Bateau tubs are one style of bathtubs that have their roots in 18th century France. But to fully appreciate the specific style of French Bateau you will need to take a journey back in time to the mid-1800’s in France where the very idea of the bathroom as a separate space in the home was only beginning to find its place. While you may see variations of the basic design that found their way across Europe and into the United States.
French society was classed similarly to modern day America, where there was an upper class (Aristocrats and the like), middle class, and lower class (also known as the working class). Prior to the bathroom being a separate space for cleaning your body, people would use a basin in the kitchen or go to the bedroom where a basin and more privacy were possible. This latter space was largely reserved for people in the middle and upper classes. There were no sewer lines and no running water to either flush a toilet or fill a bathtub with water. Taking care of normal bodily functions was done outside of the home.
Happily, in the mid-1850’s there were a number of inventions that benefited homeowners and laid the foundation for the modern bathroom. Among the inventions were hot and cold running water, significant improvements in indoor pipes and plumbing (the original pipes were made of wood!) the flushable toilet, and of course, the bathtub. While the idea that all of these inventions could nicely fit into a single space was also new, it helped the progress of the bathroom that city sewer systems were designed and the culture, through government, placed an emphasis on personal hygiene. If this was to become the norm, the bathroom would be the ideal place to do it.
But the majority of bathroom innovations would come out of countries other than France, primarily England. When thinking about the French Bateau Tub it is critical to remember that people in 19th century France simply didn’t like to take baths. One of the characteristics of the tub is that it comes from a time when home bathing was not considered necessary by the common person. Prior to the possibility of owning a bathtub, people would use public baths provided by the government. In fact, the majority of people who had a full bathroom after the bathtub became a possibility, seen here were of the upper class socioeconomic strata. But to be fair, even back then all classes of French people did have a bidet instead of “crude” toilet paper, so there was a modicum of cleanliness to be had.
Another characteristic of the tub was that it was considered to be “unrefined” to take pictures of the bathroom, so the existing evidence is restricted to advertisements of the time. This attitude was obviously the result of the presence of the bathtub found almost exclusively in the wealthiest of homes. When looking at the modern versions of the French Bateau Tub, keep in mind that the designers have a limited history to go by, and also that you can get a real sense of how French royalty lived in the 19th century. For French style bathroom purists, there is no other possible bathroom design than that of the Victorian Era.
The tub would be the showpiece of the bathroom. Unlike modern American bathrooms, the toilet or water closet was in a separate room separated by a door. Sinks were small and there would also be a foot bath, a sitting bath, and a water tank all occupying the same bathroom space. The designer of the French Bateau Tub, Joseph Delafon, had to keep in mind the various limitations he was working with.
Original Bateau designs were simple and functional, usually made of cast iron though tin and zinc were also used as tub materials. The weight of cast iron did not present an installation problem in the 19th century since the original bathrooms were always located in the same place. House architecture would take this into account. As for the base of the tub, it was flat and rested on a marble foundation. Keep in mind that the existing images and descriptions we have of the French Bateau Tub come from the socioeconomic upper class, where money was never an issue and should the homeowner change their mind, upgrading to the latest model was not a problem.
The design of the tub’s foundation would later advance to what is called the claw foot base. This is the most commonly seen and popular design today. But the tub itself would retain its shape throughout the centuries. “Bateau” is a French word for “boat” but the idea is more akin to the English word for “ship.” The ends of the tub are a bowed roll top, much like the large sail vessels that traveled the seas of the time. Considering the historical context when a large and powerful navy was a sign of military strength and power, the Bateau design made perfect cultural sense.
All sides of the tub were high to allow for a deep bathing experience, akin to the soaking tub models of today. High sides served the purpose of deep water, but they were also practical – they kept the heat from the water inside the tub for longer periods of time. Though there was the possibility of hot and cold running water, the standard bathroom equipment consisted of a single water tank which needed to be of the all-purpose variety.
It cannot be excluded from the realm of possibility that the Bateau design was created as a means to ease the French into the idea of daily hygiene. In the 19th century many French homes were largely unoccupied during the daylight hours, as its capital of Paris was a constant parade of things to see and do. People were not at home very often, with the home being used more as a place of eating and sleeping than living in the modern cultural context. The expense of the bathroom setup may have been difficult to justify, with the exception of the upper class. A Bateau design evoked images of being on the high seas at home, so even if no soap was used at least people would get a good soaking.
