Soak it up while you can: Treasured hotel bath tubs may be on their last leg

Hot baths can be good for your health, opening your blood vessels to relax your muscles and joints. Picture: Pexels.

Hot baths can be good for your health, opening your blood vessels to relax your muscles and joints. Picture: Pexels.

Published Aug 22, 2021


The world needs a bath.

It's not because we stink. It's because we're exhausted. Stressed. Fear, anger and bewilderment, much of it justified, are horribly prevalent.

It would be so sweet if everyone could just take some time, some deep breaths, and soak in a really nice, hot bath.

The biggest luxury I can think of in 2021 is sitting still in an analogue environment and knowing what's going to happen for the next few minutes. Baths offer that. Some aromatherapeutic bath products, some relaxing music, and we all might feel a lot better.

Especially in a hotel

Many years ago, after about nine hours of travel, I remember luxuriating in a big tiled bathtub with a glass of wine at the glamorous La Valencia Hotel in San Diego. The sun poured in through the windows, and the beach was just outside; the memory can brighten even my gloomiest of moods. And my nickname is Moprah.

Of course, showers are appropriate for people in a hurry, but some of us aren't in a hurry. And while people tsk-tsk at the increasing incivility of life, a bath is one of the few civilities we have left. In a bathtub, you can be neither fast nor furious in a world that's too much of both.

Hot baths can be good for your health, opening your blood vessels to relax your muscles and joints. They can increase your heart rate as much as moderate aerobic exercise. They can give you a better night's rest. Hot water helps draw body heat to your skin's surface, cooling your core temperature, which signals to your body it's time to sleep.

Showers also are soothing, but, to me, only to a point. Have you ever heard anyone say, "Stand up and relax?"

Baths are a wholesome thing masquerading as a slightly decadent one, because they feel so fabulous.

Very sadly, though, most hotel bathtubs may be on their way out.

"Hotel bathtubs are headed the way of the elevator operator: disappearing at all but the fanciest hotels," says Chekitan Dev, Singapore tourism distinguished professor at Cornell University. The primary reason, he says, is lack of use.

"Luxury hotels, boutique hotels and resort hotels are holding on to their tubs," he says, "for now."

Betsy Froelich, director of marketing for the hospitality and real estate group at Kohler, which has been manufacturing bathtubs since 1883, says hotels that focus on family travel will continue to have bathtubs for the comfort and safety of children.

"Hotels doing ground-up constructions or major renovations are going toward showers, because a glass shower can make the entire space feel larger," she says.

Stanley Turkel, author, hotel consultant, historian and frequent expert witness in hotel-related cases, notes that the shower-bath combos we've seen for decades require stepping over the tub to get in and out and can lead to a serious fall, particularly if there are no grab bars.

"My guess is that hotels will not put in bathtubs. Many will deal with just showers," he says. "With sliding doors" and, of course, grab bars.

It took quite a while for bathtubs to get into hotels in the first place.

"The idea of the hotel as we know it didn't come along until the 1870s, and it really is an American invention," says Larry Horwitz, executive vice president of Historic Hotels of America and Historic Hotels Worldwide.

Before that, people stayed in inns or taverns, and they certainly didn't have private baths.

Turkel notes that "some of the earliest hotels were YMCAs," which first came to America in 1851 and in which "your bathroom was down the hall," shared with the other male guests. "There were warm showers," he says, "but probably no bathtubs."

Even the nicest accommodations in Paris offered "a wash basin and a big pitcher of water that might be heated up by the staff and brought to you, pretty much to get the dust of the road off," says A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University and author of "Hotel: An American History."

During America's Gilded Age, between the Civil War and the early 1900s, Horwitz says, hoteliers were trying to out-luxe one another, and the greatest luxury on offer would be a private bathroom, meaning a sink and a toilet.

"They weren't called bathrooms," he says, because they were missing the main qualification. People would go to public bathhouses, or a resort might offer a soaking pool or mineral spring.

The bathtub started working its way into hotels in the early 19th century. In 1829, the Tremont House in Boston was the first US hotel to boast running water, free soap in the rooms and bathtubs in the basement.

New York's Astor House provided a bathtub on each floor in 1836. European travelers had high expectations, which began to push private bathtubs into more hotels. Buffalo's Statler Hotel, circa 1908, is probably the first US hotel to have had bathtubs in every room - though it has also been reported that the Victoria Hotel in Kansas City, Mo., claimed the title as far back as 1888.

Even as private baths started going into upscale hotels, Horwitz says, bathing every day wasn't something you did unless you were "fabulously wealthy." Those who could stay in posh hotels for weeks or even months, which was customary at the time, could expect the amenity of a private bath in their room.

This was far beyond the means of regular people. In 1920, only 1% of American homes had indoor plumbing.

One hotelier didn't think comfort should be just for the comfortable.

"E. M. Statler was by far the most influential hotel man of the 20th century. When he began his Statler Hotels chain with the Buffalo Statler Hotel in 1908, his big slogan was, 'A bed and a bath for a buck and a half,' " Sandoval-Strausz says. That would be about $150 a night in 2021 dollars, the price of a Hampton Inn in midtown Atlanta or a Hilton DoubleTree in midtown St. Louis. And with bathtubs becoming routine, new feats of engineering were needed to create the plumbing, water pressure and structural capacity to support and fill them.

"The history of the bathtub in hotels, to me, is tremendous," Horwitz says, "because it's the people who were always looking for the newest amenity" that changed how hotels serve us, from the first flush toilets to the fanciest flat-screen TVs, in just about a century.

He also doesn't think all hotels are about to abandon the bathtub.

"I think that upscale and luxury hotels are not ready to take away that advantage," he says. "What they are doing is separating the bathtub from the shower." Stand-alone bathtubs, the ones that look like giant soap dishes, are trendy home features at the moment, too.

Other features that seem to be surrounding the once-humble bathtub in these higher-end settings are lots of natural light, spectacular views, exclusive spa bath products and luxurious materials, such as marble.

The bathroom, in home or hotel, Froelich says, "has to be the hardest-working room. In the morning, it has to be all about efficiency and making it easy for you to get ready, feel confident, so that you can go out into the world and take on your day." Then it has to do a 180 at day's end. "It's the last place you visit before you go to bed, and you have to relax. It has to be calming, it has to make it easy for you to unwind at the end of the day."

So maybe bathtubs won't disappear entirely. I sure hope not. If only there was a way I could relax about it.

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