|Friday my friend, Anne, asked if I wanted to tag along to a designer furniture warehouse sale. Eyeing the rainy day, I replied, “Sure.” Strolling through the haphazard pieces of decorative items, I soon stumbled upon a distressed 19th century portable bathtub with peeling paint. It was 75% off. I grew a bit excited imagining its gardening possibilities.
It is light weight, made of tin, probably from the mid 1800’s. It is not of much monetary value, but as a representative of a bygone era where hot water was heated on a wood burning stove and poured into the 40” long x 20” wide tub, it was catnip for my imagination.
I pictured a youngish mother dressed in a long calico skirt, heating a kettle of water over her big black stove. I could almost hear her yelling for her three kids, “Its bath day. Come on you all!” In my mind I could see two little boys whining. “Aww mom, do we have to?” While their little sister grinned from the corner of the kitchen, knowing she could splash to her heart’s content. The tub is big enough for two children or an adult to squeeze into. Smiling to myself, I could not help but wonder what kind of lives its bathers had lived; where had they lived? If only it could talk.
Back in the early centuries of our country, bathing was not the daily custom we enjoy today. Washing up in one’s bedroom at the washstand, using a pitcher of water, a large washbasin, and a sponge was sufficient. Ladies might add a drop of perfume to the water.
Immersive bathing became more frequent and popular as urban homes were constructed with indoor plumbing. Prior to 1900 that was not the norm. In fact, across our history until the 1900’s, bathing was viewed by many with suspicion as it was thought to remove the protective layer of oil and dirt on the skin, thus exposing the skin to the “miasma” of diseased air. Indoor bathrooms, even in 1910, were seen as a luxury. A 1950 Gallup poll revealed that fewer than 30% of Americans took a daily bath or shower during the winter with low income families reporting that children bathed once a week or less.
This morning I planted my friend Janet’s great grandmother Anna Launer’s swamp lily offspring in the tub and placed it on my patio. The two flourishing lilies seem fitting dwellers for the tub as they have a story of their own. In 1898 their “mother” swamp lily, the original plant, was traveling on a rail freight car from Illinois to Los Angeles packed in with the stock for the Launer’s new La Habra ranch: horses, chickens, and assorted plantings. During the long cross country trip there was a rail accident and the freight car with the stock was demolished. The horses and chickens scattered, while the original mother swamp lily lay quietly waiting to be turned right-side up. After a long chase the horses were rounded up, while the swamp lily enjoyed a prosperous life, growing many off shoot lily bulbs that were transplanted. The hallmark of the beautiful pink lily plant is that it can grow for many decades unattended. The plant is treasured by gardeners. One of this lily offshoot plants decorates the entry to the La Habra Historical Museum. There is an inscribed plaque describing the lily’s origins and tumultuous journey to California.
I often reflect on the past, lounging in images of prior times. It seems to me that when we appreciate the past, we better understand the present. I am so grateful that those who had custody of this little tin tub during the last 150 or so years, chose not to toss it in the recycling bin. Maybe it cannot talk but we can imagine what it might want to say, and how happy it is to house the beautiful pink swamp lilies.
Do you have a piece of the past around your home? What does it mean to you? I would love to hear about it.
My best, donna