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The Evolution of Showers

Updated on February 27, 2017

Bathrooms feature some of the greatest progresses in personal hygiene in the modern era and have greatly contributed to our current longevity. Despite being around in some form for many centuries, shower usage, especially in the latter half of the 20th century, skyrocketed due to the health benefits they provide. They have been proven to be far more economical and effective than basin bathing throughout history. There were many forms, however, between its original conception and the modern versions seen today.

The Original Shower

Thousands of years ago, the original showers were very similar to their current form yet significantly less complex. These were waterfalls, natural formations that were utilized by ancient tribal people to more efficiently wash away dirt and grime than a standard basin. Groups that did not have access to natural running water like this would utilize jugs of water, pouring what was often cold water over themselves while bathing. Among the higher classes in early civilizations, their servants would pour the water for them in private bathing areas.

The downside to this process, particularly when far from a water source, was that it required transporting both the clean water and the collected waste water. Rudimentary drainage systems were sometimes utilized in the previously mentioned private bathing areas to carry the water away, but there was no system at the time for pumping the water to the location. The next leap forward in showers and bathing addressed this issue.

Bath Houses

The ancient Greeks, followed by the Romans, were the first to create a more modern version of a shower. Aqueducts and sewage systems allowed for water to be pumped both in and out of large communal shower rooms using lead pipes. These bath houses, available for all citizens to use, were very similar to modern locker room showers and even featured bars to hang up clothing. Water spouts on the side of fountains were also used as outdoor showers.

However, these fell out of use with the rise of Christianity, as good hygiene was considered a sign of vanity. It wasn't until the Black Plague swept across Europe in the mid-14th century that the health benefits of cleanliness were recognized. Bathing once more began to rise in popularity and new methods started to develop.

A Patent for the Shower

William Feetham, a stove maker from Ludgate Hill in London, patented the first mechanical shower in 1767. This version utilized a hand pump to force water into a vessel above the user's head and a chain would then be pulled to release water from the vessel. The system gained some popularity as it required less water but without a system to heat up the water, it failed to catch on among the wealthy.

In the early 19th century, the anonymously designed English Regency shower greatly improved the system. The original design of this shower was ten feet tall and was made of pipes painted to look like bamboo. A basin suspended above the user fed water into the nozzle that fell over the user's shoulders. The water on the ground was then drained and pumped back into the basin for repeated use. As the design was improved upon in future years, it began to look more like its modern appearance and even added features like adjustable sprayers for different flow. With the reintroduction of reliable indoor plumbing around 1850, free standing showers could be connected to a running water source. This provided a renewable flow of water for the shower.

Communal Benefits

Fran├žois Merry Delabost, a French inventor and surgeon general at Bonne Nouvelle prison in Rouen, replaced individual baths in the prison with communal showers. He argued that these were more economical and hygienic and had eight shower stalls installed. The water was heated by a steam engine and up to eight prisoners could wash completely and only use twenty liters of water.

From this success, Delabost guided the French Army in installing similar systems in their barracks through the 1870's. The French system of communal showers was later adopted by other armies and prisons, as well as boarding schools. Modern forces around the world set up field showers to enable washing away dangerous residue from modern weapons.

The first shower installed in a public bathhouse was in Vienna, Austria in 1887. They are most publicly seen nowadays in modern athletic and aquatic facilities. These are commonly separated by gender and sometimes include stalls separated by a curtain or door rather than an open shower area. Open showers are often provided at public swimming pools and beaches as well.

Private Showers

Modern showers in the home generally have two types: showers are either built over bathtubs or stall showers. The former is generally used to save space, as the latter is usually accompanied by a bath. Both versions may feature either a door or curtain to keep water inside the shower area. Most homes also have access to hot water from their own water heater systems and a constant supply of fresh water.

Showers today are sometimes also treated as works of art. Custom showers have been built and designed for individual locations. These have a wide variety of sizes and functions. Some take a more modern appearance while others embrace the natural origins. Many designs may take a more practical approach and utilize new technology for additional health benefits while others may focus on relaxation and comfort.

Regardless of their design, showers all hold one true purpose. Their ability to help us maintain good hygiene has been without par for centuries. It is hard to imagine that any other progress is necessary - or can even be made - on these timeless features.

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