When you don’t have running water or an automatic water heater you make do with what you have. You can take a perfectly good bath using only three gallons of water, even without a bath tub.
Summer Time Baths
When I first lived without running water, back in the early 1970’s in West Virginia, I had to go down to the creek and fetch all our washing water in buckets. I learned pretty quick that it was easier to haul two at a time than just one because then I could walk without being lopsided. It is a good way to build up arm muscles. It is also a good way to learn how to conserve all the water you can, if for no other reason than saving yourself some hard work.
In the summer, taking baths in the creek was no problem. We used Dr Bronners Peppermint Soap, which is fairly benign, but we still hauled a bucket of water out onto the bank to rinse most of the soap off, so it would not go directly into the creek. Cool creek water and peppermint soap is refreshing on a hot summer day.
Even after we had a pitcher pump and a well around the back, we still had to pump it by hand and haul it inside. Plus, you always had to remember to keep enough water saved back to prime the pump.
Doing laundry and diapers by hand was the most challenging water job. That required hauling lots of water- 6 gallons for wash and 6 for the rinse. I had to heat water for the diapers and they got done separate from the main wash. Every thing else got washed cold. I had these great aluminum wash tubs out near the clothesline (with drain plugs!) and I used an old time wash board to scrub really dirty denims and such. To conserve water, I washed all the lightly soiled stuff, like sheets and shirts, first, then did the socks and saved the denims for last.
Fall Bucket Baths
In the fall, when it started getting colder outside we hauled the water in the big blue granite ware cooking pot and heated it up on the stove. That took almost 30 minutes on the gas stove or a little longer on the wood stove, unless it was cranking hot.
We would carry the bucket outside to the porch, and squatting on the stone step and using a small saucepan, pour a little over our heads, lather in the shampoo, and then do a partial rinse onto the ground. After that, we did a whole rinse with our head over the bucket so we could re use the water for a body wash. Standing up we’d pour some nice hot water over ourselves, soap up, pour some more to rinse off and then- for the best part- dump the whole rest of the bucket over our heads. The sudden rush of hot water felt so good at the end. Even better than a real shower. We had to wait for dark for this kind of bucket bath because our porch was visible from the road.
Kids did not have that problem and they could entertain themselves for a good while in their little tub.
Winter Time Baths
When winter set in, our baths had to come inside where there was heat from the stove. Our living quarters consisted of one room that measured 16 by 24 feet and we had a lot of stuff in there. A double bed, a single bed, a crib, a couch, treadle sewing machine, wood cook stove, gas cook stove, kitchen sink cabinet, and a table. It was kind of crowded. We didn’t have a drain system for the sink, just a bucket underneath that we had to empty by hand. No bathtub. So we improvised, using a wrought iron coffee table that had a removable glass top.
We would start heating the blue enamel bucket on the stove, take the glass top and set it aside, and then drape a shower curtain all around the edges, held up with clothespins-the two piece wooden kind with the spring clamp. When the bucket was the right temperature we’d set it down inside the table and then climb in with it.
You had to hunker down and be careful not to splash water out the sides of it but it actually worked really well and also caught most of the cold drafts.
I remember one really cold, snowy day, some friends arrived unexpectedly while I was taking my bath in the table. The door was only about 6 feet from me and I hollered,
“Quick! Come in and shut the door. ”
They were standing there with their mouths open,
“What are you doing? Are you inside a table? Taking a bath?!”
“Sorry. Didn’t know you were coming. Give me a second to finish up here.”
They walked over to the other end of the room by the stove to warm up while I toweled off and got dressed.
“Well, now we know how you guys take a bath in this place. Wasn’t really wondering, but I have to say, I never would have thought of climbing inside a coffee table. How do you empty the tub?”
“Watch this. It’s easy.”
I proceeded to remove the clothespins and gather up all the edges of the shower curtain, gave it a slight twist, hung it over my shoulder and headed out the door.
Five seconds later, I hung the curtain on the wash line out on the porch and I was back inside. All cleaned up.
“Wow. That is such a good idea. Course it would be even easier if you brought your cast iron tub in and ran a drain line.”
“Right. Where would we put it?”
For the six years we lived in Ritchie County, we did our bucket baths according to the seasons, although every once in a while we would take a real shower at a friend’s house. When we first started out, we even went to the little motel in town a couple of times and paid them three dollars to use their shower. But that was cheating.
I have since lived in other places, in Nelson County Virginia, where we had to haul water and do bucket baths. Wells and septic systems are seriously expensive to install and it took us a while to be able to afford it. Outhouses and bucket baths worked just fine. for quite a few years. When I finally managed to get electricity, running water and a water heater I felt like I was coming up in the world.
These days, I still appreciate the hot running water that magically comes out of the tap when ever I turn it on. I will never take it for granted. It is good to know however, that we can live without it if we need to.
-wendy lee, writing at Edgewise woods gardens and critters