Illustration: Tina Tiller

Why we shower

A historical look at one of the few places you’re truly alone.

On just the second day of lockdown I forgot to do something I do religiously every morning. I forgot to have a shower. Only day two and the end of all civility. The next day I had my morning shower and decided to completely be in the moment. I felt the torrent on my skin and listened to the echoes it made as water seemed to bounce off my skull. My attempt at mindfulness lasted about as long as most of my usual efforts and ten seconds later I was contemplating life’s big questions: who took the first shower? Is the shower basically creating the experience of being under a waterfall? Did people always take showers? How often should one shower?

After one particular bout of winter melancholy, my GP told me to do something challenging every day, “even if it is just taking a cold shower”. What a challenge. I turn on the water and then literally jump into the stream. It’s the only way I can do it. I pretend I’m jumping into the sea, as that seems a far more bearable experience than plunging my newly arisen, warm, mushy body into an icy waterfall. It fucking wakes you up. My sluggish cells stand at attention and salute. I do this for about a minute and then turn it on to warm. I can’t say I always enjoy it, but then there is much of life that isn’t enjoyable.

The shower has been commonplace in western consumer society since around the 1950s and there is one hell of an assortment out there. Walk-in, step-over, prefabricated, custom tiled, multi-setting shower heads, rain shower heads, body showers that that fire all over you from the top and sides, and even ones with seats for the less-abled.

While ancient Egyptian royalty had slaves to pour water on them from above, it was the ancient Greeks who had the first showers, with proper plumbing and drainage. However, when the age of ancient civilization gave way to the “dark ages” the skills of engineering water flow were lost, and so was the shower.

Without a bit of plumbing, pipes, and either gravity or a pump, you can’t have a shower. You have to take the common bath, where you are reduced to trying to replicate a shower by scooping water in a jug and pouring it over your head. The bath requires a lot of water and for the user to be immersed in their own filth for the duration. I don’t like baths.

Medieval Europe appears to have seen a marked downturn in the popularity of not only showers, but bathing in general. There was a belief that being naked and the touch of water would make you ill. A belief no doubt promoted by the many perfume manufacturers that flourished to cover the stench of humanity among the well-to-do.

An English stove maker named William Feetham patented the first mechanical shower, operated by a hand pump, in 1767. The user pumped the water up to a container above their head and then pulled a chain that released a torrent. Good, in that you didn’t need someone else to take a shower, bad in that you then had to pump the same dirty water back up again. Plus, it sounds more like a toilet system than a shower to me. Despite being a stovemaker, Mr Feetham didn’t develop the hot water shower. That arrived in 1810, in the wonderfully pompously titled English Regency Shower. Again, strictly for the well-to-do.

In the mid-1800s, the re-invention of plumbing in Europe meant you could have an indoor shower. Military leaders were always looking for ways to keep their troops in the field fighting enemies rather than in bed fighting illnesses so armies across the continent built communal showers as a cheap and fast way of maintaining hygiene.

In the United States the shower, or “rain bath” as it was known, was a luxury only for the wealthy until the 20th century. Like the Kenny Needle Shower advertised in the New York Times in 1914 below, which shows a man seemingly enjoying the feel of the water spouts a little too much.

Is there a good shower? In most of the flats I lived in the shower was a bit of an add-on, an attachment that was fitted to the bath taps. You didn’t have a shower dial, rather a hot and cold tap that never quite seemed to go in sync. We’ve all experienced the frustration of a show that slips from ice-cold to burning hot and back, no matter how infinitesimal your turn of the dial. The only deal-sealer for me is the water pressure – a dribbly trickle is no way to enjoy a shower.

A survey from a few years ago found that a quarter of New Zealanders don’t shower or bathe every day, a figure my shower-loving brain finds unbelievable. But then if you don’t get dirty or perspire then showering every two to three days is okay (apparently).

Global bathroom accessory chain, Hansgrohe, discovered that the shower is a place of reflection and thought. A whopping 72% of us have new and innovative ideas in the shower and 14% of us solely take a shower to generate new ideas. Possibly because it’s the only place apart from the loo where we will not be disturbed.

I would like to point out the great work of non-profit organisation Orange Sky, who provide a free shower and laundry service for people experiencing homelessness. They run in Auckland and Wellington and are always looking for volunteers and/or donations.

Try the cold shower in the morning. Apart from shocking you awake, it will increase your heart rate and circulation. Apparently, it will also promote weight loss as you burn brown fat cells to warm you up. Though, I would probably try exercise before expecting to drop a few kilos by standing in a cold shower for hours. I also like to take an incredibly hot shower firing at the top of my spine. I slowly inch up the temperature until it is practically boiling so that the hot water landing below is scalding my butt. There is something visceral and primeval about this hot sensation searing the base of my brain. I assume I’m not alone in this.




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