Backroads: Old Clawfoot

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The clawfoot tub in our first cabin.

Looking back to my early childhood, the cast iron behemoth I dubbed “Old Clawfoot” dominated much of my free time in the evenings as well as one whole wall of our bathroom. Long before built-in showers arrived on the scene, every household in my immediate neighborhood had one of the gleaming white beauties in its possession. Clawfoot tubs were perfect for a father’s large frame, a mother’s harried nerves at the end of the day, and creative entertainment for a passel of kids.

A daily ritual of relaxation passed away with the onset of the 1950s rage of “remodeling the bathroom.” When the deep old tubs went out, so did the excuse to sit idle for thirty minutes and simply relax in hot, soapy water. True, the new showers were faster, but they lacked the intimacy and therapeutic value of the clawfoots. In my opinion, that was the start of people living life in the fast lane, rushing around at breakneck speed to accomplish too much, too fast, giving stress and headaches for our trouble.

“Old Clawfoot” was there for me right from the start. The tub itself was a work of art; long and deep with a rounded curve that fit the small of your back. Its gleaming white enamel interior was sleek to the touch, opposed to the bumpy cast-iron exterior. It had two separate water spigots with white enamel middles marked “hot” and “cold” and a rubber drain plug at the end of a long silver chain. The molded feet always filled me with a mixture of repulsion and intrigue as I looked at the four lifelike talons gripping the daylights out of iron balls sitting on the floor. It would summon all my courage to finger the creases in the knuckles of each claw and each time I’d touch one, an involuntary shudder would creep up my backbone. But if the outside was a tad frightening, the inside was pure bliss. When the tub was filled to the the overflow drain, it provided a vast body of water for a kid to paddle around in. To me it was the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean all rolled into one.

The clawfoot in our current cabin

Old Clawfoot taught me the basics of personal hygiene, but more importantly it provided me with hours of entertainment both in and out of the water. Like the time I rode my fat-tired Schwinn down to a known boggy spot and returned home with a mayonnaise jar full of tadpoles. I snuck upstairs, locked the bathroom door and proceeded to turn the little wigglers loose in a tubful of drawn water. On my knees, gripping the edge of the tub, I watched the polliwogs dipping and diving and thought to myself how much fun they must be having after being confined to a small puddle. Just as I was starting to gather them all back in the jar, I heard my mother talking to a neighbor outside. Panic seized me as I realized there were too many tadpoles, too much water, and not enough time. By the time I heard my mom coming in the screen door, the plug had been pulled and the last tadpole was swirling in the vortex circling the drain. That night in bed I wondered where, in their journey to the sea, were my tadpoles?

One of the greatest underwater adventures I can remember was my preoccupation with the plastic Navy frogmen that came inside boxes of Shredded Wheat. You filled baking soda into the tiny cups attached to their feet and then watched as they sunk to the bottom like a stone. Slowly they began to tilt and begin their slow ascent to the surface. When their heads bobbed above the water, they would sink to the bottom again, making the same round trip until the baking soda ran out. All this was observed underwater with the aid of swimming goggles.

Another nightly event was to see how long I could hold my breath underwater. Looking back, I wonder what my poor mom would have thought if she had come into the bathroom at the precise moment I’d chosen to play dead and float face down in the tub. I see now where mothers get their gray hair!

But alas, all good things must come to an end and my love affair with Old Clawfoot climaxed when we moved to a new home, complete with a modern bathroom. The plumbing fixtures were truly things of beauty; all tinted a lovely pink. But the old adage, “Pretty is as pretty does,” definitely applied to the new tub. I discovered that Old Clawfoot’s replacement was much too shallow for frogmen and a skinny eight-year-old girl. The days of showers began. The only time I got a decent bath was on visits to my Aunt Hilda, who hadn’t “modernized” and still had her original clawfoot.

Hot and cold water faucets

I grew up, got married, and hurried through my showers. But I never forgot Old Clawfoot and when I came across one in mint condition at a flea market, I hauled it home. Doing a reverse remodeling job in the bathroom, the wall mount tub was taken out and replaced by another clawfoot. I was in heaven. I spent many a relaxing evening bobbing around in bubbles, reading a good book.

Thirty years and two log cabins later, we are still enjoying the restful effects of the clawfoot tubs we chose to install in our rustic bathrooms. They are long, deep, and sleek to the touch. With “hot” and “cold” white enamel water spigots and four taloned feet gripping the daylights out of cast-iron balls, “Old Clawfoot” of my youth lives on. 

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