You could write whole books (and people have) on the history of the shower. But the history of the shower head itself is very brief.
It’s not because shower heads are new. Modern shower heads have been around for nearly 250 years. It’s because there hasn’t been much development over their history. You might be surprised to learn that most of the shower heads being sold today are not significantly different in design from the ones our great-great-grandparents used.
The History of the Bathroom
Bathing and showering (under a water spout) have been practiced by people throughout recorded history. All the major ancient civilizations had ways of piping water indoors. In the case of the Greeks and Romans, it was even heated.
But up until the late Victorian era, having a room in your house set aside for bathing or showering was an extravagance that could only be afforded by the very rich.
In the mid-nineteenth century, even before germs were identified as the cause of disease, public health officials discovered that drinking water tainted with even the tiniest amount of human waste would make people sick. So city planners began creating the plumbing infrastructure that would provide clean water in one pipe and remove sewage through another.
Running water soon became a feature in even the most modest houses and apartments, and the convenience of hot water from the tap soon followed. Continued improvements in plumbing and an overall social trend towards personal cleanliness created demand for a room in the house dedicated to bathing.
By the turn of the 20th century, the bathroom was becoming a standard part of every new house. It had a sink, a flushing toilet, and a bathtub which could also be used as a shower.
Early Shower Head Design
The 1907 catalog of plumbing fixtures from the J.L. Mott Iron Works of New York City shows model bathrooms that look completely familiar to us. Especially with the recent trend in vintage-looking fixtures.
Mott’s shower heads consisted of a nozzle, which attached to the water pipe, covered with a round “face” with little holes in it. Depending on the size and shape of the holes and the pressure of the water, the shower would spray down on the user with varying degrees of force.
This 1907 design was actually little changed from shower heads sold fifty or even a hundred years earlier: a nozzle to channel the water and round plate with holes to convert the stream into a spray.
And for the next 85 years this basic shower head designed changed little. Until the U.S. Congress got serious about water conservation.
1992: The Year Everything Changed
Following the lead of several states’ conservation efforts, the federal government enacted national water flow standards in the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 1992. It set minimum efficiency standards for toilets, faucets, urinals, and showers. Under the new law shower heads were not to exceed a flow rate of more than 2.5 gallons per minute (GPM) at a water pressure of 80 pounds per square inch (psi).
People find that a shower flowing at 2.5 GPM is the minimum for a satisfying experience. It’s enough water to feel thoroughly wet and adequate to rinse off soap and shampoo. Though not every shower head design performs well even at this moderately high rate.
However, with many states needing to conserve even more water and showers accounting for more than a third of household indoor water usage, a new generation of even more efficient shower heads have been introduced. In order to earn the EPA’s WaterSense certification, a shower head must use 2.0 GPM or less. Some of the new low flow heads are rated at even lower flow rates, such as 1.8 or 1.5 GPM, saving significantly more water.
But this extra conservation has a noticeable cost. In order to achieve this lower rate, most manufacturers have kept the standard flow dampening regulator design and simply made the holes in the shower head smaller. The result is an even more constricted spray, with bigger gaps between the water jets and a less satisfying overall experience.
Some showerhead makers have also aerated their sprays, adding air to the shower water to try to fill in the gaps. As a result, their sprays are frequently misty, which feels less “wet”. Finally, because the holes are smaller, they also tend to clog up faster, from the fine particles that used to pass more freely through the old shower heads.
Finally, A Design Without The Holes
In 2006 David Malcolm invented a shower head with a flow rate of 1.5 GPM that feels like it’s using 2.5 GPM. And High Sierra Showerheads was born.
Our design doesn’t rely on forcing less water through smaller and smaller holes. It doesn’t add air to the water. It doesn’t clog. And the hundreds of people who’ve written online reviews have reported that it gives them the best feeling shower they’ve ever had.
The Victorian shower head has finally entered the 21st century.