Paris: 5 Tales from the Tub

Splish! Splash! LA FONTAINE DES MERS, PLACE DE LA CONCORDE Photograph by Theadora Brack

Rub-a-dub-dub Mon Ouvrage magazine, March 1957

By Theadora Brack

Celebrating cooler weather and fresh starts, let’s take the plunge. And why not? “After a hot bath, I’m ready to take on the world,” is what my indomitable grandmother used to say. Napoleon would have loved her. In fact, one of his own favorite mantras was, “Water, air, and cleanliness are the chief articles in my pharmacy.”

I couldn’t agree more. So let’s recharge the batteries with five bizarre bath tales from the City of Light. I’ll grab the towels and bubby, while you fill the tub.

1. Puttin’ on the Ritz

After an extreme makeover, the Hôtel Ritz Paris has reopened. Down through the years, the hotel has seen the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Charlie Chaplin, and Greta Garbo, along with Sophia Loren, Orson Welles, and Marlene Dietrich — just to name a few. Let’s not forget Hemingway, either.

Hem’s wife Mary wrote, “Marlene used to wander down to Ernest’s room to sit on his bathtub and sing to him while he shaved, and they both forgave me when I mimicked her.” Oh, la la. It is a small world.

King of the Hoteliers

César Ritz (a.k.a. “Host to the World”) opened the Hôtel Ritz in 1898. Adding posh and circumstance, rooms were outfitted with telephones, electricity, and bathrooms. With real tubs! But in a rare fit of pique, wet blanket Oscar Wilde missed the point. “Who wants an immovable washing basin in one’s room?” he whined. “Hide the thing. I prefer to ring for water when I need it.” Oh, Oscar.

Here’s another royal blush: After King Edward VII got stuck in a bathtub at the hotel during a ménage à trois, Monsieur Ritz swiftly installed king-sized tubs in all the rooms. After all, this “host with the most” was also credited with having coined the phrase: “The customer is never wrong.” Rub-a-Dub-Dub!

Turn on your love light: Dreamy Powder Room, WWI (T. Brack’s archives)

2. Turn on your love light

Ever since Louis XIV cried, “Let there be light,” tourists have been flocking to Paris. Under his reign, Paris became the first city in the world to illuminate its streets after dark, turning it into the world’s premier tourist destination practically over (a well-lit) night. It’s been the City of Lights ever since.

One of the establishments that flourished under Louis XIV’s lighting initiative was his very own bathhouse. Operated by the Sun King’s first valet de chamber, Francois Quentin, here is where he went for rubdowns with essential oils, hair removal, and the occasional “indulgence.” Yes, sometimes, according to palace gossip, the Duc Saint-Simon, his highness would take a little comfortati (a.k.a. “aphrodisiac”). Wowza.

Trekking to Paris? Don’t miss the king’s octagonal bathtub at Versailles. Restored in 1936, it’s made from a single block of reddish violet and creamy white marble. Installed in the palace in 1773 and costing a whopping 14,000 18th century dollars, it weighed in at an impressive ten tons. Imagine Oscar ringing for that.

Mademoiselle Gaby Deslys à Deauville (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Mademoiselle Gaby Deslys à Deauville (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France)

3. Limelight

According to dancer Gabrielle Deslys, the best way to cleanse the skin while improving circulation was to travel to the seashore, collect some salty beach sand, and then heat it before scrubbing the skin until it glows.

“Every morning I have my bath. But, unlike most people, I do not dry myself with towels. A quantity of the finest sea sand is heated until it is quite hot and brought in on a large piece of canvas, and when I get out of the tub, I am rubbed with this sand until I am not only perfectly dry, but until my skin has attainted a perfect polish, and feels soft and satiny to the touch.”

“Afterwards, I am comfortable and so happy that if I were a kitten, I could purr.” Gaby wrote from her own black marble bathtub in 1912.

