The Torture Device That Became the Modern Shower

History is littered with choices, dichotomies, antagonisms. Nomads and settlers, Romans vs Carthage, Capitalism vs. Communism, Cat people or Dog people, Team Jess vs Team Dean. When it comes to personal hygiene, the big debate is: shower or bath?

We here at TodayIFoundOut don’t judge. It is completely up to you whether you like to cleanse your skin and massage your muscles with a powerful, reinvigorating jet of life giving water. Or if you prefer to stew for hours in a broth of dead skin cells, environmental filth, and rectal leakage. You do you.

And according to a poll we ran a bit ago on if time and convenience weren’t a factor, would you prefer a bath or shower to get clean, 81% of 51,000 of you doing you means getting naked and standing up while Earth’s urine runs all over you, instead of laying around encased in warm fluids, in reminiscence of your time in your mother’s womb.

On that note, the act of bathing at its core does not require particularly complex technology. You only need a sufficiently large and contained container of water with which to immerse yourself in. The shower, however, is a far more complex, refined and fascinating artefact.

So just who invented the shower, and how did the shower as we know it today come to be?

To begin with, it is unclear how and when humans first managed their personal hygiene in prehistoric times. According to JH Musgrave, writing for Nature in 1971, even the Neanderthals got in on the action, using seashell tweezers to pluck hairs from their beards.

When the Homo Sapiens took the lead, it is possible to speculate that they used waterfalls as natural showers. But the first documented use of man-made showering took place amongst ancient Egyptians. In particular, the wealthy among them, who enjoyed having one or more servants pour jugs of water over their heads.

The ancient Greeks improved on the concept. In their version of the shower, servants or slaves poured water into a hole which fed into a designated room where the person showering would be doused. Water had to be cold, as the Greeks, and Spartans in particular, believed that hot water was for sissies. If you had to mow down Persians at the Hot Gates, you had to take a Cold Shower first, apparently. Of course, in more recent times, people who wish to suck the tiny remaining sliver of joy from life have also recently begun pushing the same thing. Cold showers, not mowing down Persians. Although we’re pretty sure someone on the interwebs will probably suggest that at some point as the key to mental health and motivation… In fact, come to think of it, that was, in an abstract way, kind of the plot of Fight Club…

In any event, this still primitive shower system later evolved, as most Greek city-states developed their aqueducts and plumbing systems, replacing servants with piping systems. Around the 4th Century BC, bath houses -some equipped with showers – became widespread and were associated with physical and mental health.

A prominent example of this practice is the Asklepeion at Pergamom, a hellenistic city in modern-day Turkey. The Asklepeion could be described as a temple with adjacent spa and mental health centre, devoted to the cult of Asklepios, son of Apollo and god of healing.

It was serviced by a spring of water, which may have had some therapeutic properties. It appears that these waters were slightly radioactive, but they were good enough to wash oneself! In fact, archaeological excavations at the site found physical evidence of shower rooms, as well as pottery depicting the act of showering.

In the 3rd Century BC, the Romans showed up in Greece to perform their favourite party trick: deploying across three lines of infantry, skewering people and kindly borrowing their best practices and achievements. Among the many advancements adopted from the Greek civilisation, Rome imported the practice of building aqueducts and public baths.

The Romans, however, had a preference for large basins and pools to plunge into, rather than pipes to stand under.

Beyond these much talked about groups in the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks, others had also mastered the art of taming water to avoid stinking like rotten cabbage stew. For example, as early as 2500 BC, the settlement in Mohenjo Daro, in modern day Pakistan, was equipped with incredibly sophisticated piping and drainage systems. Almost every house boasted a private bathing area with drains to remove dirty water out into a sewage system. The walls of these areas were even sealed to prevent damage from moisture!

Yes, it turns out humans pretty much everywhere didn’t like to smell bad, and they were pretty good at finding ways to resolve the issue.

But again, for most of history and for most people, it seems like the prevalent fashion around the world was to bathe, rather than to shower.

The habit of showering, or at least showering by means of a man-made artefact, fell out of favour throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and most of the Modern Era. That said, contrary to popular belief, bathing in general did not. In fact, bath houses were all the rage as just a fun night out. As noted in the book: Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity, by Virginia Smith:

“By the fifteenth-century, bath feasting in many town bathhouses seems to have been as common as going out to a restaurant was to become four centuries later. German bath etchings from the fifteenth century often feature the town bathhouse, with a long row of bathing couples eating a meal naked in bathtubs, often several to a tub, with other couples seen smiling in beds in the mid-distance.”

While this might seem a little odd at first glance through a modern lens, consider that many people today enjoy soaking in a hot tub or pool with their friends while drinking alcoholic beverages, which is not too dissimilar to these former bath house practices, except now usually featuring skimpy bathing suits instead of nude and naked.

