Cabinet and lamp baths:
the DIY Turkish bath for use at home

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

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The DIY Turkish bath

'I do so hope that your Cold is better, — as well as your husband's — & that you have both boiled yourselves over the Turkish Bath.'

So wrote the painter Philip (later Sir Philip) Burne-Jones, son of the better known pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones and uncle of novelist Angela Thirkell, writing in 1890 to a Mrs Hamilton to ask whether he might bring a friend to visit and, undoubtedly, charming her with his delightful sketch.

Portable Turkish baths in hospitals

Thirty years earlier, an Irish surgeon, Mr W R Gore, wrote an article for the local medical press describing the construction of a simple hot-air bath for use in hospitals. Gore had introduced this into the City of Limerick Hospital and, after a period of successful use, hoped that the design would be taken up by other hospitals. It is worth noting that his article was published barely four years after the introduction of the first Turkish bath at St Ann's; London would not get its own Turkish bath till later in the year.

The bath was designed so that the height of the seat could be adjusted. The front of the cabinet opened to allow the patient to enter. A footrest was provided and the patient sat with his or her head outside the cabinet, a position achieved by the use of a somewhat terrifying device reminiscent of a horizontal guillotine. A small flap at the side of the cabinet allowed a hand to be extended to enable an attendant to take the patient's pulse, and a thermometer was also attached to the bath. The author claimed that the bath could easily be constructed for about £2.

The air was heated by one of three recommended methods. The first utilised a special candle heater known as the Laconicum, or Air-bath Heater manufactured by Price's Patent Candle Company, a company which still successfully manufactures candles today. More common, though, was a methylated spirits lamp where the length of wick determined the amount of heat produced. In either case the heater was usually placed on a small tile at the base of the cabinet. If, however, a supply of gas was available, a small heater with a number of gas burners and a control tap was placed outside the cabinet, and was the cheapest means of heating the air.

Heat was seen by Dr Richard Barter to be an effective therapeutic agent in the alleviation of, for example, rheumatic pain. The fact that the body can tolerate a greater level of heat in a dry atmosphere led Gore (and many others) to a preference for the dry air of the Turkish bath over the heavy humidity of the vapour or steam bath.

The amount of temperature that can be borne is of importance, it can be graduated from 100ºF to 160ºF , whereas anything over 105ºF or 110ºF in hot water becomes injurious, and in vapour from 110ºF to 115ºF.

Gore advocated this bath for use in army hospitals and even suggested that its portability might have a secondary value as a packing box for hospital stores.

Ewart's Hot Air Bath was a commercially developed version of this design but it is not known how many were actually sold or used in the home. Health and Safety regulations being non-existent, one can only agree with Lawrence Wright's view that the closeted bather, 'could hardly escape from this pillory in a hurry, and to overfill or overset the spirit lamp would be to invite a dreadful scene'.

The first hospital to build a free-standing Turkish bath in England was the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Infirmary in 1860 and a number of hospitals followed suit in the ensuing years. In 1873 the British Medical Journal's column on descriptions of new inventions carried a report of a new portable Turkish bath designed for hospital use. The idea was to enable the bath to be taken to the patient, rather than the patient being required to go to the Turkish bath. It's portability was enhanced by its ability to be turned completely round in a space little more than its own length, and it could be raised or lowered to enable it to be placed at the same level as the patient's bed. 

Perhaps most important of all, it could be heated to 180ºF in less than ten minutes, and to the full temperature of 220ºF in fifteen. Flexibility was the name of the game: the portable bath allowed the head to remain outside the bath; it could also be used as a medicated or vapour bath and there was every facility for shampooing.

A shower-head is attached, by means of which a copious discharge of tepid or cold water can be suddenly or gradually, at the pleasure of the bather, or attendant, as the case may be, be made to flow.

The bath was invented, patented, and manufactured by William Patch Wyatt and David Jones of Islington, London, and on 19 August 1874, the Patent Turkish Baths Company Limited was set up, with premises at the Weavers Hall, Basinghall Street, to acquire their patents and the manufacturing business.