Mademoiselle Deslys was also known for a dance called the “Gaby Glide,” and is credited with having performed the first strip tease on Broadway—while serving as a spy for the French government. Talk about a multi-tasker!

Shine-on! LIFE IS A BEACH WITH THO-RADIA (Image: T. Brack's archives)

Shine-on! LIFE IS A BEACH WITH THO-RADIA (Image: T. Brack’s archives)

4. Shine-on

Get out your Geiger counters. After WWI, radioactive face creams, toothpaste, lipsticks, and bath salts were all the rage. In 1932, Dr. Alfred Curie (apparently—and amazingly—no relation to Madame Curie) launched the Tho-Radia line of beauty products, which promised lighter, brighter complexions. And no wonder he could stake that claim—they were made with glow-in-the-dark thorium chloride and radium bromide.

Advertisements featured a cool blonde washed in an eerie, bluish light who taunted, “Stay old if you want.” But Paul Frame, a curator of radioactive consumer goods, warns against the temptation to collect the Tho-Radia line because it’s still “an inhalation hazard that your lungs will not thank you for.” In other words, it’s not such a bright idea.

Napoleon even brought his bathtub with him on military campaigns (Image: T. Brack's archives)

Even as a child, he was born to rule (Image: T. Brack’s archives)

5. All Washed Up

Napoleon bathed regularly, back during a time when the average European bathed only once every few weeks. He even brought his bathtub with him on military campaigns. Legend has it that his beloved bathtub was lost on the morning of the fateful battle of Waterloo. At the time, he thought it as a very bad omen. It’s true—you could say he was all washed up!

A stickler for first-rate hygiene, Napoleon’s toiletry kit included a shaving basin, soap, licorice, a pair of tweezers for plucking the beard, toothbrushes, tongue scrapers, razors in mother of pearl and gold, combs, scissors, gimlets, cork-screws, a looking glass in a matted gold frame, and an ear picker—along with large gilt bottles for Eau de Cologne.

Cuckoo for the citrus-scented Eau de Cologne, Napoleon emptied as many as sixty bottles per month. All other scents were abolished, wrote his valet, Louis Constant Wairy. According to his faithful servant, the “Little Corporal” also had a habit of pitching his garments all over the room, believing—as Napoleon himself put it—that you “Throw off your worries when you throw off your clothes at night!”

I know the feeling. It’s quite therapeutic. And I wake up ready to take on the world, too!BRACK Bathtime 14


45 thoughts on “Paris: 5 Tales from the Tub

  1. An utterly delightful post! Only clever you could come up with an entire post on tubs. I would have thought Wilde would have welcomed a tub also. I wish that I could toss off my worries as easily as I toss off my clothes at night! Cheers!


    • Thanks! It was a fun post to create! In fact, it’s been difficult to stop researching. So many fascinating classic French tales from the tub! Milk baths have also been the rage. And YES. Pitching the clothes lifts my spirits each and every time.

      It’s a win-grin!


  2. Never thought of pitching my clothes about … Can’t imagine that cobalt blue glow, we certainly tried everything new under the sun! I read recently that the Eiffel Tower is on a node or power point of the planet … I’ll keep you posted on my further investigations! Another great trip through the city of lights …


    • Ah, thank you! Yes, pitching the clothes is always great fun and energizing. The cat also loves it! Back in the day, ice baths were also the rage. Vaudeville performer and Folies-Bergère dancer Anna Held was hooked. While she stayed in a New York hotel, she ordered twenty pounds of ice on a daily basis, according to Newspaper reports.

      Oh, la la!


      • Brrrr … Living now in upstate New York, I get ice baths pretty routinely just walking outside in winter … I like warm salt baths on a cold winter eve, I think its the sand in my veins from growing up on Long Island beaches 😉 Cheers!


    • I know! The advertisements were snarky and seductive. I’ll pull some more ads from my old Elle and Marie Claire magazines. Bizarre, indeed!

