Towards a history of the Victorian Turkish bath:
a preliminary review of some of the available sources

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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline

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1. Hot-air bathing before the Victorian Turkish bath

In 1856, after a break of over fourteen hundred years, the hot dry-air bath was re-introduced into the British Isles. The history of this Victorian institution, spuriously known as the Turkish bath, has not previously been systematically explored; it has, indeed, been almost totally ignored.

There is no shortage of writing on the subject—for those willing to seek it out—yet taken as a whole, it hardly comprises a literature in any academic sense of the word. These notes, therefore, after briefly outlining a long ‘prehistory’, are intended to draw attention to some of the more useful sources of information which might lead the historian towards a feeling that the history of the Victorian Turkish bath is more interesting than might have been expected.

Definitions and background

Finding an accurate definition of Turkish bath is not easy; those to be found in most modern dictionaries tend to bewilder rather than elucidate. They range from the inexact, through the confused, to the totally incorrect.

As noted earlier, the phrase—as it will be used on this site—is defined thus:

Turkish bath noun 1 a type of bath in which the bather sweats freely in a room heated by hot dry air (or in a series of two or three such rooms maintained at progressively higher temperatures), usually followed by a cold plunge, a full body wash and massage, and a final period of relaxation in a cooling-room.
2 (sometimes pl.) an establishment offering Turkish baths.

As generally understood, bathing is the process of immersing the body, or part of the body, in a medium which enables it to be cleansed or medically treated. Water is the most usual medium and, for public bathing even today, the use of extremely hot water is still the preferred medium among the Japanese. But alternatives to water—such as asses’ milk, mud, steam, or hot dry air—can be used to beautify, medicate, or produce cleansing sweat.

Public steam baths are known to have been in use in the ancient city-state of Sparta, although public bathing, even in Europe, almost certainly predates this. Spartan bathers would remain in the steam until they were sweating profusely and then immediately plunge into an adjacent cold water pool to cool down again.

The use of steam baths spread, first throughout Greece, then later, westwards to Rome. The practice seems to have travelled also in a northerly direction, originating from early Greek settlements in the south of what is now Ukraine and, thereafter, becoming widespread in much of the area which was, until recently, known as the Soviet Union. As a result, steam and vapour baths are often still referred to as Russian baths.

The Finnish sauna is often thought to have developed from the Russian bath, but most authorities believe that this unique building, ie, the sauna (wherein the bather is able to change hot dry air into hot wet air and back again at will) developed independently in Finland.

But it was the Romans who, by adopting the concept of the public bath and developing it to an extremely sophisticated level, were pre-eminent in the provision of bathing facilities to an extent which has not been surpassed to this day. In Rome itself, the first public baths (Balnea) appear to have been built during the second century bce, and in the following years public bathing found increasing favour.

The Roman baths

It is difficult to determine when the Romans first began bathing in rooms heated by air which was not only hot, but also dry. However, it seems unlikely that this would have been possible until after the development of the hypocaust as an effective hot-air central heating system.

Roman engineers were unable to measure specific temperatures, but they would have been only too conscious of the constraining fact that a steam bath could have but one temperature—that of steam. The use of a hypocaust made it relatively easy to maintain a sequence of rooms at increasingly high temperatures, depending on the size of each room and its proximity to the source of the circulating hot air. The hottest room was known as the laconicum, a word derived from Laconian (the Romanised form of Spartan).

After the adoption of the hypocaust, Roman baths typically included (in addition to the rooms heated by dry air) a steam room, cold plunge pool, and rest rooms. Roman bathers repeatedly moved between different types of bath, alternating between hot dry air and the steam rooms, and between the cold water and the hot water baths.

During the centuries which followed, the range of facilities grew to such an extent that the great imperial thermae (hot baths) of Caracalla and Diocletian were like palatial leisure centres set in beautiful public gardens. They included swimming pools, and areas for ball games, wrestling and exercising with weights, not to mention a variety of relaxation areas, galleries and libraries.

Fikret Yegül, in his scholarly but eminently readable Baths and bathing in classical antiquity, devotes several well-illustrated chapters to the various types of bath to be found in Greece, Rome, Asia Minor and the Middle East, placing special emphasis on the architecture of the baths and the manner in which each was used. There is also an important detailed account of the heating and water supply systems used by the Romans.

