Bathroom History actually stretches back further than you might imagine. Originally bathrooms were not developed with hygiene in mind, and the first records for the use of baths date back as far as 3000 B.C. At this time water had a strong religious value, being seen as a purifying element for both body and soul. It was not unusual for people to have to cleanse themselves before entering a sacred area. Baths are recorded as part of a village or town life throughout this period, with a split between steam baths in Europe and America and cold baths in Asia. It was common for communal baths to be erected in a separate area from the living quarters of a village, the belief was that by doing this they were preventing evil spirits from entering the domestic quarters of the village.
Not all ancient baths were in the style of the large pools that often come to mind when one imagines the Roman baths; the first surviving bathtub that we are aware of dates back to 1700 B.C. It hails from the Palace of Knossos in Crete. The amazing thing about this tub is not only the similarity with the baths of today, but also the way in which the plumbing works surrounding it, differs so little from our own.
Both the Greeks and the Romans recognised the value of bathing as an important part of their lifestyles. Writers such as Homer had their heroes bathe in warm water so as to regain their strength; it is perhaps notable that the mother of Achilles bathed him in order to gain his invincibility. Palaces have been uncovered throughout Greece with areas that are dedicated to bathing, spaces with clay bathtubs, and sophisticated drainage systems.
The Roman attitudes towards baths and bathing are well documented; they built large purpose-built thermal baths, marking not only an important social development, but also providing a public source of relaxation and rejuvenation. Here was a place where people could meet to discuss the matters of the day, and enjoy entertainment. During this period there was a distinction made between private and public baths, with many wealthy families having their own thermal baths and bathrooms in their houses. In addition they also made use of the public baths, showing the value that they had as a public institution. The strength of the Roman Empire was telling in this respect; imports from throughout the world allowed the Roman citizens to enjoy ointments, incense, combs and mirrors. Personalisation is not something novel to our time!
Although some of the sources we have suggest that bathing declined following the collapse of the Roman Empire, this is not completely accurate. It was actually the Middle Ages that saw the beginning of soap production; proof that bathing was definitely not uncommon. It was only after the Renaissance that bathing declined; water was actually feared as a carrier of disease and so sweat baths and heavy perfumes were preferred.
In fact throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the use of public baths declined gradually, and private bathrooms were favoured, thus setting down the foundations for the modern bathroom, as it was to become, in the 20th century.
The builders in the 19th Century carried on from this base; the house came to be organised around what was perceived as the usefulness of the rooms, and at a time when fears concerning germs and hygiene were rife, the bathroom rose to prominence within many households, while mass showers were provided for the poor.
Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, steps were taken to mechanise the bathroom. Hot water could be produced for use in the home, and so personal bathing became much more common. By the end of the 19th century, there existed a room that could be used by all members of the family, with a growing trend towards replacing the wooden elements of the room with decorated and elegantly tiled patterns. Now the time had begun where the bathroom was seen as more than simply a room of function.