Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Folding Bathtub of Toledo

As I was flipping through an old issue of Popular Mechanics, I came across an advertisement for a “folding bathtub” made in Toledo. I paused, whether because a pretty girl was in the bathtub, or that it mentioned a long defunct Toledo manufacturer, or that a folding bathtub was an oddity, to say the least – I do not remember. But all three reasons led me to dig through a pile of never sorted Toledo advertising covers. Collector’s luck again – I had, already in my possession, an advertising cover for “The Robinson Thermal Bath Company.” So with some help from my friends at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, I set out to recall the history of the folding bathtub of Toledo.

The bathtub was manufactured in Toledo from before 1896 to about 1913. It was made by the Robinson Manufacturing Company, sometimes listed as the Robinson Thermal Bath Co. or as the Robinson Bath Cabinet Co. Their location hopped around as well; at different times their address was 714 Jefferson, 900-914 Summit, and 2036 Adams.

The company made their bathtubs in various styles. In the early days of its existence, the favorite style had a rubber exterior attached to a wooden framework. When assembled it stood upright, and looked more like a shower than a bathtub. An flame heated the interior, creating a sauna-type upright bathtub. Later models featured a more traditional oblong shape. “Costs little, no plumbing, little water. . . . folds into a small roll.,” proclaimed one advertisement.

Many of the contemporary advertisements trumpeted a “free book” for interested consumers. Also part of every ad was the continuous calls for salesmen. “We Want Live Agents! (1898). “ “Agents Wanted - $500 in gold will be given to our best agents this year (1901).” “Write for special agents offer (1912).” Although we have no records of whether these urgent appeals for salesmen panned out, they lead to the question of whether Robinson’s main business was selling bathtubs or selling salesmen.

You can still buy a folding bathtub. There are a couple of manufacturers in the U.S., but several hundred in China and other parts of Asia. This makes sense for a crowded country where space is at a premium. Serious campers and some infant caregivers still find them useful in the States. But the days when Toledo sent (or hoped to send) an army of bathtub salesmen all over the Midwest are as gone as last night’s bathwater.

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