1799: Elizabeth Drinker has her first bath for 28 years

Elizabeth Drinker (1734-1807) was a Philadelphia wife, mother and prolific diarist, keeping a chronicle that spanned almost 50 years. In 1761. she married Henry Drinker, a prosperous Quaker merchant. Together they had nine children, five of whom survived into adulthood.

Henry Drinker was fond of two things: bathing and keeping up appearances. In June 1798, he followed the example of other well-to-do Philadelphians and had a bathhouse erected in his backyard. This outbuilding cost him almost five pounds, a large sum for the time. It featured a wooden floor, a deep tin bath and a new-fangled shower head, powered by a hand pump.

The new addition proved popular with the Drinker household as Henry, his children and the family’s servants all took to bathing regularly. Elizabeth Drinker, however, was not so keen. She did not use the bath until July 1st 1799, more than 12 months later, writing that:

“I bore it better than I expected, not having been wet all over at once for 28 years past.”

The recollection of her last bath was accurate: it can be traced by to June 30th 1771, when the family was visiting Trenton, New Jersey:

“[Henry] went into the bath this morning… Self went this afternoon into the bath, I found the shock much greater than expected.”

Elizabeth visited the Trenton bathhouse again two days later but “had not courage to go in”. While Mrs Drinker did not like taking baths, she was not averse to forcing them on her servants. In October 1794 she reported that the family’s slave, “black Scipio”, had acquired lice. She ordered that Scipio be:

“…stripped and washed from stem to stem, in a tub of warm soap suds, his head well lathered and (when rinsed clean) a quantity of spirits poured over it. [We] then dressed him in girl’s clothes until his own could be scalded.”

Elizabeth did eventually become more comfortable with using the bathhouse. In August 1806 she reported taking a bath – after which the entire household followed her, all using the same water:

“I went into a warm bath this afternoon, H.D. [Henry] after me because he was going out, Lydia and Patience [the Drinkers’ maids] went into the same bath after him, and John [Henry’s manservant] after them. If so many bodies were cleansed, I think the water must have been foul enough.”

Source: Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, June 30th 1771; July 1st 1771; October 2nd 1794; July 1st 1799; August 6th 1806. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.