Thank You For Soaking

Interior designer Miles Redd thinks his cast-marble tub is the best in the city. He had his entire bathroom, originally built by Chicago architect David Adler, transported from a warehouse there to his Nolita townhouse. He says people are always surprised to hear he bathes in the mornings.

And Ann Leary, the gorgeous writer wife of actor Denis, proudly showed us the spacious tub where she conceptualized much of her forthcoming novel, Outtakes From a Marriage (Random House). Hubby is strictly a shower man, though.

A certain taboo still hangs over public discussion of bathing rituals, especially among men. When was the last time you heard a fellow say, “Sorry, I’m late. Had to take a quick bath”? No, while the Shower Guy is able to flaunt his technique in casual conversation, the Bath Man enjoys his suds in private.

“You’re in the bath?!” my male friends shriek when I inform them of my surroundings. They are equally shocked when I speak of my twice-daily practice while fully clothed, under so-called “normal” circumstances. And many young males I’ve spoken to say that it has been years since they’ve enjoyed a good soak.

Good God, man, have yourself a bath!

“How dumb do you take me to be?” Christopher Hitchens wrote in response to my e-mail asking his take on the state of American bathing, as well as his own. “If you can find anybody else to fall for the Mencken hoax, let me know,” continued the noted author and Vanity Fair columnist, who recently completed a series of personal essays exploring, among other things, modern male hygiene and grooming techniques. “If you haven’t heard of it yourself, get an education. I’ll keep score.”

What is he talking about, you ask? In December of 1917, H. L. Mencken published a gem of an essay titled “A Neglected Anniversary” in The New York Evening Mail. The piece, a “tissue of absurdities” as Mencken was later compelled to explain, documented an imaginary history of the bathtub in America, and the tragic neglect of the 75th anniversary of its invention, which he attributed to an enterprising cotton merchant, Adam Thompson, of Cincinnati. Mencken noted as well the introduction of various laws and taxes that confronted the new form on its journey to prominence. Journalists have reprinted excerpts from the piece as “fact” on countless occasions. As recently as February 2004, The Washington Post noted in a travel column, “Bet you didn’t know that … [Millard] Fillmore was the first president to install a bathtub in the White House.” In fact, it was in the 1850s, during the Franklin Pierce administration, that the first permanent tub was installed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The hoax’s success underscores our national ignorance on the subject of bathing.

“We are as Americans very slow on the uptake in terms of bathing,” Mr. Balazs said, “as we are on all things sensual and pleasing.”

He blames our Puritanical roots. Indeed, according to the Smithsonian, “Colonial America’s leaders deemed bathing impure, since it promoted nudity, which could only lead to promiscuity. Laws in Pennsylvania and Virginia either banned or limited bathing. For a time in Philadelphia, anyone who bathed more than once a month faced jail.” Jail!

Mr. Balazs said that while bathing culture is on the rise, it still has a way to go. He envisioned a future in which bathing, as in Budapest, is a social event, offering the popularity of a co-ed bathhouse at his Standard hotel in Miami as evidence of what’s to come.

New York the bathing paradise is a fine thought, but for now us bathists—and indeed I hope that our numbers are growing—face ignorance at every turn.