The Fascinating History and Power of Showers

Showers are such an integral part of the architecture of our homes and also our daily habits that it is easy to overlook them. In the 21st century we take showering for granted, but it has not always been an accepted thing for humans to do — in fact, there are some dark spots in the shower’s relationship with humankind. When you stop to examine the shower, however, you find that not only does it have a fascinating history and relationship with humans, but it also is a tool of significant psychological and environmental power.

The shower story

All around the world people enjoy a good shower, and Australians are almost as prone to be found under a trickling stream as anybody. A global study by Euromonitor found that Australians average eight showers per week, a figure which is matched by the Middle East and only exceeded by Columbia (9 per week) and Brazil (12 per week), leaving one to ponder what it is that the latter two may be washing off. Generally, more women shower daily than men, but only marginally more, and in Australia 81 per cent of men shower daily compared to 90 per cent of women. Showering is so entrenched in our culture that it is hard to conceive of it ever having been any different, but the path of showering to its current ubiquity has been a tortuous one.
The first showers would undoubtedly have been taken under waterfalls, but the first human-made showers took a while longer to manifest. It was during the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations the records tell us showers were first taken indoors. This is about 5000 years ago and was the province of the wealthy because it required someone, usually a slave, to pour jugs of water from above. Temple wall paintings show Egyptian queens being bathed in this way, and in places such as Thebes and Amarna we have found stone-lined chambers with sloping floors designed to allow the hand-showered water to run away.

The ancient Greeks also enjoyed a shower as did the Romans, and with improvements in plumbing and the construction of aqueducts they were able to have jets of cold water cascading from a perforated ceiling while the bather stood beneath. With the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity, with its associated concerns about nakedness arousing sinful lust, public bathing fell out of favour. This may have been the “Dark Ages”, but it wasn’t a time when all advances ceased. In fact, crusaders brought soap back to Europe from the East at this time. What were lost, though, were the sophisticated sewerage systems of the Romans, and so people reverted to bathing in wooden tubs. They say that there is nothing new under sun, and the corollary truth of that is that nothing ever truly disappears. Showering may have been forgotten for a few centuries, but it remained loitering in the shadows of the human mind.

The first shower as we would recognise one was designed and patented by London stovemaker William Feetham in 1767. The contraption designed by Feetham consisted of a basin in which the bather stood, and an overhanging water tank. Jets of cold water fell from holes in the base of the tank and the bather used a hand pump to pump used water from the basin back into the tank and then release the water again. The obvious flaw in Feetham’s brilliant device was that the water got dirtier and colder with each pumping. So showers wallowed in the wings a little longer, until the psychiatric profession got hold of them.

Stephanie Cox from the Department of Occupational Science and Therapy at the Auckland University of Technology was lead researcher for a paper titled “Showers: from a violent treatment to an agent of cleansing” published in the journal History of Psychiatry. According to Cox, by the late 18th century physicians were pointing to a “hot brain being the cause of a mad mind”. Specifically, they thought that inflamed blood vessels of the brain were the site of insanity. Knowledgeable physicians at this time wanted to specifically cool the brain to treat insanity, and a cold shower was thought the perfect way to do this. Cox reports that an extension of this was that cold shower therapy began to be used in punishment and torture of prisoners. This was a dark phase in the shower’s history, and as Cox says, “The shower itself was not benign. While some physicians maintained that the benefit of the shower was in its potentially harmful effects, the occurrence of shower-related deaths led to charges that those using the cold-shock were outdated and ignorant.”

As cold-shock showers fell into disfavour, it was the French prison doctor Dr Merry Delabost who was credited with designing the modern shower as we know it. In 1872 Merry Delabost proposed the use of warm water poured over the heads and bodies of prisoners as an efficient
way to promote hygiene. He suggested a cubicle-based design using only 25 litres of water per person, but with warm water, allowing multiple prisoners to wash at the same time in under five minutes. It is just a few developmental steps from Merry Delabost’s design to the shower cubicle in your bathroom. So here we are, with showers firmly part of our daily routines, but is that a good thing?

Shower vs bath

To decide what we think about showers we have to compare them to baths, because we can all agree that hygiene is desirable and these are the two ways we maintain personal hygiene. So which leaves you cleaner, a bath or a shower? A lot of this comes down to individual technique, but there are some broad conclusions we can draw. There is not a lot of definitive research available, but we can safely conclude that both baths and showers expose you to bacteria. In the case of showers it is from the showerhead and in baths just about everywhere. If we get logical about it, though, showers have to come out ahead in the cleansing stakes. A bath is essentially liquefying the grime from your skin and various orifices, dissolving it into a soup, and then lounging in that microbial broth. By contrast, a shower aided by a lather of paraben-free soap will break up oil, dirt and sweat that is stuck to your skin and take it in a cascade down the plughole.


Aside from cleansing, both baths and showers do have some healing properties. Baths can relax you and soothe aching muscles. Adding various essential oils and salts to baths enhances those healing properties.

Showers, too, have their healing touch. Dutch research has shown that having a cold shower daily boosts immunity and reduces days missed from work due to sickness, although admittedly the coldness is an important part of that effect, not just the showering. Hot showers, however, produce steam and warmth that relaxes and detoxifies. Showers also improve circulation, and if you wash your head under the shower the improved circulation that you get to your scalp can also help your hair.

Planetary power in the shower

As we face a climate-challenged world in which water and energy are crucial issues, we can’t ignore the environmental impacts of showering versus bathing. Estimates, as estimates will do, vary as to how much water exactly is used by a shower. Many estimates put it at about eight litres per minute, although Sydney Water say it is 10 litres per minute. For ease of the maths and in the interest of overestimating rather than underestimating, we will go with 10 litres per minute. Baths are estimated to contain about 80 litres of water and, interestingly, the estimated time of the average shower is about eight minutes. That places baths and showers equal in terms of water usage, but it also gives shower-lovers the power to make a difference, because baths need to be filled whereas shower length is up to the user. Taking just two or three minutes off your shower time will save 20 to 30 litres of water and will also reduce energy consumption. It requires energy to move every litre of water you use from a drinking water source to a treatment plant to your home. Indeed, the US Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that just running a tap for five minutes uses as much energy as letting a 60-watt bulb run for 22 hours. Shorter showers for you mean humanity gets to have showers for a lot longer.

The health and environmental impacts of showers are substantial, but they are no more important than the creative potential that showers can unlock.

Creative flow

There is a psychological phenomenon known as the “shower effect”, which boils down to the fact that great leaps in thought often occur in the shower. It is why showering can lead to thoughts like: “What if, instead of making you more alert, caffeine made you more compassionate?” or “What if cockroaches smelt like lavender?”

You probably know this experience yourself, when, during a shower as the water trickles across your shoulders, an unbidden thought finds its way into your mind. This effect is not debated, but what is disputed is why it occurs. To settle some of the questions cognitive scientist Zachary Irving of the University of Virginia has conducted experiments in recent years. Irving’s findings suggest that unwaveringly focusing on a task reduces creativity. However, doing something that is a moderately engaging activity leads to more novel thinking and creative ideas. Moderately engaging tasks are those
that place some constraints on thought but are not demanding. A shower fits that description perfectly: it is engaging but occupies just enough of your cognitive processes to let your thoughts flow free.

Featured in WellBeing 203

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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