Little is known about Jefferson family members and bathing, aside from Thomas Jefferson's two accounts of bathing his feet in cold water. He wrote to James Maury in 1815 and then to Doctor Vine Utley on March 21, 1819, ascribing his lack of "catarrhs" (or common colds) to "the habit of bathing my feet in cold water every morning for 60. years past." Jefferson also owned a copy of The History of Cold Bathing: Both Ancient and Modern in Two Parts, written by John Floyer and Edward Baynard and first published in 1706. By examining 18th and 19th century French and American bathing recommendation manuals, a clear ideological distinction can be discerned between bathing for reasons of health and relaxation, and bathing (or washing) for reasons of cleanliness. The latter was generally accomplished by washing the face and hands and otherwise presenting a neat outward appearance with emphasis on the smartness of clothing. Such hand and face washing usually took place in one's bed chamber, with a basin and a relatively small amount of water. Concerns for cleanliness of the body were secondary, unlike what we associate the act of bathing with today.
A bath in which the entire body was submerged, or showered with water, was generally taken for reasons of pleasure or preventative health maintenance, and in some cases, as a type of remedy for a particular affliction. Jefferson's visit to the Warm Springs in Bath County, Virginia, falls into the last category, though in the end he left in a worse state than when he arrived. He wrote to Martha Jefferson Randolph on August 14, 1818, that "... having been now here a week & continued to bathe 3 times a day, a quarter of an hour at a time, I continue well .... I believe I shall yeild to the general advice of a three weeks course." On the 21st he wrote to her again, stating that "I do not know what may be the effect of this course of bathing, on my constitution; but I am under great threats that it will work it's effect thro' a system of boils." He returned to Monticello with his "health entirely prostrated by the use of the waters," as stated in an unenthusiastic regaling of his warm water bathing experience to Francis Wayles Eppes, in September 1818. Jefferson likely attributed his dissimilar bathing experiences to the difference between bathing with cold versus warm water; cold water on the feet was invigorating while warm or hot mineral water brought out boils.
Until the last third of the 18th century, bathing practices were not clearly defined or categorized. The perceived effects on the body of the cold and warm bath were debated regularly in prescriptive literature, as were reasons for bathing in the first place. Motives for bathing changed somewhat over time, and different methods had specific connotations: did one bathe for pleasure, as a restorative of good health, for leisure and/or hot weather refreshment, as a luxurious display, or for actual, bodily cleanliness? Whatever the motivation, it was then up to the bather to decide whether she or he adhered to the cold or warm water method. Each had its own associations: the former with vigorous physical rejuvenation and strength, the latter with luxury and the potential for overindulgence. Bathing was used as a preventative measure to assure and maintain good health. It was also an act of leisure, associated with the upper classes. Generally, it was not used as a remedy for afflictions of the skin and body, nor was it concerned with cleanliness until after the turn of the 19th century. For the prevention of disease, one had to bathe semi-regularly, approximately two or three times a week, for short periods of time. Too much time in the bath and water that was too hot were thought to weaken and debilitate, and were cautioned against. In a 1786 publication, the well-known Doctor Benjamin Rush (an acquaintance of Jefferson's) outlined directions for the use of the cold bath, noting "a few words about the usual effects upon the body." He described the cold bath as used to "wash off impurities of all kinds from the skin, and thereby to promote a free and equal perspiration," and credited it with preventing diseases of warm weather. By its pressure, "it drives the fluids from the surface to the internal parts of the body; it braces the animal fibres, and thereby increases their tone and strength. And it stimulates the whole nervous system." Though referring to a cold bath in which the whole body is submerged, Rush's noted effects on the body may have aligned with Jefferson's perception of how his regular cold-water morning foot baths improved his health and strengthened his constitution. Cold water was seen to strengthen more than it actually washed; the emphasis was on invigorating the body as a whole, increasing toughness, and maintaining healthiness, and not on cleanliness. A French treatise from 1762 summarizes the benefits of cold water:
Considerable advantages are attributable to cold baths: the sudden effect of cold on our bodies rapidly contracts the external parts and those which adjoin them; by this means, the vibrations of the fibres become tauter, and the blood and the spirits circulate more rapidly. This is why cold baths are good for rarefying the blood and rendering it more fluid, for arousing the animal spirits and causing them to circulate more rapidly ... for facilitating the digestion and giving an appetite; lastly, for rendering the body agile and vigourous.
After 1780, architectural space devoted exclusively to ablution began to be more regularly designed into residential structures, around the time that the role of the bath and the concrete conditions of hygiene began to change. The number of bathrooms installed in new, prestigious French residences increased from approximately 6% in 1750 to about one out of three, or 30%, in 1800. Similarly, by the turn of the 19th century, the belief that bathing and its resultant cleanliness was beneficial to the greater masses instead of just the elite classes became more pronounced. In 1790 there were 150 baths (of a public nature, but still relatively costly) in Paris; that number doubled by 1800. As bathing became regular practice for the wealthier classes, it also became increasingly associated with the general populace and cleanliness, of water with skin.
