Besides being a good hygiene practice, the morning shower has often been credited with inspiring groundbreaking ideas and ear-piercing vocal performances. For movie fans, the shower also inspires fear — thanks to the unforgettable scene from Psycho. Though we often take for granted this efficient way to wash and waken, its evolution is attributed to centuries of cold baths and a plague that killed thousands.
The first showers came courtesy of Mother Nature in the form of rainstorms and waterfalls. These chilly experiences may have sparked the brainstorms for how to build a better shower. Early attempts were simple: sitting or standing in a basin while a servant poured a pitcher of (usually cold) water over the bather’s head.
Although the ancient Romans made bathing a grand spectacle by creating public baths that were hubs of social, cultural, spiritual and medicinal wellbeing, after the collapse of the Roman Empire the practice went, well, down the drain. Some societies, in fact, took the view that bathing was unnecessary and even sinfully self-indulgent. This aversion to personal hygiene contributed to the spread of the Black Plague, which wiped out one-third of Europe’s population in the mid-1600s.
The ensuing trend toward better hygiene and the development of sanitation systems eventually led to the invention of the first shower to function without the assistance of nature or a servant. Patented in 1767 by British stove-maker William Feetham, the shower-bath dropped water from a reservoir stationed above the standing bather’s head. Though the device was never widely produced, it established the distinction between bathing and showering.
In 1810 the English Regency Shower was developed. In this model, water was pumped from a basin to an overhead reservoir, where it spilled onto the bather and collected again in a lower basin. Though the design was conservation-minded, the practice of recirculating the dirty water back over the bather was a bit counterproductive.
American shower innovations appeared during the 1830s with the development of the Virginia Stool Shower. Made of walnut, the contraption was placed in the bathtub on an as-needed basis. The seated bather would hand-operate a lever to circulate the water while using a foot pedal to control a back-scrubbing brush. The advantage to this design was that it also provided a morning workout — a fine example of multitasking!
Among the therapeutic showers of the late 1800s was a needle shower by the J.L. Mott Iron Works. This precursor of today’s multiple-head showers looked like a cylindrical ribcage and enveloped the bather with pipes, steam and sprays of water from every direction.
Though the late 1900s saw the introduction of the basic single-head shower with concealed piping, this utilitarian design seems to be on the way out. Modern designs include whole-body spa showers, steam showers and rain showers. But these too may be a passing fad — you never know when the next popular bathing concept will spring forth. There’s a good chance it will dawn during someone’s morning shower.