The Locomotive, 1853. (Photo Stephen J. Taylor from the collections of the Indiana State Library.)
You might have a hard time imagining Abraham Lincoln taking a shower — and not just because the wild-looking man was too tall for the spout. While Americans before the Civil War understood the concept of bathing and sometimes even practiced it, their common mode of getting clean wasn’t the shower.
In summertime, nude bathing in lakes and streams was a possibility. . . the farther from cities the better. In 1869, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who dug up ancient Troy a year later, was in Indianapolis, where he took early morning ablutions in the White River near downtown. “I have been bathing here in the river for more than a month,” he wrote in his diary, “but it appears there is no other amateur but me for early bathing.” The local Hoosiers thought Schliemann, who came here from Paris to get a divorce, was eccentric. Perhaps he was.
Indoor bathers in the 1800s could take advantage of a variety of basins and bathtubs, including this strange hat-shaped bathtub invented in Boston by a tinsmith named Waterman. Hot springs resorts like French Lick in southern Indiana would become popular in the latter half of the century. But showers per se were a novel device. By 1852, however, these newfangled contraptions were being manufactured right here in Indy. At the first Indiana State Fair that year, the curious “shower bath” even won several awards — though their commercial success isn’t clear.
An ad for the strange device appeared in The Locomotive. A witty “society” paper printed on Meridian Street from 1845 to 1860, The Locomotive contained as much gossip, poetry and fiction as actual news, and often contained stuff about hogs and trains. It came out weekly under the banner “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
Several shower ads from The Locomotive explained not only its mechanical operation but its medical use.
Europeans and their American cousins had come along way since the 1600s, when Austrian soldiers turned Budapest’s Turkish bathhouses into stables and washed in their horses’ urine. But cleanliness still had a long way to go. In the 18th century, wigs were a practical response to poor sanitary conditions — until a Bengali Muslim introduced shampoo. And though waterborne epidemic diseases weren’t well-understood even by doctors, most American pioneers knew that people got sick around rivers, swamps, and streams. Many young Midwestern towns founded on rivers literally died out. Pollution from slaughterhouses meant that rivers like the Ohio were often infested with pathogens, not to mention animal carcasses and other waste. John Wilkes Booth’s father, English actor Junius Brutus Booth, died on a steamboat near Louisville after drinking river water.
Even once medical science got a better grasp on germ theory, exposure to water wasn’t always welcomed. In one famous case, “showering” was literally considered a form of torture. In 1852, the year Junius Booth died and showers won prizes at the State Fair in Indianapolis, guards at New York State’s infamous Sing Sing prison subjected an inmate named Henry Hagan to “hydropathic torture.” A hundred and fifty years before Guantánamo, the particulars of Hagan’s punishment involved waterboarding — yet the process was specifically called showering. The editors of the The New York Times, who thought the guards risked causing fatal congestion of prisoners’ hearts, lungs, and brains, condemned the practice.
Fortunately, by the 1850s, Americans were getting enlightened about the value of a good, slightly gentler rinse. The Locomotive’s ad for the revolutionary new “shower bath” sounds like a doctor could have written it. It perceived there were great dangers lying under the adhesive crust of dirt, dried sweat, atmospheric soot, and “particles of foreign matter from our dress” that accumulates on the skin and obstructs the pores. Ranging from depression to indigestion, behold the list of ailments that ensue:
Nothing a good spray-off couldn’t cure. The sprinkler’s aquatic freshet wasn’t just good for the skin — nor “the pit of the stomach,” nor getting over “a sense of Curstness.” Taking one of these showers was good exercise, since the bather had to physically produce his or her own water pressure. To get a stream inside the wooden closet, you rolled back and forth on a double-acting, lever-like foot pump. “Indeed,” said the ad, “the bather has it in his power to produce a violent shock or a gentle sprinkle by his own action.” Unlike bathtubs, it would be hard to fall asleep and drown in one of these.
The invention was environmentally-friendly, too. “One bucket of water will answer every purpose, the same water being thrown over the bather repeatedly in a constant current; but it is so arranged that where it is not desirable to use the water more than once, it can be replaced with fresh water with very little trouble.”
The Locomotive’s readers were advised that they could purchase this bath at R.L. McOuat’s Stove Store “on Washington Street, near Masonic Hall.” The manufacturer was “Louden & Eudaly.”
Robert McOuat (pronounced “muh-KOO-wat”) was a young stove dealer from Kentucky. Who Louden & Eudaly were is a mystery. Their surnames show up in Indianapolis city directories, but nothing obviously links them to a shower bath.
An issue of the Indiana State Sentinel, however, sheds some light. “McKernan & Eudaly, Indianapolis” won a diploma at the first Indiana State Fair in 1852 for a device called “Deshon’s Shower Bath.” The cost? $15. The awards committee thought “The bath is ingeniously constructed, and well adapted to family use.” Incidentally, another local shower manufacturer, Garratt Davis & Co., beat out McKernan & Eudaly at the same State Fair for a cash prize of $5.
The provenance of “Deshon’s Shower Bath” actually goes back a little further. At the New York State Fair in Syracuse in 1849, a man named D.S. Heffron won a diploma for a device called “Deshon’s Shower Bath.” The man was probably the same Daniel Salisbury Heffron who taught school and worked as a “seedsman” around Utica, New York, where he raised grapevines and strawberries and presumably dabbled in wine-making. Maybe it was watering his plants that made him think about watering humans! In his old age, according to census records and city directories, D.S. Heffron moved out to Chicago with his family. He was living in Cook County, Illinois, in the 1890s.
The New York State Agricultural Society’s records, however, pin the mystery shower’s invention squarely on one Daniel Deshon.
Born in France around 1821, Deshon registered several early mechanical apparatuses with the U.S. Patent Office, his first one being for an improvement in paddle-wheels on steamboats in April 1846. Over the next few decades, Deshon filed patents on an impressive array of contraptions, from a double-bellows pump and a meat cutter to a butter churn, a spark-arrester for locomotive engines, an improvement in nut locks for railroad rails, and — voilà! — an 1878 improvement for portable shower baths. Deshon’s “late improved shower bath,” however, appeared in the pages of Scientific American as early as Christmas Day 1847 — four years after Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol:
The innovative young Frenchman’s 1855 spark-arrester patent says that he was living in Oneida County, New York (i.e., Utica), where he must have been working with Daniel S. Heffron, seedsman and later maker of showers. “D. Deshon” and one E.Z. Webster were also working on a double-bellows pump patented in 1848. Their patent mentions that “A difficulty has heretofore existed in constructing shower baths with pumps that are to be operated by the bather.” In fact, Deshon, who eventually moved out to Ohio, already had competition. The British had also been working on shower models, including a fancy “omnidirective” one designed in 1844.
“A Yankee in a Shower Bath,” a satirical story printed in Vermont in 1848, shows that the invention wasn’t totally obscure — and that some New Englanders were slightly terrified of it. A backwoods character, Tom C. from Maine, calls the closet a “critter,” “an upright coffin with holes in the bottom, and a sieve in the top,” and “an infernal man-trap.” Tom even fears for his life when he steps inside and shuts door.
Fear of these powerful mini-Niagaras, of course, subsided and comfort caught on. From hat bathtubs to the luxurious cascades of hot, high-pressure, even pinprick-sharp water we now enjoy on demand, let’s salute the 19th century’s shower innovators — known and unknown — who pushed forward the evolution of bathing. A hundred and fifty years ago, they brought their know-how to the Hoosier State — and to the muddy grounds of the State Fair. Hats off to them all. (And the rest of our clothes.)