Going back to bath houses, given that many were connected to bakeries in order to use heat from their ovens to warm the water, let’s face it, there’s no way one could sit there in the water smelling freshly baked bread and not develop a voracious appetite. Between the nakedness and tasty bread, why are we focussing our mental health efforts on ice cold showers and not bringing this whole thing back?

And speaking of voracious appetites, given that many bath houses were not gender divided and featured naked, now clean people having a good time together, it should also come as no surprise that bath houses were known to be places to go to have a REALLY good time… For those without a non-paid partner, these establishments were also frequently places to find or engage the services of exceptionally good smelling prostitutes.

So bath houses were all the rage. What about showers? These popularly began to resurface in the early 18 century, not as a personal hygiene habit, but as a treatment for psychiatric patients. Or, as they liked to call them back then: lunatics.

Medical science in the early 1700s Europe was haphazard at best, and the same can be said for the treatment of patients affected by mania. According to a paper by Stephanie Cox from the Department of Occupational Science and Therapy, Auckland University of Technology, ‘A quality that defined mania in the 1700s was a violent heat that boiled the blood and dried out the brain.’

Doctors back then felt that manic patients displayed signs of inflamed, distended blood vessels, all surely a consequence of said violent heat!

Their natural conclusion was the same as many on the internet today when looking at mental health- that individual needs ice cold water! This was thought to combat this inflammation, and thus cure not only ‘lunatics’, but also patients affected by inflammation of the joints, ears, eyes, mouth, skin and digestive organs, or even relieve fevers, headaches and toothaches.

One of the early proponents of the use of cold showers in psychiatry was Dr Patrick Blair, who, in 1725, wrote about his experiences with one of his patients, a married woman who, ‘became mad, neglected every thing, would not own her husband nor any of the family ‘

Dr Blair had the patient blindfolded, strapped to a chair and then placed in a bathtub, underneath a 35-foot-high water tower. A jet of cold water was then poured upon her head, from the top of the tower. ‘I kept her under the fall 30 minutes, stopping the pipe now and then and enquiring whether she would take to her husband but she still obstinately deny’d till at last being much fatigu’d with the pressure of the water she promised she would do what I desired on which I desisted, let her go to bed … ‘

Blair resumed the ‘treatment’ one week later, this time adding a second jet of water pointing directly at the patient’s face or, to quote him, ‘any other part of her head neck or breast I thought proper.’

As the woman at this point refused to promise she would love her husband and let him have his way with her, Blair subjected that naughty girl to a third session, 90 minutes long, showering her with 15 tons of freezing water from a water tower…

When Blair threatened to subject her for a fourth session, she ‘kneeld submissively that I would spare her and she would become a Loving obedient and dutifull Wife for ever thereafter. I granted her request provided she would go to bed that night with her husband, which she did with great cheerfulness.’

The practices enacted by Dr Blair and his imitators wasn’t exactly original, BDSM being a thing as long as humans have been humaning… Wait, we’re talking about showers. While not technically original, this may have inspired the invention of the first, patented, mechanical shower for hygienic purposes. This patent was filed in 1767, ironically during the Kingdom of George III of Great Britain and Ireland: popularly known as the ‘mad king’. The monarch experienced prolonged manic episodes and underwent several types of rather brutal treatments to try to cure it. But if you’re wondering, one of them was not ice cold showers, but rather ice cold baths, because, again, people have been pushing this icey water thing for mental health forever. And this madness needs to stop.

But back to the first shower patient.

It was filed by one William Feetham, a stove maker by trade from Ludgate Hill in London.

His design consisted of a small tank, or basin, containing pre-heated water. The ‘showeree’ would stand inside the basin, and use a hand pump to lift water through some metal pipes, fancily painted to look like bamboo sticks. The water would then rain down from above, and fall back into the basin.

Feetham’s invention was rather economical, as it allowed the use of much less water than a normal bath. The problem was that it recycled the same water over and over again, meaning that it became filthier and filthier with each successive pump action and use.

One may argue that having dirty water pouring over your head, or sloshing between your butt cheeks in a common tin bath did not make much of a difference. But the reception bestowed on Feetham’s contraption was lukewarm – much like the water at the end of each shower.

The ball was again in the court of psychiatric doctors for them to improve on this design for their kinky ice shower fetish, as a part of their broader doctor/patient roleplay.

In 1826, Belgian doctor Joseph Guislain created a more sophisticated shower room, for use in hospital wards… allegedly… In this one, water was collected atop the roof of the room, in which patients sat, bound to a chair… The hospital attendants, out of sight from the patient, would then open the pipes, surprising them with an indoor outpour of raining cold water.

Two years later, Dr Alexander Morrison, upped the ante of the showering arms race with a new design. Once again, his patients had to be strapped and bound, because of course they did… before being subjected to sudden streams of freezing water. The innovation was that the direction, size and intensity of the stream could be regulated via a system of ropes and pulleys, so that it could be, to quote, ‘directed upon the head … to diminish vascular activation in the brain as to repress violence, to overcome obstinacy, and to rouse the patient when indolence or stupor prevails.’

