Tub Night

Before indoor plumbing was popularized in Mobile, Saturday night bathing was a grueling tradition.

Illustration by Colleen Comer

Born in 1865, Frances V. Beverly toiled away at her home on Government Street throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, writing what she hoped would become the almanac of Mobile. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Beverly died in Mobile in 1954, leaving behind piles of manuscripts hidden from the very audience whose lore and customs she so tirelessly documented for posterity — that is, until now. In this series, MB presents the Frances Beverly Papers.

Saturday night is tub night.” How many times were these words used as excuses and reasons for not accepting unwelcome invitations? In the dear dead days beyond recall, there are some things which we are only too glad to have relegated to the past, and Saturday night bathing is one of them. Everywhere, north, south, east and west, this time was allocated to bodily cleanliness. It was a custom which had come down from grandparents, just like brushing your teeth or eating with a fork.

On Saturday night, after the supper was over, the fire was replenished in the stove, all available pots and kettles were filled with water, and the large cedar top with its brass bands was brought in and placed near the stove. Washrags, soap and towels were in readiness, and the family ablutions began. Usually, the father was the first to take the bath and he always left the kitchen floor like a miniature ocean, with small islands scattered here and there made by discarded garments. He always used all of the water, and always forgot to fill the utensils again.

After a general cleaning up, which fell to the lot of the wife and mother, the family took turns. It was not a peaceful function. In fact, it was, for the most part, a very disturbing one, for the small members of the family were taken in pairs and scrubbed with the same washrag. This proceeding was not ideal, but it seemed better than taking them singly. Taken one at a time, there was always a vigorous objection to using the same water, but put in the tub together, they seemed to lose sight of the fact that the same water was used in the wrangle which always ensued over who should hold the soap. Tub night took so many hours of active service that nobody ever made any kind of engagement on Saturday night because of the uncertainty of when their time would come to use the tub.

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Making dates for this night was out of the question, and simply was not done in polite society in Mobile. It was not until after the advent of the bathroom and sanitary sewerage that people began to feel free to make social engagements, when tub night vanished from social records and once-a-week bathing was discarded. It took a long time for people to get accustomed to the change, and many very amusing things in this connection occurred. In the home of a popular society girl, the young woman called to her next-door neighbor to come over at once and go to the matinee, as she had just received two tickets. The neighbor was delighted, and said she would dress just as soon as she had taken her bath.

“Take your bath?” screamed Harriet, the first lady of the first part. “Why, you just took a bath yesterday. You must be terribly dirty, if you have to take another today. I will just get somebody to go with me who does not need a bath every day, ” and she slammed down the window.

Mothers were the chief sufferers during the Saturday night tub functions. Little boys’ dirty heads, which included very dirty ears and backs of necks, required particular attention and, frequently, the process was attended by discordant howls, accompanied by resounding spanks on bare bottoms, which God so thoughtfully prepared for just such contingencies. By the time the mother had run the gamut of her offspring, she was in such a state of exhaustion that she, undoubtedly, sent up a prayer to abolish Saturday nights and to make it legal and sanitary to require semi-annual baths. When the last squirming brat was scrubbed and dried, she would roll into her bed hoping that she would die in her sleep so that she would not have to be responsible for her own personal ablutions. Someone once said, “Blessed is the man who invented sleep, ” but he is not a patch on the man who first conceived of bathtubs.

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