      Have a great weekend,


    • Ah, thanks! A few years ago, I discovered two tubes of Tho-radia lipstick and one empty powder box at a Paris yard sale. YES. I purchased the dangerous lot of beauty products. Sigh. I couldn’t resist. However, I didn’t test the lipstick!

      Happy camera snapping!


  3. Theadora, the picture LA FONTAINE DES MERS, PLACE DE LA CONCORDE is awesome! The fountain fragment, composition, light are stunning. I love it. I really enjoyed to read in the morning you lovely post.


    • Dear Alexander, thanks for your KIND words! Yes, la Fontaine des Mers is one of my favorite fountains in Paris. So photogenic! Especially at sunset. During your recent trip to Paris, did you shoot at Place de la Concorde?

      Enjoy the weekend,

      Liked by 1 person

      • Theadora, I would never thought that it is a fragment of fountain if I didn’t see it real. After I saw it I know all of its details. While I’ve been there, the fountain was in the circle of huge amount of tourists. Besides of that the afternoon sun’s light was so harsh. Nevertheless I’ve made few pictures but do not really like them. My pictures cannot compete with yours. Next time I’ll do better. 🙂 The best pictures usually comes out from the camera either when you know the place well or eventually if you are in the right place at the right time. In short, if you are lucky!
        Have a nice weekend!


  4. Theadora, your blog posts are like wonderful chapters in a fine historical novel with lots of great photographs. They could easily be collected into a book. I look forward to every post you do.


  5. I think Oscar simply loves being contrary. Even so, I can’t help but love him! It’s a dream of mine to one day stay at the original Ritz for a night, and I will be sure to take advantage of the large bathtubs! Although certainly not in the same way that good ol’ King Edward did.


  6. Osacar Wilde is right ‘The sea IS flecked with bars of gray’. she thought as she untied the red satin ribbons and kicked off her sandals. In the cool morning light they were as abandoned scarlet flowers on the dull sandy bay. “Really I must get Les Silhouettes out of my head and fill this pail with sand. Time, tide, my bath and Gabrielle’s instructions for beautiful skin await.” But then she saw the sailor boy with laughing face and gleaming hand and thought how lovely it would be to share her sandy ritual.


  7. wonderful post…i adore my 6 foot clawfoot bath tub from 1909…it is one of my most delightful sins. interesting that napoleon was stickler for cleanliness…and the king stuck in a compromising tub…hmm perhaps not so surprising. you always entertain theodora.


  8. Great post, T! On the subject of sand-based skin products, my brother (aged 4) decided it would be a good idea to sandpaper his lips to make them more shiny…have a great week.


  9. Oh Theadora– another super entertaining post! Love all your obscure facts and your sense of humor– And you definitely made me want to check in at the Ritz– something I am very sure I will never be able to do. Who knew bathing could be such rollicking fun? thanks.


  10. Thanks to you, that old “Tiny Bubbles” tune is now stuck in my mind like an earworm–a silly soapy sounding song if ever there was one. Tales from the Tub indeed! This was a great post–I loved all the old photos and I REALLY love the way you intersperse them throughout the text. Just gawjus! Thank you!


  11. So informative and interesting! I should sleep better since I too throw my clothes about. Love that beautiful claw foot tub! And wouldn’t it be rather odd to have another woman sing to your husband while he shaves?! Yea nothing going on there.


    • Thanks, Resa! (By the way, I’m big time fan of your art dresses. And speaking of baths, I loved the way the “Wild Rose” dress glowed in the natural light. So many roses. So pretty, each and every detail.)



  12. Oh la la indeed Theadora – if this wasn’t a great read for the beginning of my week. I’ll never think about bathing in the same light again ~ but, there is something so fun about strewing the clothes about and . . .!


    • I’m with you, Mary! There IS something fun about pitching the clothes about the room at the end of stressful day. Napoléon was ahead of the curve. I’m a big believer in the practice. It works like a charm each and every time!


      Liked by 1 person

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