Morrison seemingly named the invention after himself: ‘The Douche’.

But actually it just means ‘shower’ in French.

In 1835, American doctor Benjamin Rush out-Douched Morrison, advising to apply freezing showers for 15-20 minutes, before threatening the patient with death. Quoting again from Stephanie Cox’s paper, these ‘were considered effective strategies for resistant cases.’

Dr Rush’s shower was somehow less sophisticated than Morrison’s invention. It consisted of a simple room, about three square feet in surface, topped by a wooden grating. Hospital attendants would pour water from above the grating, from a height of one, two or three stories.

Fear, cold, shock, were all considered to have beneficial effects on the brains of ‘lunatics’. Particularly, they appeared effective in breaking the will of the most obstinate of patients, thus making them docile in the hands of their dom… I mean doctor.

The same techniques were borrowed by prison administrators in the first half of the 19 century as a way to inflict punishment without leaving the unpleasant mark of the whip or the truncheon.

All was fine and dandy in European prisons, until some pesky convicts had the cheek of dying as consequence of what was, in effect, torture by shower.

In 1858, the Medical Act passed by the British Parliament enabled the General Medical Council to regulate the education of physicians, thus cracking down on the numerous quacks which plagued hospitals and mental institutions. This Act, combined with newspaper campaigns reporting on the ill-treatment of convicts and mental asylum patients, spelled the end of shock hydrotherapy, at least outside of for fun. And not only in Europe.

A ‘Report on the prisons and reformatories of the United States and Canada’ authored by commissioners E. C. Wines and Theodore Dwight, described the shower treatments as worthy of ‘The outrages of the inquisition and the inhumanities of the slave-pen.’ In the end, in 1872, at the International Penitentiary Congress, the use of cold-shower treatments was officially forbidden.

However, prison administrators realised the importance of regular washing to prevent outbreaks of diseases and foul body odour, as well as to preserve human dignity and exert positive influence on mental and moral well-being. In other words: prisons started adopting the practice of communal, warm showers for pure and simple hygienic purposes.

This conceptual shift was facilitated by technological advances. In 1868, London painter Benjamin Waddy Maughan patented the first gas-powered water heater. This invention consisted of a burner powered by hot gases, which heated cold water as it flowed through pipes. Finally, Victorian Britain could enjoy the glorious feeling of hot water blasting over one’s skin!

There was a snag, however. Maughan’s invention lacked a proper ventilation system, leading to overheating and high pressure, which resulted in exploding showers. Combine that with arsenic wallpapers and Victorian houses, you’re going to have a bad time.

Maughan’s defect would be fixed only in 1889, when Norwegian-American engineer Edwin Ruud improved the design of the water heater with a safety feature, commonly known as the “vent”.

But back to prisons!

Following the 1872 International Penitentiary Congress, the French government encouraged prison doctors to pitch ideas on how to improve the cleanliness of convicts. Dr Merry Delabost, physician at the Rouen prison, picked up the gauntlet and proposed a communal shower with a ‘cellular design’.

Basically, each prisoner would stand in his or her own cubicle, open on one side to allow for guards to keep watch on them. Each cubicle was serviced by one shower head, pouring a maximum of 25 litres of warm water per prisoner.

Crucially, as the amount of water per shower session was limited, there was no need to recycle the dirty water, which was allowed to flow down a drainage system. This design is now commonplace in most prisons, barracks, schools or gyms, but back then it was a truly revolutionary idea.

It took another physician, one Dr Lassar, to take the concept out of prison and into the wider world. In 1882, he promoted the idea of ‘the people’s bath’, or a public, economical shower block for the poorer classes. By the end of the century, showers had become common across public baths, barracks, factories, schools and ships. And slowly worked their way into homes from there.

But to sum up as to who invented the modern shower. As with basically every invention, it was a series of people leading up to some pivotal version. In this case, many give the credit to that pivotal version to the aforementioned William Feetham, the English stove maker, or Merry Delabost, the French physician.

Feetham’s version perhaps wins out as it sowed the first seed of a purposely designed contraption, to be used in a private setting, and which did not need the presence of an attendant or servant to maintain a flow of water. Of course, Maugham and Rudd’s inventions allowed us to discover the pleasure of being clean without dying of hypothermia. And, finally, doctors Melabost and his cellular design showers and Lassar taking it out of prisons and introducing it to the world contributed to popularising the version of the shower we know and love today.

But in the end, throughout the 20th century, the shower has steadily gained in popularity. A 2019 poll conducted by Victoria plumbing found that 58% of adults prefer showering over taking a bath and, as noted, 81% of 51,000 of our viewers say the same- and who could blame them? This deceptively simple contraption has gained a place of honour in our daily routines thanks to its cost efficiency, sure, but also because it provides a safe cocoon from the outside world. A cocoon where we can be at our most vulnerable, singing off the top of our lungs or treating our shampoo bottles to a rousing speech.

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