Still seen as the ultimate in spa-style indulgence, the freestanding bath has been on the scene for millennia. Plumbing systems can be traced to early India (as far back as 3000BC), and while ancient Greeks are usually portrayed as lounging around public baths, a few had personal tubs too – the earliest example being a 1.5 metre-long hardened pottery design found on Crete.
But with the fall of the Roman Empire, bathing hit hard times. A crumbling aqueduct network seriously limited water supplies and public bathhouses more or less turned into brothels. What’s more, social etiquette shunned washing: from the middle ages until the 18th century, it was clothes not cleanliness that reflected status, and medical manuals advised people to clean only their body parts that were visible.
Opinions began to shift in the mid 1700s, along with the notion that a regular scrub might lead to better health. By the later part of the 1800s when many homes had a built-in water supply (and dedicated bathroom), bathing had become positively fashionable and cast-iron baths were de rigueur. Next came porcelain enamel coatings. During the 1880s Scottish entrepreneur David Buick (of American classic car fame) developed a method of bonding porcelain to the cast iron to create an all-white interior. This product was instantly popular, and most particularly it was the roll-top design complete with claw feet – these ornate appendages were inherited from 18-century Holland – that really struck a chord with the British aristocracy.
Over the course of the Twentieth century many of these classically hot designs were boxed in for easy maintenance. Material innovations also meant that cast iron was regularly forgotten in favour of super-thin ceramics or stone composites. But the classic roll top still charms many homeowners, albeit often with a boldly painted exterior to give a contemporary twist.