If we are to judge by the amount of attention it has received from historians, the once popular institution of the Victorian Turkish bath might never have existed at all.
Though David Urquhart’s Turkish Bath Movement was a political movement, it has generally been ignored by political historians. It has also been ignored by social historians and, perhaps most surprisingly, it has but rarely been noticed by local historians.
So I bring it to your attention now—though I fear that in twenty
minutes you will hear no deep insights into such matters as why the Turkish bath
became popular why it was presented to women in the way that it was why it was
unsuccessful in bridging the class divide or whether the English were appropriating an eastern culture.
Here I can only sketch the introduction of the Victorian Turkish bath into nineteenth century London, and indicate how it fared, in an attempt to bring the subject forward as one which is, I suggest, worthy of study, either in its own right, or as one which impinges upon, or exemplifies, some aspect of a subject which is already your own.
I have assumed, so far, that we all know what a Turkish bath is, but to avoid any misunderstanding, it will be as well to indicate what I mean, and what the Victorians meant, by the term Turkish bath.
The Turkish bath, then, is a type of bath in which the bather sweats, in a room which is heated by hot DRY air.
It is this use of hot DRY air which distinguishes the Turkish bath from the medicated vapour bath, or the steam baths usually known as Russian baths, which had been available before 1856.
Its second distinguishing feature is that bathers progress through a series of increasingly hot rooms until they sweat profusely.
There was much correspondence in contemporary medical journals, some of it quite heated, if I can put it that way, about the ‘correct’ temperature for each of the various hot rooms. Much of the data we have is unreliable since few writers bothered to state where they placed their thermometers, but it is safe to say that temperatures ranged from about 110ºF in the first hot room, to as much as 240ºF in the hottest room.
It was the curative, or perhaps the palliative, effect of this high temperature which made the Turkish bath so attractive to hydropathists, and to many doctors who had no other means of alleviating the pain of a rheumatic or gout-ridden patient.
The bather’s perambulation through the various hot rooms, possibly repeated, possibly interspersed with cold showers or a dip in the plunge pool, is followed by a full body wash and massage.
It was these last two processes which, taken together, were known to Victorians as shampooing.
The final part of the Turkish bath—no less important than anything which precedes it—is a period of relaxation in the cooling-room. This can last up to an hour or more, and Victorians relished this part of the bath, and frequently wrote about it in prose of the most purple hue.
A more restrained account, in the Illustrated London News, describes how bathers taking a cold plunge at the London Hammam, are dried by an attendant with a warm sheet which,
envelops us in Eastern fashion, and we are conducted again to a couch in the cooling-room, with our bodies shining like alabaster and as sleek as satin. An attendant then fans us with feathers. Coffee, pipes, sherbet, sweetmeats, fruit, &c, are offered, and a period of entire repose follows, and, in a comparatively short time, vigour returns to the frame, and sensations of unusual strength, lightness, and activity pervade the whole system.