Bathing Room

A room that shares a common wall with the water closet also is located at the rear of the building’s northeastern-most section. Like the water closet, this chamber is also accessed via the vestibule located off of the rear porch. It also can be entered through a doorway that leads directly into a larger room that historically has been identified as having been used as a study by Dr. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, Woodrow Wilson’s father. Given the presence of the “Y”-shaped waste pipe that services both chambers this room is believed to have been used originally as a bathing room.

HS-1 Change over time

Image courtesy of John Milner Associates, Inc.

As with other aspects of the house, the former bathing room has been altered over time to better accommodate the needs of later occupants. The greatest change took place in 1929, when the room’s wood floor was replaced with one made of reinforced concrete, a change intended to help fireproof the enhanced cellar below it that now contained the structure’s modern, oil-burning furnace. Fortunately, this major change was documented by John McKinnon, presumably the worker responsible for it when he embellished the still-wet concrete with the inscription, “John McKinnon/August 28, ‘29/Vivian Caudle.”

Following the Civil War, tubs for bathing came in a variety of forms and began to be found in greater numbers in hotels and private homes throughout the United States. By the 1870s, factories were producing cast-iron bathtubs that could be used with or without running water. When running water was available, bathing rooms were often located near kitchen areas where water could be heated through a vessel. At the same time some Americans as well as Europeans believed there were health benefits associated with taking cold baths. It is unknown to what extent this theory was embraced by Columbians in general or by the Wilson family specifically.

What the room looked like during the Wilson family’s time at the property remains purely speculative. Some Columbia homes during the 1870s certainly featured bathing rooms of some form. It remains unknown if the Wilson family enjoyed the luxury of running water in their home, as no evidence supports that theory. Domestic workers would have been responsible for bringing water, hot or cold, to the bathing room and for cleaning the room after use.

HS-2 Hints on the Drainage and Sewerage of Dwellings, 1884

Image courtesy GoogleBooks,

In a 1969 oral history interview Mrs. John S. (Saluda Van Metre) Dunbar, Sr., a post-Wilson occupant of the house recalled the appearance of the tub arrangement within the property’s second-floor bathing room. It is logical to believe that the same form of metal tub enclosed by a wood apron or surround would have been found within this room, too. Her description aligns with those of bathrooms known to have been in use during the 1870s, as well as other descriptions also illustrated in such design books as that by William Paul Gerhard, Hints on the Drainage and Sewerage of Dwellings, a second edition of which was published in 1884.

Simplistic by 21st-century standards, the fact that the Wilson family enjoyed a room dedicated for bathing in 1872 illustrates sophistication achieved by a certain level of wealth and familiarity with changing national opinions of proper hygiene. Mass production and advertising of name-brand goods including soaps, cleansers, powders, etc., and later bathroom fixtures promoted greater awareness in hygiene and sanitation issues. Many companies commonly found in many households throughout the nation today, were just becoming established during the immediate post-Civil War era. Reconstruction-era Columbians such as the Wilsons were members of this new consumer society.

HS-3 Advertisement, (Columbia) Daily Phoenix, October 10, 1871

Courtesy South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina

By the Wilson family’s time in Columbia grocery Hardy Solomon advertised Colgate products within the stock he commonly carried. Established in 1806, Colgate, like other businesses, grew as public interest in hygiene increased during the 19th century. It was the first company to produce milled perfumed toilet soap. Other products included perfumes in the 1860s and aromatic dental powder (the precursor of toothpaste in tubes), first offered in 1873.

Colgate “Cashmere Bouquet” perfumed Toilet Soap, 1872.

Registered as a Colgate trademark in 1872, “Cashmere Bouquet” exemplifies the move in America toward mass production and marketing of items for a national audience. Nationalization of consumer products was made possible thanks to improvements in post-war transportation and communication technology. Numerous advertisements for plumbing fixtures and services were run in the Daily Phoenix during the years in which the Wilson family lived in Columbia. Most, if not all builders at that time would have been aware of the growing popularity of installing water closets and bath tubs within new homes and also updating older residences with this latest improvement in domestic services.

Advertisement, (Columbia) Daily Phoenix, December 2, 1870.

Courtesy South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina

Colgate Cashmere Bouquet perfumed Toilet Soap

On December 2, 1870, A. Palmer informed readers that his store was stocked with such plumbing supplies as “galvanized and plated iron sinks, drain pipes, water closets, lead pipe, plated and brass water faucets.” Included among his offerings were “marble wash-stands,” which may refer to one of two things. Palmer could be talking about a piece of furniture on top of which a ceramic bowl and pitcher would be used for washing or he may be alluding to a marble sink arrangement (with or without a provision for running water).

While most Columbians may have purchased new mass-produced hygiene and health based consumable products such as soap, powders, and minor toiletries, many others could not afford to integrate modern conveniences such as plumbing into their homes until years later. In 1880, a decade after the Wilson family arrived in Columbia, 83% of Americans continued to use a sponge and bucket for bathing rather than a more modern-day tub.

HS-4 Wash tub, mid-19th-century, Richmond, Virginia.

Image courtesy of Triangle C Ranch

Before the advent of built-in tubs within American homes, people used metal and wood tubs that could be easily moved to an inside or outside location for periodic bathing.

Other items that would have been found within homes for addressing hygiene and health issues were towel racks, water pitchers, wash bowls, soap dishes, toothbrushes, combs, and slop basins.

HS-5 Pitcher and basin, circa 1845, England.

Historic Columbia Foundation collection, HCF 1966.29.1-2

Made by the T.J. Mayer Company, this imported transfer ware wash set is covered in richly detailed scenes of the Far East. Exotic and often wildly imaginative scenes were popular with Americans for whom the British pottery industry exported heavily throughout the 19th century.

HS-6 Bathing tub, or sits bath, circa-1860, maker unknown.

Historic Columbia Foundation collection, HCF 1978.49.1

Known under a variety of names, such as “sits bath” or “hip tub”, this early, free-standing bathing tub was a technological bridge between simple wash tubs and the larger, single purpose bathtub. The user sat in the tub with arms and legs dangling out, which undoubtedly resulted in much water splashing out of the tub during bathing.

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