking a bath usually meant filling a copper tub with water heated over an open flame. Sounds like a rustic luxury, except that the tub was really an oversized washbucket, and typically located near the hearth in the not-so-private kitchen.

It wasn't until the turn of the last century that tub, toilet, and sink were all located in the same room, and the "bathroom," as such, was born. Hot and cold running water came from taps mounted on the wall or on pipes extending through the floor, and you could stretch out in a large vessel built not just for scrubbing, but for soaking too.

Unlike the plain molded fiberglass tubs popular today, some of the earliest bathtubs were intricately carved wooden cabinets lined with tin or copper. Next came more sanitary materials, like vitreous china, glazed earthenware, and porcelain-coated cast iron.

Freestanding cast-iron tubs are the most common type you'll find at salvage yards today. China and earthenware tubs are heavier and often had at least one side that was attached to a wall, making them difficult to remove without damaging them, says Don Hooper, owner of Vintage Plumbing in Northridge, California. "You can't just grab the rim and lift it up like you do with a cast-iron tub," he says. "Many people take them out the easy way, with a sledgehammer and wheelbarrow."



Typically supported by feet shaped like an eagle's talons clutching a ball or like a lion's paw with drawn claws, cast-iron tubs had a furniturelike look that appealed to Victorian-era America's appetite for elaborate embellishments on utilitarian objects. Companies such as J. L. Mott Iron Works of New York cast their tubs in molds and sold them through mail-order catalogs. Such mass production and distribution meant that bathtubs, previously a luxury item affordable only to the wealthy, became commonplace in working-class households as well, says Merritt Ierley, a historian and author of The Comforts of Home: The American House and the Evolution of Modern Convenience.

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