August 17, 1936
In 1936 the Capitol basement took on the atmosphere of an archaeological dig. On August 17, workers uncovered two artifacts better suited to the Senate of Ancient Rome than to its modern counterpart. Large, marble, dusty, these strange objects aroused much curiosity. “Old, sunken marble bathtubs down in the caverns of the Capitol—sorely in need of a good scrubbing—have revived something of a major mystery,” noted the Washington Evening Star. “What about those bathtubs?” reporters asked Capitol Architect David Lynn. “What about what bathtubs?” Lynn responded. “I’ve been here over 40 years,” Capitol Engineer Arthur Cook told reporters, “and I’ve never been able to find out anything about [the tubs].…It’s just one of those unsolvable mysteries.”
Five days later, 71-year-old Abraham Lincoln Goodall solved the mystery. Employed in the Senate Folding Room in the 1880s, Goodall’s career included an opportunity to bathe in a Senate tub. “I was only a boy at the time,” he remarked, “and I was mighty pleased when the president pro tem…gave me a pass to the baths.” Recalling the heyday of the Senate baths, Goodall described the rare privilege of soaking in a tub supplied with hot water. “That was before the bathtub had come into general use,” he explained, “and those sunken marble [tubs] seemed pretty fine.” With Goodall’s assistance, reporters pieced together the history of the tubs.
In 1858, as the Capitol’s new Senate wing neared completion, Senator James Pearce (MD) informed engineer Montgomery Meigs that “he and thirteen other Senators think it desirable that…a few bathing tubs should be provided.” At the time, most senators lived in boarding houses, where bathing facilities were primitive. The nearly completed Washington Aqueduct promised to greatly improve living standards by bringing running water to homes and businesses. One of the first beneficiaries of the new technology would be the U.S. Capitol—and its new tubs.
Meigs ordered six large tubs of Italian Carrara marble. He installed them in a basement room decorated with Minton floor tiles, ornamental plaster, and walnut panels that offered privacy to bathers. The Senate purchased towels, sponges, and soap, hired attendants, and by 1860 the baths were in operation. According to the New York Times, the facilities were “truly palatial.”
The baths quickly became a place to relax, socialize, and even prepare for a major speech. In 1888 the Evening Star explained: “[Members] write the speech, commit it to memory, take a bath, and then deliver it!” A generous senator also shared the luxury. After giving a constituent a tour of the Capitol, as a special honor the senator invited him to take a bath. A House member once made the mistake of offering this perk to a lady visitor. “Won’t you go down and take a bath?” he asked. Indignant, the woman fled the building.
By the 1890s most senators occupied homes with up-to-date plumbing, and the Senate baths fell into disrepair. Eventually, four tubs were removed. The two that still remain were buried behind temporary walls and mechanical equipment, forgotten—until 1936 when workers excavated the site and stirred up the mystery of the old Senate tubs.