Performance in the raw:
some aspects of the ritual of the
Victorian Turkish bath

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

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This paper was given at the
British Association for Victorian Studies Conference
Victorian performances:
performance and performability
in the culture and society of the nineteenth century

at the University of Lancaster
on Saturday 8 September 2001

1. The stages of the Turkish bath

‘Since not everyone’, wrote Trollope, ‘has taken a Turkish bath in Jermyn Street we will give the shortest possible description of the position,’ —which he then proceeds to do over the next four pages of the short story which opens in David Urquhart’s fashionable London Hammam.

The Hammam was, perhaps, the most important of the more than 600 Victorian, or Victorian-style Turkish baths which I have so far identified. Only five Victorian-built Turkish baths remain open today, so it is not surprising that there is much confusion as to what a Turkish bath actually is.

I hope, therefore, you will forgive my following in Trollope’s footsteps by first indicating what I mean, and what the Victorians meant by the term. And if my description is rather less stylish than his, it will at least be more concise.

The 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 Turkish bath from the medicated vapour bath, or the steam baths usually known as Russian baths, 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 short 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.

So we see, in four sentences, that there are several stages in the taking of a Turkish bath

‘Stages’ is the word I normally use when describing the bath, but on this occasion, a self-questioning double-take suggested that it might be worth finding out whether the word was used by Victorians in this context and, if so, in what sense.

This page reformatted and slightly revised 14 January 2022

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Jermyn Street Hammam cooling-room

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