Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Bathing becomes a warmer prospect

A new, more comfortable, era: Enjoying the luxury of hot water in an early advertisement. This is the fourth in a series on domestic life and the rhythms of childhood  

The hot showers or baths that we take for granted today require water, a way of transporting and heating the water, a way of disposing of the waste water

.The first instantaneous hot water heater – the geyser – was invented by an English painter Benjamin Maughan in 1868. In 1889, the first storage hot water system was invented in the US. In 1915, Dux started making electric hot water heaters in Australia,

By 1900, some big New England homes or institutions had boiler systems that provided heating and hot water. However, the new domestic systems were slow to spread because they depended upon money and access to electricity or gas that was in limited supply outside urban areas.

In Australia and New Zealand, the invention of the chip heater from the 1880s provided a partial solution to the heating problem. This consisted of a cylindrical unit with a fire box and flue, through which a water pipe was run. Water was drawn from a cold water tank and circulated through the fire box. When heated, the water was drawn off to the area where it was used, typically in a bath.

Heat was provided by paper, chips and often pine cones. This could heat the water quickly, but would go cold if too much was run off. A careful balancing act was required to draw of the water at the right speed. A bath could take quite some time to prepare.

One common memory among those who grew up with chip heaters is the sound. They roar from the sound of the fire and boiling water.

As late as 1958, many houses in New England towns were not connected to either town water or electricity.

“We didn’t have electricity, we relied on tank water and our bathroom contained a chip heater, clawfoot bath and a cement floor” one New Englander recalled of 1958 weekly bath nights. .

“We would collect chips from the woodpile in a bucket and on Sundays Mum or Dad would light the chip heater and run a bath. Dad would add paper and chips and a dash of kerosene and the chip heater would roar and spit out boiling water. Very scary!”

“The kids bathed first, followed by Mum and Dad. As the only girl I got to bath first. About three inches of water in the bottom of a huge bathtub wasn't a lot. After I finished, more water was added for each person.”

“After our bath Mum would always check behind and inside our ears and the bottoms of our feet to make sure we had washed properly.”

“I so envied the full bath that my Dad used. Never even considering that five other people had bathed before him!”

The tone is nostalgic, but you can see why so many older New Englanders still regard hot running water as the ultimate luxury. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 16 May 2018. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017, here 2018 

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