By ALICE FEIRING
Published: May 30, 2004
HAVE what may be one of the few remaining kitchen bathtubs in New York. While I think it's a blessing, my mother thinks otherwise. When she first visited me on Elizabeth Street, in its long-lost, pre-chic days, when the neighborhood was still known as Little Italy rather than NoLIta, she had little tolerance for my choice in real estate. Insult on injury, the first object she saw upon entering the apartment was my tub.
"What did I do wrong?'' she demanded. Was I not raised to aspire not only to a doorman but private bathing facilities as well?
In my early days of living in the apartment, my bathtub was pathetic. A shower ring, like a tawdry halo, had been rigged around it, ruining the kitchen's classic vintage lines. The floorboards underneath it were so rotted, all sorts of odd creatures could crawl through.
One of its early uses was as a party go-go cage. Later on, as I got a little less wild and my boyfriend and I braved my landlord's wrath in an effort to make the apartment habitable, we rebuilt the floor beneath it, patched the chipped enamel and presented the tub to the world unapologetically. While my tub is not the most beautiful of its kind - more pig foot than claw foot - it works.
But on holiday weekends like this one, my tub and I go into high gear. For wine tastings or dinner parties, it's indispensable. My dining table is an arm's reach away, and the tub provides ample space for overflow of dishes or for next course storage; no conventional breakfront could be as functional or multifunctional. At the risk of sounding clichd, there's no better ice bucket for a methuselah of Champagne.
Float tea candles and rose petals in the tub, and the look is very shelter magazine. Add fish and it's an aquarium. For one party, my boyfriend surprised me by bringing home twin carp from Chinatown, which I promptly placed in the tub, although the poor things, probably terrified of ending up as gefilte fish, ended up dying before the party's end.
My landlord would love to rip the tub out and replace it with a shower stall, as he did for three-fourths of the apartments in our building. He'd move for a capital-improvement rent increase, which I'd contest, citing service reduction. In winter when he pulls back on the heat, a tub full of extra hot water radiates warmth and humidity. When the hot water goes off, I need walk only a few steps to fill the tub with stove-ready hot water. It's equally useful in steamy weather; a tub full of bracing cold water, especially when we bounce a fan's breeze off it, helps keep the room cool.
A kitchen tub is a perfect example of both form and function. During the blackout last August we turned the tub into a light source by filling it and sinking a couple of waterproof L.E.D. flashlights to the bottom. During the blistering next day, we kept refilling the tub with cold water, floating the perishables in it to keep them from spoiling. We dunked a watermelon, which chilled down refreshingly for our dinner guests; we also took the hot edge off a bottle of Beaujolais.
Oddly enough, not a lot of research exists about the history or culture of the kitchen tub. The tub at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side is made out of soapstone; not a bathtub per se, this early tub was designed for laundry and for anyone tiny enough to fit inside.
As part of the Tenement House Act of 1901, running water (but not hot water) was required in all tenements. With running water on tap, even if only cold water, home bathing was on the way to becoming a modern city convenience.
THE bathing revolution presuming a hot tub for everyone started 28 years later with the Multiple Dwelling Law of 1929, in which it was written, "Every wash basin, bath, shower, sink and laundry tub shall be provided with an adequate supply of hot and cold water.'' But landlords with an eye on the bottom line were unlikely to go out of their way to install two sets of hot water pipes, so the pipes went to the kitchen and the tub stayed.
Despite the close quarters in which many early 20th-century New Yorkers lived, privacy must have been an issue from early on. The daughter of my late super said that her father didn't get an enamel-clad iron bathtub until around 1940, at which point, she said, "he was old enough to hate bathing in front of the family while his mother was making dinner.''
Her father continued to go nightly to the Y.M.C.A. for his baths, as did most of his friends. Some apartments had privacy screens; other families just made do, but in both cases these tubs became a symbol of primitive early-century living.
In 1969, under Mayor John V. Lindsay, legislation was passed to address the needs of landlords who wanted to renovate these old apartments. Local Law 77 allowed bathtubs to be enclosed as long as there was adequate ventilation. Many tubs were lost in this first rush of renovation.
In the late 70's, I had one of these remodeled apartments on East 87th Street. The tub had been removed, and a shower and a sink as small as a doll house's were squeezed next to the toilet.
When my current landlord took his very first apartment off rent stabilization he was quick to yank out the tub and plunk a shower stall next to the kitchen sink. He was incredulous when he learned that as the new tenants moved in, they ripped out the stall and replaced it with a comfy claw-foot tub. As soon as those tenants moved out, the shower was reinstalled, where it remains.
Unlike my mother, most of my friends are charmed by my kitchen tub. Young children giggle; my 8-year-old niece from the Midwest said she had never seen anything so silly in her whole little life. But if I think back to my first experience with the tub, I realize that I wasn't so cavalier. It was 1982, and I was visiting the friend who later handed over to me the lease on his Elizabeth Street apartment. Submerged in the bubbles, I felt a confusing intimacy while my host made me breakfast.
Today when an out-of-town sleep-over guest sees the bathing facilities, they first think they'll skip the bath, but then enjoy being handed a cup of tea or coffee while immersed. (Of course if they want privacy, I can offer that as well.) But conversation flows freely where water is involved.
After all, next to the bedroom, the kitchen is the most intimate room in the house. In 14 years in my tenement apartment, it never occurred to me that I was missing something.
Alice Feiring is a wine columnist for Time magazine's Generation section.