An 1823 letter from Nicholas Trist to Virginia Randolph underscores two points about the nature of bathing at Monticello: first, as of that year there was no longer a bathing facility located in the north pavilion cellar, and second, the type of facility that Trist describes as a "contrivance for comfort" may be seen as a luxury feature, with an emphasis on bathing for leisure or refreshment, and maybe preventative health, but not solely for day-to-day cleanliness. Trist's proposed locations for such a bathing house, either in the deer park (on the south side of the mountain) or near the north spring, are both quite distant from the main house, and would have been entirely impractical for regular bathing for reasons of cleanliness. An architecturally significant building, or specifically the ''temple" that Jefferson imagined in 1771, would have been akin to a garden folly or similar in spirit and use to the springhouses that were being built at mineral springs west of the Blue Ridge. That is, such a structure at Monticello would have served as a place for leisure and recreation, just as the baths to the west were considered a recreation by the planter class – sites for pleasure, social posturing, and secondarily, preventing ill health.
The objects and technologies associated with bathing are easier to identify as practices became more regularized over time; the first half of the 19th century saw the eventual acceptance of the "hygienic" bath and its desired end result: bodily cleanliness. The warm bath (with soap) thus came to be used for achieving greater cleanliness, while the cold bath became associated solely with stimulation. The acceptance of bathing can be said to illustrate the interaction of technological and cultural change:
Perceptions of proper bathing technique and reasons for bathing altered as plumbing technology evolved from the portable, hand-filled (and emptied) tub in the mid-nineteenth century to the fixed tub attached to hot and cold running water and built-in drains in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The 18th century popularity of bath or spring houses set in the park – the "temple" structure that was never realized at Monticello's north spring – gave way to portable tubs and hip baths that were used in bedchambers during the early 19th century. More elaborate contraptions like the shower bath were available slightly later; examples exist at Erddig Hall in Wales and Calke Abbey in England. As the north pavilion cellar did not have a fixed, running water supply, the objects associated with bathing used there were necessarily portable in nature: wooden buckets may have been used for supplying water and sheet iron tubs or hip baths for bathing in. It is not known if the north pavilion cellar ever contained a shower bath device as elaborate as the Erddig and Calke examples, made by John Lee Benham of Wigmore Street, Middlesex. Approximately seven feet tall and two and a half feet wide, the cylindrical design has a patent date of 1830. Jefferson's memorandum books do not indicate that he ever purchased such an item for Monticello, but earlier, American-made versions surely must have been available. In keeping with other plantation-made pieces of furniture and tools based on known designs, a simple make-shift shower bath would have been easy to build, as it consisted mainly of a reservoir with a shower head suspended above, and a basin below. Other contrivances designed for bath-related activities were known, such as Charles Willson Peale's design for a steam bath, described in Lockette's short treatise: "It was made by Mr. Peale, the proprietor of the Museum. The four sides, (which are covered with linen, oiled and painted) are so connected by folding hinges, that it may be folded up and carried about very conveniently." The details of a more basic bathing device are enumerated in a document from December 1787 entitled "Description of the tepid Bath made use of by his Excellency Benjamin Franklin, Governor of Pensylvania"; likely recorded by Franklin himself, the document contains a page of written description and two drawings. Looking quite like a traditional wooden bucket or tub, the bath is described as:
Made of white cedar abt. 1 1/2 Inch thick: It is bound with Iron Hoops; is 5 F. 15 In. long, 2 F. 5 In. wide, and 2 F. deep. B, is a large Sponge, suspended over the Edge in a Towel to rest the Head on. C, is a Cock for hot water, D for cold water. E a Bell F a Slider, through which the Servants on the outside receive their orders. G a Board crossing the Bath to rest the feet against. The Water is drawn off by a Syphon.
Though supplied with hot and cold water via taps or cocks, the tub still required manual emptying. If the north pavilion cellar contained a similar type of wooden tub, it was likely even simpler, without a built-in water supply. The lack of physical evidence for a piped-in water supply suggests that for either a tub or a shower bath arrangement, water would have been carried in and waste water carried out. The documentation of bathing devices used by several of Jefferson's contemporaries suggests that such objects would not have been unusual to find at Monticello.
- Originally appeared as "North Pavilion Cellar Report (wash house), 10/4/07" in Justin Sarafin, Domestic Life and the Plantation Community at Jefferson’s Monticello: Summary Research Reports, Final Text Panels, and Published Articles Chronicling the Restoration and Reinterpretation of the Dependencies (unpublished report, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2007). References and links added by Anna Berkes, 1/19/2012.
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