As with many such inventions, it is difficult to tell how successful or widely used this particular device was. It seems likely that there was also a Turkish bath establishment on the premises which might have helped keep the company afloat. This was purchased, in 1883, by Benjamin Bell, whose Turkish bath there—the building had by now been renamed the Wool Exchange—remained open until 1938. The Patent Turkish Baths company itself was dissolved in 1885, soon after the sale of their premises.

The purchase of such a portable bath would have been a considerable expense for many hospitals and it is probable that most of them used a far simpler device like this one, similar to those used in the mid-1870s at London's Whitechapel Hospital. It comprised a simple wicker support frame resting on the patient's bed. When enclosed by an easily removable material, an air chamber was formed around the patient, into which hot air was fed, through a tube, from an external heater.

Such a heater was extremely adaptable because the hot air could easily be directed, either to the patient's whole body, or else to a particular part of the body if it was determined that heat was required locally on, for example, a single arm or leg. And like the large portable Turkish bath designed for use in hospitals, this much simpler device could be used either to provide hot dry air (for a Turkish bath) or, with the addition of a specially designed water container, steam (for a plain or medicated vapour bath).

This particular model, in a strong wooden box, with two frames for the bed, was made by James Allen of Marylebone Lane and, at the beginning of the twentieth century, still sold for £2.5.0.  in best quality tin or £3.5.0. in strong copper. According to published testimonials, it more than satisfied the likes of Lady Crawford of Aberdeen, as well as others from further afield such as Lieutenant H E Belfield who had his sent to him in Malta where he was stationed.

Although the Allen company clearly claimed (on the heater itself) that they were its inventors and manufacturers, the same device, suitably rebadged, could be found for the same price in the catalogues of, for example, Arnold & Sons, and Maw & Son. The heater comprises a cylindrical air compartment, with an opening at the front. On top of this is a tightly fitting domed top, to which has been attached a right-angled tube and two tapered extensions which act as a heated air duct. Underneath the air compartment, a separate methylated spirits lamp with three wicks is placed. 

Though slightly outside the scope of these pages, it is worth noting that the same heater, suitably augmented, could be used to provide plain or medicated vapour baths. Here, the spirit lamp has been removed for filling. To the left of the heater is a round bottomed container with cylindrical stem which is filled with water and placed inside the heater over the lamp and below the domed top. If the heater is to be used in a cabinet, or beneath a chair (see below) the top of the heater is closed with the cap which stands just in front of the water container. But the vapour can also be directed elsewhere, using the same ducting as that shown above, in place of the heater cap.

A Herb Receiver (on the right in the above image) can be inserted inside the neck of the round water container if a medicated vapour bath is required. Herbs, or other curative agents, are then placed in the receiver so that the vapour passes through them before leaving the heater.

Also in this image (on the left) is a Measure for Lamp which holds just the right amount of methylated spirits to fill the lamp within the heater.

Portable Turkish baths in the home

In the home, too, portable Turkish baths were increasingly popular amongst those who could afford them. Cabinets were upright with an inbuilt seat or, more usually, were designed to enclose a chair to be provided by the purchaser.

Two forms of enclosure predominated, the first being a type of crinoline which was worn cloak-like by the bather. The second utilised a frame which was attached to the bather's chair (sometimes called the 'crinoline frame') and was similar in construction to that used in the hospital hot-air bed bath. The model shown above right, excluding the chair, was sold by James Allen & Son c.1910 for £2. 10. 0. in tin and £3. 10. 0. in copper. The spirit lamp was still the favoured heater for this type of bath, but it was now a little safer, being supplied with a spirit measure (to avoid overfilling) and an extinguisher (to ensure that the wick did not re-ignite after use). 