French Bateau Tubs are considered to be pieces of “bathroom furniture” even today. The connection to the 19th century French Aristocracy remains, and while there have been many accessories and accoutrements to the basic tub its original design remains intact. Of the two basic types – the freestanding and the – the choice of a freestanding model requires there be enough space in the bathroom to accommodate not only the tub but the surrounding plumbing fixtures. Also, the original Bateau tubs often rested on a marble slab, which adds a considerable amount of weight and stress to today’s home floor architectures.
One note about the claw legs mentioned earlier. Though not always the first choice of today’s Bateau model buyers, when viewed from a distance the legs accentuate the look and feel of a boat. Often the choice for freestanding models, they are likely to appear on tubs made of less weighty material, such as copper.
What is striking about the tub is its simplicity of design and function. This makes it suitable (with some obvious restrictions) for almost any bathroom. But unlike most soaking tubs, its design is very unforgiving, meaning that people who have certain disabilities will find it impossible to use – even with assistance. Getting into the tub may be difficult, but getting out can be nearly impossible.
There are variations of the Bateau, among the most practical is the Montreal design. The absence of reliable, large scale sewage and drainage systems made the earliest designs impractical for holes, just as there are no holes on a ship. The Montreal style has a different purpose for the optional holes: to accommodate plumbing fixtures more easily. While breaking from tradition, these extra holes may be necessary in homes where the plumbing system cannot be easily adapted to the historic authenticity.
One of the best characteristics of the iconic traditional design of the tub is by choosing a cast iron material you can paint the outside of the tub virtually any color that is available. The interior of a cast iron material is almost always a white enamel, but the outside color can be changed on a whim. There is no need to be concerned about discoloration or fading, and because cast iron is one of the most durable tub materials available the tub is good for a lifetime.
The weight of the tub is a major consideration, but the weight of the water you fill it with is definitely an essential issue. French Bateau Tubs can range in capacity from 18 gallons to as much as 80 gallons. A cast iron tub itself can weigh as much as 300 pounds. It can be safely said that a key characteristic of the tub is that it is very heavy compared to virtually every other kind of tub when completely installed and filled.
Adding to the category of heaviest tub available, the Toulouse V+A style is a modern French Bateau design that is a single piece tub made from a combination of volcanic ash and resin. Like its ancestral cast iron relative, it can be painted any color on the outside. Where it may differ is that a similar material may have been available and was likely restricted to only the very wealthiest Frenchmen. (Basic research on this type of material says that it costs many times more than a cast iron model.) Described as a limestone tub, it hearkens back to the days prior to the personal bathtub where public bathing areas were often built from stone.
Little has been said about the physical length of the tub, but its symmetrical design limits the possibility of having more than one person at a time inside the tub. The standard length of 54 inches is generally adhered to, in part to keep the Bateau motif intact. In some ways this restriction emphasizes the more practical purposes of its origin for bathing. But this characteristic limitation is one reason that many people prefer the standard models of a soaking tub.
It is not wrong to think of the French Bateau Tub as a hybrid between a bathtub and a soaking tub. Its historical origins clearly show that it could be used for both purposes. Beyond this, the French likely thought of soaking and bathing as one and the same function. The idea of people actually avoiding bathing in our modern age seems like a public health crisis waiting to happen, so you may think of another characteristic of the tub as the beginning of a safer and healthier public living environment.
Unlike virtually every other tub style, simply looking at the French Bateau Tub defines its character and characteristics. There are no oval, square, or rectangular shape tub options with the Bateau. Adding water or air jets as an option is both unthinkable and is contrary to the overall design of the tub. As was noted above, it can practically be described as a piece of bathroom furniture since it is not fit to sit in the corner of the bathroom nor to be covered up to be unseen.
Understanding the historical beginnings of the French Bateau gives you a sense of purpose of its design. It also suggests the Victorian Era styles prevalent in the day, and connects with the society and culture of the time. Soaking in the Bateau may out you in the same mind set of the people of the 19th century, when sailing the seas was the primary mode of overseas travel, and was more often than not an adventure away from home.