Hot Tubs Mount Their Steamy Comeback

Around October of last year, while having Zoom drinks with a friend I hadn’t seen since the spring, I mentioned that I was really missing my monthly schvitz at the Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village. It had become a routine: for a couple of hours every month, I’d sit in an old, dark building around a bunch of strangers, each of us with our individual reasons for paying for the privilege to sweat. It was one of the things I looked forward to the most. I missed the experience of bathing with other people.

“You should try hot tubbing,” my friend mentioned. I laughed and let out a little “Yeah…,” and then changed the subject. Little did I realize that conversation would lead to a new obsession.

Humans have been bathing together for centuries. The Egyptians did it, the Greeks did it, and the Romans seemed to especially love it. The first known Jewish mikvahs (ritual baths) started appearing around the first century. The earliest mention of a banya in Eastern Europe goes back to the 13th century, and Japan’s first sentō was built in 1591. Native Americans built sweat lodges, the Finnish are known for their saunas, and in the 1800s, spending time bathing in the hot springs of France, Italy, or even out west in California became a status symbol among wealthy health nuts.

It was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul tried to bring that feeling home. “There has been some mild controversy over the origin,” Leon Elder wrote in 1975, in his book Hot Tubs Year ‘Round, which says the first modern hot tub was “observed” in 1958 in the foothills of Santa Barbara. A “disparate group of young settlers” called the Mountain Drivers had a homemade tub with a “makeshift water-heating system” that used “diesel oil dripping into a stove pipe with a vacuum cleaner turned backwards for a blower,” for a tub made of timbers originally used to hold cargo onto railroad cars.

By the time Elder wrote his book, the hot tub occupied an interesting place in the culture: earthy boomers loved to soak outside in nature, while horny boomers loved to have sex in hot tubs. The hot tub was the place where former flower children and swinging disco cats could find harmony. Hot tubs became inextricable from the sexual revolution and were often portrayed as a relic of its seedy aftermath; think John C. Reilly as Reed Rothchild reciting a poem to Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, or Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch on SNL as “The Love-ahs.” Eventually, in-house whirlpool baths—almost always referred to as “the Jacuzzi,” even though that’s not always the case since Jacuzzi is a brand—became a staple of the American McMansion bathroom. As a result, the hot tub as a place for communal gathering took a backseat. America, it seemed, had forgotten how to tub together.

Hot tubbing occupies an interesting place between wellness and sleazy kitsch. Studies have shown that soaking in a hot tub can relax muscles, lessen stress and help people sleep better. But as Margaret Bienert of the Instagram account A Pretty Cool Hotel Tour points out, the sleaze element has predominated in recent years. “We get so many comments about how “disgusting” or “unsanitary” old tubs are — even though we share cleaning tips — and it makes me sad that people spread so much misinformation about using them,” Bienert says. “I’ve talked to a few doctors to make sure they’re not actually unsanitary.”

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