More comfortable, was the box-framed enclosure which was usually a metal framework covered with flexible material. Being light in weight at under 20lb (9kg), this was considered especially suitable for use by women. Several companies targeted their advertising at women, emphasising the bath's ability to clear the complexion 'leaving it clean and soft as velvet' and, less accurately, as an aid which 'REDUCES SURPLUS FLESH'. Such portable Turkish baths started at 25/- including the spirit heater. It was claimed that in less than half an hour, the air temperature could be raised to 170ºF.

"Penelope", the author of a regular syndicated feature for women called Our ladies' column, by one of themselves, wrote that she had recently been presented with such a bath so that,

now when the wind blows bitterly through my windows, and 'all the world seems dark and dreary' to my poisoned mental vision in consequence, I need no longer to take refuge in the pleasant atmosphere of my little conservatory, as I have often done for the sake of the all pervading warmth, which I feel necessary to a correct estimate of things as I pen my weekly letter. In future when life ceases to be interesting, and I feel rigid and miserable, I shall get into my Cabinet Turkish Bath and set my skin at work instead of my brain…

After sitting in it for half an hour, a tepid cold sponge bath and brisk rubbing with rough towels should follow, and the sensation of relief and comfort is experienced which only those who attend to their skins, as important factors in good health, can realise. My cabinet bath was bought in London, but I suppose I must not say where.

Spirit and gas lamps were still the favoured form of heater, though by now all but the least expensive models placed the heater outside the enclosure, the hot air being funneled through a duct into the space beneath the bather's chair. Gas heaters were considered the most convenient since it was easier to control the temperature and the cabinet warmed up more speedily.

At this time, better off homes were lit by gas and among the many Turkish bath cabinets manufactured by the Gem company was one that plugged into the light socket. Their 'No.1 Bath, with Gas Outside Stove' cost 60/-, to which had to be added extra tubing 'with push-on ends to connect the tube to the bather's own gas jet. 4ft and 6ft lengths cost 2/6d and 4/- respectively.

A strong advocate of the home Turkish bath was Gordon Stables, well known to parents as the pseudonymous 'Medicus' who advised their children on health matters in the Boys' Own Paper and Girls' Own Paper. He wrote a book on Turkish baths which seems to have been published at his own expense. He was also the author of innumerable adventure stories for boys, a fact which can, perhaps, be deduced from his extraordinary account of the arrival, from the local railway station, of his cabinet bath. 

A box! Whatever could it be, we wondered. It was not the season for sending anything particular from the country. Christmas was a long way ahead, and grouse shooting had not begun. We undid the outer covering and exposed it to view. It was shaped like a spirit-case, but it could not be that. 'That box may contain' we mused, as we gazed on it, 'untold luxury in the shape of tea, or a new patent photographic apparatus, or a magic lantern, or an English concertina, or—yes—or—or—or a land torpedo sent by a Fenian, that will explode when we lift the lid, blow the roof off the house, and send us sailing away skywards, accompanied by the furniture and things.

We clapped a cautious ear to the lid and listened. There was no suspicious ticking audible within, so we summoned up courage and—opened the box, and lo! and behold, Allen's portable Turkish bath.

Another variant of the portable Turkish bath sold by James Allen & Sons was the Tourist's or Traveller's Bath. In effect this comprised a stove which was used in conjunction with, for example, one's host's chair and towel, and which was small enough for a cyclist to take in his bag. (Stables also wrote guide books for the touring cyclist.) But the Tourist's bath had other uses as well and could boil water to make tea or coffee. Furthermore, in conjunction with the outside cover of the apparatus, it could be 'used for frying Bacon, Chop, Steak, or cooking Omelettes, etc. It has an extra thick plate to prevent burning.'

Given the methods used to heat the air in the cabinet bath, it would be surprising if there were no records of fatal accidents. In 1885, Swimming Notes published a letter from a Mr G A Roberts advising readers with less safety consciousness than we should expect today, that you do not need to do without a Turkish bath just because the local Council will not build one.

