Because the past plays such a large part in our present, many homes in the New Orleans area are tailor-made for retrofitting vintage luxuries, such as freestanding clawfoot bathtubs. Once de rigueur and made in heavy cast iron, new models are crafted from lighter fiberglass or acrylic, offering additional options in color and style. A clawfoot tub brings a 19th-century touch of class to any bathroom and a sense of indulgence to each bath. Here’s where they started and how to incorporate them into your bathroom redesign project.
How Old Are Clawfoot Tubs?
Substantial tubs were not always the fashion in bathing. Some of the original bathtubs in Europe were lightweight, easy to pull out for the monthly bath, and convenient to stow away when not in use.
But these were not the first bathing vessels in recorded history. Indoor plumbing was first identified in the Indus River Valley 6,000 years ago, and 3,000 years after that, archeologists discovered the early ancestor of the clawfoot tub in Crete. Five feet long and tapered at one end, this bathtub made of pottery was most likely reserved for the private use of royalty.
The ancient Greeks were fans of bathing, but most people used the public baths, with private baths reserved only for the very wealthy.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, the popularity of bathing slipped into the Dark Ages along with the rest of the world. There is very little documentation of baths and bathing from the period between 1,000 BCE to the 1800s, but there is evidence of the very wealthy building luxurious baths. The majority of people during this time turned to perfume, and the world got more fragrant for several hundred years.
Clawfoot tubs as we know them today emerged in the 1700s in Holland and traveled to the U.S. shortly thereafter.
What’s the History of Clawfoot Tubs?
In the U.S., the history of the clawfoot tub is rooted in the history of leisure. Before indoor plumbing first graced elite life in the early 1800s, bathtubs were filled by hand. A freestanding tub allowed servants to attend to the bather on all sides, and its opulence and size became status symbols. The lack of available indoor plumbing meant that a deep bath was a luxury that was only made possible by a servant class.
But as the 1800s wore on, indoor plumbing became more widely available to people of all income levels. In 1829, a young architect in Boston designed the first hotel with all indoor plumbing, and the White House received indoor plumbing four years later. A regular bath was suddenly available to anyone with a connection to municipal water.
Cast-iron clawfoot tubs with enameled interiors, initially marketed in 1873 for use with livestock, became popular for people by 1885 and remained the style of choice until about 1930. These decades saw the height of the clawfoot craze in the U.S., a period when many of the historic houses in uptown New Orleans were built.
After 1930, many clawfoot feet were actually melted into weaponry during WWII. After the war, notions of the U.S. home and luxury had changed. The lower, double-walled modern bathtub fixture was preferred over the heavier, freestanding clawfoot, in part for ease of cleaning.
Today, however, the comforts of a great home again include bathrooms with character and style, which explains why clawfoot tubs are now so popular in bathroom renovations, especially those in historic homes.
Who invented the clawfoot tub?
There is no formal record of who precisely invented the clawfoot bathtub. Many people mistakenly credit a person in the U.S. with inventing the first bathtub, but history has many examples of bathing tubs prior to that.
For example, the Dutch addition of the ball-and-claw design seems to have been copied from earlier Chinese styles, but there is no document of why or how these feet were added to a traditional bathtub.
What are old clawfoot tubs made of?
Traditional clawfoot tubs in the classic style are most often enameled porcelain on cast iron. These tubs are extraordinarily heavy, but they are durable and easily finished when needed.
Acrylic clawfoot tubs fit the bill for a lightweight version of the classic. These are great for period restorations that call for a larger tub in a different style when weight is an issue.
Finally, clawfoot tubs cast in copper are a historically accurate update for a pre-1920s bathroom renovation. These are some of the most expensive (and luxurious) clawfoot tubs out there.
What Are the Different Styles of Clawfoot Tubs?
Clawfoot bathtubs come in four distinct styles.
A classic clawfoot tub has a rolled rim with a flat end and drain/faucet on the other end. The opposite end is rounded. The flat end can be placed against a wall and allows for a shower to be added. This is the most common type of clawfoot tub.
The double ended clawfoot tub has two rounded ends with the faucet and drain located in the middle of one side (generally the side that is placed against the wall). This is more comfortable for taking a bath but more difficult to convert to a shower.
Slipper tubs have a similar design as the classic clawfoot tub but the end without the faucet is higher and wider, all the better to accommodate long, luxurious soaks in the tub. This type of clawfoot tub can also accommodate a shower.
The double slipper is a cousin of the double ended tub with the faucet in the middle and two ends that slope wide and up for comfortable bathing.
Elements of clawfoot tubs
Aside from a sloping shape that provides ample comfort, the feet are the defining characteristic a clawfoot tub.
As noted above, the original 1700s Dutch ball-and-claw design is taken from the traditional Chinese motif of a dragon’s paw clutching a pearl. A lion’s paw became popular among European furniture makers. In the U.S. an eagle’s claw or talon was favored by American craftsmen.
Another style of foot, the armada, was designed for naval ships. It consists of a simple flat surface (instead of a rounded ball) to provide more stability (to counteract a ship’s rolling and pitching). The armada clawfoot tub sits lower to the ground than other styles.
Finally, the most basic type of clawfoot tub foot removes the claw altogether. The cannonball style of foot is exactly what it sounds like: a ball on the four corners of the tub.
How To Use Clawfoot Tubs in Your Bathroom Remodel
Clawfoot tubs are a part of the history of New Orleans. Many historic renovations across the city include renovated clawfoot tubs, but some are taking the style and modernizing it with new materials and modern faucets.
A clawfoot tub can be part of your historic home’s bathroom remodel, but you can also use it to give new construction a more historic feel. Here’s how.
Choosing the right clawfoot tub
For historic bathroom renovations, you may have an original clawfoot tub that can be refinished and incorporated into the design.
If you’re looking to add some historical touches to a modern home, you have plenty of options for customization. Choose the style of clawfoot tub that suits your needs (especially if you plan to add a shower) and select a material. Cast iron is traditional but heavy, so keep that in mind.
In terms of color, white is also traditional, but these days the outside of the tub can be painted to add a coordinated splash of color.
The color you choose might be influenced by the style of feet you select. Feet are available in chrome, brushed, nickel, brass, and antique bronze. You can also choose white or black feet.
Finally, customize your clawfoot tub with a faucet. Your faucet can be mounted to the tub itself, but some opt for a wall-mounted faucet.
Caring for a clawfoot tub
Clean your clawfoot tub weekly with a non-abrasive cleanser.
If the inside has become dull and needs more attention, make a paste with baking soda and water and spread on the inside of the tub. Allow it to sit for 30 minutes, then scrub with a sponge and rinse with warm water. For a final shine, add white vinegar to a sponge and wipe.
We Are Your New Orleans Contractors
If you have visions of a graceful clawfoot tub in your bathroom, MLM Incorporated can make that dream a reality. We’ve been rated as New Orleans’ #1 residential contractor and specialize in historic renovations. Get in touch today.