Further information is to be found in Inge Nielsen’s two-volume study Thermae et balnea which limits its coverage to the architecture and cultural history of Roman baths open to the public. Descriptions of the baths are arranged geographically, but there is also valuable information relating to such matters as the water system, fuel consumption, admission fees, and staffing. An appendix on the areas and components of the baths explains their origins, functions, and the etymology of the words which describe them—words such as apodyterium (undressing-room), frigidarium (cooling-room), tepidarium (warm room), and caldarium (hot room) which the Victorians, perhaps somewhat pretentiously, often used in describing their own baths.

Garrett G Fagan's Bathing in public in the Roman world in which the emphasis, unusual and most welcome, is on bathing and the bathers, rather than the on the baths as architectural constructions. In particular, Garrett looks at questions which in due course will be discussed on this site in relation to the Victorian Turkish bath: the bath as cleanser and curative agent; how the baths spread and why they were they so popular.

As the area under Roman control expanded, so the number of Roman baths increased. Eventually they were to be found in almost every corner of their empire. In Britain, the baths whose extensive remains can still be seen in the City of Bath (the Roman Aquae Sulis) were, perhaps, the most impressive. Of the many books about them, Roman Bath discovered by Barry Cunliffe, Director of the most recent excavations there, is both scholarly and accessible.

On the British mainland there are currently more than thirty sites where partial remains of Roman baths are open to public view. For the general reader, Tony Rook's Roman baths in Britain is a first class mini-guide which deals with their history, construction, and use. Illustrated with photographs, drawings and plans, it also includes a gazetteer listing all the sites.

In Rome, the building of baths as luxurious as those of Caracalla did not last. Increasingly frequent attacks on the western provinces led in 476 ce to the end of the western empire. As in Britain, many public baths were among the buildings which were destroyed, or which later fell into disrepair and eventual ruin.

By contrast with the western empire, the Roman empire of the east was rich, well populated, and less subject to foreign attack. The Emperor Constantine’s capital, the New Rome, later renamed Constantinople (and more recently, Istanbul), contributed to the economic wellbeing and survival, for almost a further thousand years, of what later became known as the Byzantine Empire.

The Islamic bath, or, hammáám

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Roman bath was adopted, and adapted, by the Muslim Ottoman conquerors. Ritual bathing and cleanliness are intrinsic to Islam, and the Islamic bath is a felicitous combination of the religious bathing tradition of the Muslim, and the elaborate bathing procedures of the Romans. 

A typical hammáám (more frequently spelled hammam in modern English) includes a warm room, hot room, and steam room, with dressing rooms and areas for massage, relaxation, and refreshment—but omits the Roman cold plunge or swimming pool.

As the Roman bath followed the Roman legions, so the Islamic bath followed the Ottomans. Lavishly enriched with mosaic designs and furnished with fountains and decorative pools, such opulence could be found as far afield as Aleppo in Syria, and Granada in Moorish Spain. 

More prosaic baths can be found all over western Asia, Arabia, and the Maghreb, while the remains of disused baths can be seen, for example, among the Moorish buildings of Gerona in Spain, and the Turkish buildings of Hania in Crete.

The public bath in Britain

In Britain, however, the Roman baths appear to have fallen into disuse quite soon after the departure of their Roman builders; English crusaders returning from foreign excursions reported their discovery of Islamic bathing practices in the belief that they had previously been totally unknown in their homeland.

But although the use of hot-air baths ceased after the Romans left Britain, other forms of public bathing appeared from time to time. The Russian, steam, or vapour bath, either plain or medicated, was just one of several types available during the first years of Queen Victoria’s reign to those who could afford their use. Roth provides a good description of Russian vapour and steam baths in the 1850s, with an illustration of his own establishment in London’s Old Cavendish Street.

For those unable to afford such luxuries, publicly funded provision of hot and cold water baths first became possible after the passing of the Public Baths and Wash-houses Acts of 1846 and 1847. The acts themselves were not mandatory but, if adopted, two classes of bath had to be provided, with maximum charges of 1d and 2d for cold and hot baths respectively.

The original page includes one or more enlargeable thumbnail images.
Any enlarged images, listed and linked below, can also be printed.

Modern steam bath at the Panorama Sauna, Holzweiler, Germany

Modern electric sauna

Hot-air tunnel leading to hypocaust at Trier

The laconicum at Wall, just off the Watling Street in Staffordshire

The Yalbougha al-Nasri Hammam, Aleppo, Syria

The 'Arab' Baths, rebuilt c.1295, in Gerona, Spain

Enamel street sign for Schewchik's famous vapour baths in London's East End

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