Why Are Bathtubs So Small? The Answer Is More Complex Than You Might Imagine

It’s normal to get cold feet.
It’s normal to get cold feet. / Kalulu/iStock via Getty Images

The scene is a familiar one to most people: You lie in a bathtub full of water and bubbles. The water is hot and you're ready to relax. But no matter how you position yourself, you find yourself facing an agonizing dilemma—either your legs end up sticking out of the water, or your head and shoulders do. Whichever way you're contorted, part of you is cold.

Here's the problem: Bathtubs are too small. But why?

Bathing, victorian-style

In order to fully understand the reason why bathtubs aren't comfortably human-sized, it's important to consider how the world was different when plumbing first made its way into our homes. "Indoor plumbing came into the United States in the late 1880s," Jeremy Cressman, a veteran of the residential and commercial bath industry who currently serves as the vice president of sales and marketing at BLANCO America, tells Mental Floss. In the late 19th century it was difficult to make large bathtubs because of the expense involved—though cost wasn't the only thing governing typical tub size. People were a little smaller, too. And baths tended to be made with cast iron, so they were heavy and difficult to move. (Contemporary bathtubs are often made from fiber-reinforced plastic.)

It was when production building took off in the early 20th century that a “cookie-cutter approach” to housing standardized the size of the domestic bath, Cressman says. Bathrooms were approximately 5 feet by 7 feet, with the tub—typically measuring 5 feet in length and 32 inches in width—placed along the smaller wall. The bathtub's mass-produced dimensions have always presupposed the size of a person, and excluded those shaped differently.

The Bathtub Boom

Alison K. Hoagland, author of The Bathroom: A Social History of Cleanliness and the Body, says that just after World War II, Crane—a major producer of bathtubs—reported that 75 percent of their business was in 5-foot tubs, as smaller tubs are cheaper and therefore more appealing to landlords. They're also easier to maintain, and require a smaller volume of water. For this situation to change, “Architects would have to design different-sized bathrooms, and then you'd need a critical mass of demand to bring the price down,” Hoagland says. This doesn't look likely to happen any time soon.

“The bathing industry makes that [size bathtub] because they know that's where the volume is,” Tim Ahearn, national sales manager at BLANCO America—who was head of sales at Jacuzzi Luxury Bath for more than 30 years—tells Mental Floss.

Given how much else has changed since the Victorian era, however, it's surprising that bathtubs haven't followed suit. According to award-winning architect Christie Pearson, author of The Architecture of Bathing, architectural historian Sigfried Giedion was making this point way back in his 1948 book, Mechanization Takes Command. Pearson believes that even now, our attitudes toward bathing are inextricably bound up with the prudish age in which the practice entered the home. “What is being implied,” she tells Mental Floss, “is [that] bathing isn't enjoyable, and you shouldn't be there for too long. You have to have a bathtub to clean your children, but once you get big enough, you ought to be taking a shower.”

Online discussions about the perplexing shortness of bathtubs feature theories about people being in danger of drowning if tubs grew any longer, baths being more for children than they are for adults, and bathtubs simply weighing too much if they became too large. Really, only the second idea holds water, as it were—and even here, it may be that baths are associated more with children precisely because they are too small for many adults to enjoy, not the other way around.

Out with the Bathwater

Whether it has to do with their inconvenient size or pure aesthetics, many people—Millennials in particular—are abandoning bathtubs altogether. “The volume for tubs has been declining over the years, and most especially the large-volume purchasers like multi-family housing developers or hotel brands,” Cressman says. This shift likely has something to do with our changing pace of life. Meanwhile, Hoagland points out that our commuting lifestyles make a quick daily shower more efficient than a time-consuming bath. In the Victorian era, when you might have only bathed once a week, it made more sense to do so in a slow, relaxed manner. Eco-friendliness has also become a concern, with many people opting for showers over baths in an effort to conserve water.

Unfortunately, this growing culture of shower-takers will not incentivize the manufacturing of longer bathtubs. For that to happen, Pearson advocates for nothing less than a radical reappraisal of the bath—one that goes beyond just its physical dimensions.

As we take fewer baths and begin to perceive the bathtub itself as too impractical to spend much time in, we lose touch with an important aspect of life. The bath is relaxing in a way a shower can only wish it was. “It's a vessel for dreaming; for languor; for non-productive time,” Pearson says. “It's a vessel for reverie. How much space does that deserve, and how are we being encouraged to value or devalue it by the square foot?"