Dickens and his Shower-Bath: "I don't care for the possibility of a Tepid Shower"

Charles Dickens, after an 1859 oil painting by William Powell Frith

On July 14, 1851, Charles Dickens expressed his interest in Tavistock House to his brother-in-Law Henry Austin. A mere 11 days later, he put down £1,542 for a 45-year lease of the grand 18-room mansion in the Bloomsbury section of London.


With Austin’s help, Dickens oversaw the remodeling of Tavistock House, concerning himself with the most minute of details, down to the picture rods and pantry shelving. By early September he had "estimated every new thing in the way of furniture and fitting that will be wanted" and found that "the figures are rather stunning."

One of the major renovations – and one with which Dickens was particularly involved – was the installation of a "Shower-Bath." He insisted on the ability to take a hot shower or a cold bath at any time of day or night, and he was very concerned with functionality, eventually planning to install an additional 400-gallon cistern to keep up with his bathing habits (the original 300-gallon cistern wasn't enough). He was also very concerned with the appearance of his Shower-Bath -- in this letter to Austin dated 14 October, Dickens appends an "elegant drawing," diagramming it in detail.

Dickens diagrams a Shower-Bath for Tavistock House (MA 113.74, p.2-3)

Dickens diagrams a Shower-Bath for Tavistock House (MA 113.74)

The instructions read:

Reference to Elegant Drawing

A. The warm Bath

B. wood front, masking warm bath

C. wooden back against wall

D.D. light, cheerful-colored water proof curtains, extending the whole width of warm Bath, and capable of being drawn close for shower

Same being hung on rings and rod appended to

Centre E. E, E, E, supposed to be a wooden frame (as narrow as you please) enclosing bath and bath-space altogether.--Shower supposed to fall behind Curtains, from between the intersecting point E, and the point C.

You understand???

 He goes on to note: "I don't care for the possibility of a Tepid Shower. But what I want is, a Cold Shower of the best quality, always charged to an unlimited extent, so that I have but to pull the string, and take any shower of cold water I choose ... But this is what has become a positive necessary of life to me. And without any disparagement to the Warm Bath, this, in perfection, is my first object to secure."

About 10 days after sending Austin the Shower-Bath design, Dickens is pleased to report that the renovations have begun, noting that "the Bath Room is gradually resolving itself from an abstract idea into a fact -- youthful -- extremely youthful -- but a fact."

For more information about this letter, click here.

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