As scientists raced to build the first atomic weapon during WWII, they were required to sacrifice their time, academic careers, energy, bathtubs, and more in the remote desert highlands of New Mexico.
As World War II raged into the 1940s, each country in the war was an avid participant in the race for scientific advancement. With such high stakes, the United States invested two billion dollars—over $33 billion today—in the creation of the atomic bomb. This massive project was dubbed the Manhattan Project, after its headquarters in New York, despite largely taking place in the remote highlands of New Mexico.
While the United States had fiscal resources to invest in the project, they did not have much time. Both the Germans and the Soviets were developing their own nuclear weapons, and it seemed that whoever discovered how to harness the power of the atom first would win the war. The speed and urgency of the venture inevitably meant that some details were overlooked. Construction teams were tasked with building housing for thousands of men, women, and children in the remote deserts of New Mexico in total secrecy. The workmanship of many of these early houses was shoddy at best. Project builders were not only short on time, but materials. In particular, iron was a scarce resource and largely reserved for the war effort. Understandably, it could hardly be used for iron bathtubs. Due to these factors, the majority of scientists, military personnel, and their families lived in small, relatively iron-less, hastily built homes with only a few variations of bathroom fixtures—none of which included bathtubs.
Only a single row of houses had the luxury of bathtubs because they were built before the war and had originally belonged to teachers of a secondary boys’ ranch school. These “master cottages” were some of the only buildings already built when the government bought the land and were a coveted luxury. Reserved for men such as Nobel-Prize winning Englishman Sir James Chadwick, explosives expert George Kistiakowsky, bomb designer Max Roy, ordnance director William S. “Deak” Parsons, and head scientist Robert J. Oppenheimer, bathtubs were a sign of prestige in this secret New Mexico town. According to local legend, Alice Kimball Smith, wife of scientist Cyril Smith, coined the term “bathtub row.” This effectively differentiated between the comfortable ranch school homes with bathtubs and those of government construction with showers.
Despite the obvious disparity, many on Bathtub Row were willing to share their good fortune. Robert Oppenheimer was reportedly a generous host who invited many in the community into his home for classified discussions, drinks, and dinner parties. Ordnance director William S. Parsons’ home was fortunate enough to have two bathtubs. He often allowed military men to use them if they were injured and unable to stand for long periods of time under a shower. These bathtubs were also used to entice babysitters who would be rewarded with a relaxing soak in their neighbor’s home in exchange for an afternoon taking care of the owners’ children.
Today, these houses are privately owned, but remain part of the Los Alamos National Historical Landmark District. In 2007, the Los Alamos population petitioned to change the street name from 20th to Bathtub Row. The community has continued to embrace this humorous anecdote from WWII through naming the local brewing co-op after the iconic row of houses. It stands as a reminder of the simple luxuries many relinquished in favor of supporting the American effort during WWII.