“Do I HAVE to take a bath? But, I’m not dirty!”
The age-old objection to soap and water has befuddled parents of every generation. Manufacturers responded to their pleas for help with an array of products designed to entice bathers. Today, children revel for hours in a tub chin-full of colored bubbles. Wind-up boats paddle through the waves. Big-toothed sharks squirt water at sparkling crystal faucets that gush perfectly warmed water on demand.
Float back in time to the not-so-distant past. In rural America, from 1900 to the early 1950s, before electricity and indoor plumbing, bathing involved a far more complicated process. The Saturday night bath! Why on Saturday, you ask? The cliché “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” held water; for whatever reasons smelling good on Sunday was a priority.
If the thought of a weekly, rather than daily, dip causes your nose to twitch at the imagined stench, also known as body odor, consider the work that family hygiene demanded back then.
Bath water needed to be heated, of course, so no matter the time of year, my older sisters stoked the trusty old cook stove with a few handfuls of corncobs and several small chunks of wood the brothers had split. Our family was fortunate enough to have a water source inside the house, the pump in the corner. We younger kids pumped frigid water into pots and pans, and Mom hauled them to the stove, covering every possible inch of the cast-iron surface. Saturday night required gallons of hot water!
While the kettles heated to boiling, my sister Deloris brought in the tub from the porch and placed it close to the stove. Ours was oblong, made of galvanized metal, and sported sturdy flip-up metal handles on two sides, while some were round and some fashioned of copper. An old rug awaited splashes as the bathers stepped out in our kitchen. Two rough, sun-dried, white towels hung over a wooden chair that stood close by. A bar of white Ivory soap nestled in a plate on the seat.
Back to the pump, kids! This time we filled buckets and poured them directly into the tub. Dad grabbed potholders or dish towels and ordered the kids to stay back while he carried the heavy kettles from the stove and cautiously added the boiling water. Mom’s hand swished through the water to assure the Goldilocks temperature, and more cold or hot was trickled in accordingly.
Research and family memories differ as to the traditional bath order. Some remember Dad diving in first. Others say in their family the oldest girls sloshed while the water was still hot. Regardless, one must first contemplate the restrictive size of the tub. There was no way an adult or a nearly full-grown adolescent could stretch out their legs, say nothing of managing a comfortable sitting position. No, simply lowering one’s body into the water challenged a contortionist. Tall people assumed unique yoga positions like the Knees Squash Nose pose. The Hokey Pokey was invented! You put your left foot in, you put your left foot out….
Each member of the family took their turn, whether in ascending or descending order. At our house, the folks and the older siblings were given private bath time while everyone else waited in the living room. Mom knelt by the tub, wash rag in hand, as the younger ones bathed. I never understood why it was so important to “scrub behind your ears.” I do remember our mother saying the dirt was growing in back there, so obviously I had failed on that account.
The Ivory floated which saved time (and soap). Though the water was not deep, by the sixth person, murky replaced crystal clear, and the temperature crept into the glacial range. No one wasted time in the tub, especially the final bathers.
At last, when scrubbed faces shone and freshly clothed bodies smelled squeaky-clean, Dad and my oldest brother Donald grabbed the metal handles and hauled the quagmire outside. Mom’s petunias in the front yard thanked them in summer. In winter they dumped the water into the nearest snow drift. I was the youngest, the sixth child, but I don’t remember being “the baby that was thrown out with the bath water.”
Bath night was different back in the day. Time, water and soap were all used sparingly. Nothing was wasted. Soaking in hot luxurious bubbles was not an option. Rubber duckies would have quacked in dismay, wind-up toys ground to a halt, propellers stuck between knees and tub.
We may have all bemoaned Saturday bath night; I don’t remember. Like most things back then it required hard work, but the weekly ritual was part of life. We splashed, scrubbed and shampooed once a week — whether we needed it or not.
DeAnn Kruempel grew up on a farm near De Smet, SD, the sixth child of Harrison and Mabel Wolkow.