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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline
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In her paper, Profit is a dirty word, Sally Sheard rightly notes that the development of local authority baths and wash-houses is still a neglected aspect of 19th century sanitary reform which, in the popular view, is seen mainly in terms of cholera, Chadwick, and construction—that is to say, the construction of waterworks and sewers.
I would add a further over-simplification: that other components of sanitary reform—the so-called ‘popular’ movements in the pursuit of cleanliness—were often middle-class movements pursuing the cleanliness of the poor—and here I’m thinking, for example, of the Ladies Sanitary Association with their tracts, house visits, and free bars of soap.
In this paper I want to introduce David Urquhart’s Turkish Bath Movement, a movement which has, till now, been totally absent from any discussion of 19th century sanitary reform.
Yet it was this movement which was the initial stimulus, albeit followed by a ten-year synapse, which led to the provision of Turkish baths by local authorities adopting the Baths and Wash-houses Acts.
Since Turkish baths often mean different things to different people, it may be as well, before proceeding any further, to clarify what I mean, and what the Victorians meant, by the phrase Turkish bath.
The Victorian Turkish bath, then, is a type of bath in which the bather sweats in a room which is heated by hot DRY air—and it is this use of DRY air which distinguishes the Victorian Turkish bath from the medicated vapour bath, or the steam baths usually known as Russian baths, both of which had been available in the British Isles well before 1856.
Its second distinguishing feature is that bathers progress through a series of increasingly hot rooms, usually three, until they sweat profusely, often repeating the process, with possible diversions in the direction of showers, or a quick dip in the cold plunge pool.
This leisurely perambulation is followed by a massage and full body wash, these last two processes, taken together, being known to Victorians as shampooing.
The final part of the Turkish bath—no less important than anything which precedes it—is a longish period of relaxation in the cooling-room.