A spirit lamp (which can be purchased for one shilling) is placed under a cane-bottomed chair, upon which the bather sits, denuded of all clothing save a gown or wrapper made for the purpose (a large heavy blanket will do), which fits closely round the neck, falling over the knees and leg, enveloping the entire chair except the back, near the floor, left open for the escape of fumes and admission of air...The cost of the bath is one penny, that being the price of the spirit. 

Almost immediately a reader must have alerted the editor to the dangerous nature of this type of bath by drawing his attention to the recent death of Dr W B Carpenter. This leading London physician had himself been in the habit of regularly taking such a bath in his own home. Two weeks after printing Mr Roberts' letter, the editor followed up by referring to Dr Carpenter's death.

...The bath that had for so long cost him but a penny per day, at last cost him his life. We therefore trust that those of our readers who may use a similar bath will take every possible precaution to avoid accidents, fatal or otherwise. In the event of the spirit-lamp being upset, it will be well to promptly divest ourselves of the blanket in which we are wrapped, and by covering the flames with it, exclude the air which is as necessary to the spread of fire as breathing is to our existence.

Although wood-panelled Turkish bath cabinets were more expensive than those discussed so far, they had a number of advantages. Sturdiness was an obvious factor. Constantine's Turkish Baths in Oxford Street, Manchester, perhaps surprisingly for an establishment dependent on personal bathers, sold simple wooden cabinet baths in the mid 1880s for £4, with the spirit heater costing an additional 8/-.

The solid construction of most of these baths made them definitely transportable rather than portable. But the major advantage was safety since it was easier to use an external heating apparatus which could be firmly attached to the cabinet.

In the 1890s, the Gem Wood Bath Cabinet, was 'Absolutely the Safest, Most Complete, Effective, Durable, and Handsome Bath Cabinet in the World', cost eleven guineas, complete with choice of gas or spirit external heater in copper, adjustable seat, bookrest, and a book of directions.

Nevertheless, many of the early chair-supported frame baths were still in use at the end of the nineteenth century; even, as we discovered from Philip Burne-Jones's sketch of the Hamiltons' bath, in families where expense would not have been a primary factor to be considered when selecting a Turkish cabinet bath.

In Germany, in the early 1900s (though it undoubtedly originated earlier) it was possible to purchase a version of the hot-air bed bath known as a schwitzbad, or sweating-bath. The Krauss System bath, for example, looked like a sitzbath with the addition of a cloak, similar in function to that used in the crinoline bath. The hot air was supplied, as in most cabinet baths, by an external gas or spirit lamp.

Cabinet baths rapidly declined in popularity after the end of World War I, though surviving still for several decades afterwards. In 1939, the Army & Navy Stores catalogue, for example, was still offering the No.2 Gem Special Cabinet at £6. 5. 6. including an external tin heater, or for £7. 1. 6. with an external copper heater. Both versions had 'double walls of specially prepared sanitary, germ-proof fabric', coloured black inside and out. Did they, perhaps, come in handy during the Blitz?

This page revised and reformatted 02 January 2023

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Charles Kiddle for information about the Schwitzbad poster stamp

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

Philip Burne-Jones's sketch of the Hamilton's Turkish bath

W R Gore's hospital hot-air bath

Ewart's hot-air bath

Portable Turkish bath for hospitals

Allen's hospital hot-air bath for use in bed

Arnold's hot air and vapour bath for local application

Allen's hot-air and vapour bath heater

'Crinoline' bath supplied by F Walters and Co

Chair-frame bath supplied by James Allen & Son

Part of an advertisement for the Century Turkish bath cabinet

Connecting to the gas supply (with key to diagram)

Gordon Stables ('Medicus')

Stove from the Tourist's Turkish bath

Advertisement: The delight of bathing

Foot's Bath Cabinet: Advertisement

Poster stamp of the Schwitzbad

Ellis & Co Cabinet Turkish bath, 1870s

Herb receiver

Measure for Lamp

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