Troubled Waters

Bathtub designs add their own layer of discomfort to modern life.

I haven’t taken a good bath since November 2001. I remember the occasion and the experience very well. It was the day before I moved from my large rent-stabilized apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to a tiny overpriced condo in the Village. Pre­paring for a 24-hour packing marathon, I did what I loved doing each morning. I turned on the hot water, filled the tub, and soaked for nearly an hour in silence. Revived and relaxed, I was ready to face the stressful day.

What was so special about that old tub? It was a vintage prewar design that served many residents for more than half a century (and could have done the same for another 50 years or more easily). It was large enough to stretch out in, its contoured backrest was pitched exactly at the angle a reclining body wants, its cast-iron material kept the water warm and comforting for long baths without the need to run more hot water, its depth allowed for full immersion, its height was perfectly calibrated for easy entrance and egress, and it was accessorized by a soap dish recessed into the tiled wall, which had a handy grab bar. (This little bar was invaluable when I had a broken arm.)

It’s coming on six years since I left my old tub behind, yet in all that time I have rarely found one that has provided a similarly therapeutic experience. Since then I have been in hundreds of hotels and visited friends and family in far-flung places. The first thing I do when I arrive in a hotel room is check out the tub (and then try to turn off the A/C and open the window, mostly without success). The tubs in these rooms, purportedly designed for relaxation, are usually mean, shallow affairs surrounded by vinyl shower curtains or acrylic walls and doors. Because the molded plastic doesn’t re­tain the water’s heat, you have to let some of the tepid water out to make room for a heat infusion if you want to keep soaking (if, that is, your back hasn’t started aching yet). It’s become clear to me that most tubs are designed to stand in for a shower, not for soaking. Which leads me to ask: Why provide a tub at all? Why not just design great showers?

Perhaps to make up for the torturous contours and cold materials of the modern tub, manufacturers (selling dreams of the sybaritic life) have added whirlpool engines, apparently to provide massage therapy without the touch of human hands. So I try to be modern and turn on the water jets to see if the propaganda is true. But what I end up with is an annoying mechanical ruckus. As I sit in this turbulence, I think of those lost moments of unmechanized relaxation and calm waters. Then my mind runs to all those plastic tubs, along with their mechanical guts, tossed in landfills. And I wonder if it’s possible for us to get back to such basics as a good, long silent soak. But if that has become an impossible dream, how about bathroom fixtures that serve many generations comfortably?

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