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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4. The ritual of the towels

In 1858, before the general availability of Turkish baths, Urquhart welcomed visitors of all classes to his Riverside home near Rickmansworth.

Personal friends, patients of doctors who wished to see whether the bath could help them, working-class members of his Foreign Affairs Committees, even a meeting of the London Medical Society—anyone with a serious interest in the Turkish bath was made welcome—and greeted with the same set of rules framed so none might feel at a disadvantage through lack of experience. They start:

The remainder deal with such matters as the removal of outdoor shoes before entering the changing room, covering one’s nakedness with a loin-cloth, the shampooing process, and politeness (interpreted as not disturbing other bathers).

The two baths at Riverside are open for the use of persons suffering from disease, only on the following conditions:—

I. The bath being the practice of a cleanly and polite people, the habits of cleanliness and politeness must be observed. Visitors, therefore, must seek to learn from the attendants how to conduct themselves.

Each new establishment embellished its own guidelines.

The Nottingham Hammam, for example, wrote:

It will have been gathered...that it is no light and frivolous matter this bathing at the new establishment in Parliament Street, to be rushed through with airy precipitance. The pleasing and sensual rites and ceremonies should be undertaken in a serious and proper frame of mind.

There is only space here to touch on three examples of the ritual of the Turkish bath. First, the ritual of the towels.

While male nudity continued as the norm for British sea bathers until well into the nineteenth century, Turkish bath proprietors determined to preclude any suggestion that they were merely modern bagnios, or brothels. Christianity had encouraged the destruction of the bath in the Western Roman Empire and nudity has no place in the Islamic hammam, which from the beginning dispensed with the Roman plunge pool. Hence the prescription of a variety of towels, each with a different function.

At St Ann’s hydropathic establishment in Co. Cork, it was simple:

you undress—the attendant holding a large sheet before you as a screen. You are then attired in a flowing robe, tied round the waist, which comes down below your knees; a sheet is thrown over your shoulders…

But when the London Hammam opened in 1862, it was already more complicated.

The visitor having undressed, and his garments placed in a napkin kept for them, an attendant brings him five cloths. First there is the mahzani, or loin-towel, with its blue and red border two yards wide, which is put round the body, and a second cloth, the futa, is put around the shoulders. The remaining three cloths are used for drying the body after the douche which follows the bath, and for enveloping the body when the bather is led back again to the cooling-room.

As late as the end of the nineteenth century, proprietors were still much concerned with nudity in what was, after all, a single sex bath. Some of the better class establishments had a plunge pool straddling the caldarium and the frigidarium, the rooms being separated by a plate glass panel which stretched from ceiling to water level, and under which it was possible to swim. According to Robert Owen Allsop, author of the standard work, indeed the only work written by an architect, on the design of the Victorian Turkish bath,

The demands of decency must be borne constantly in mind by the architect of a Turkish bath. If the bather, on leaving the plunge-bath, finds himself in the frigidarium, he must ascend the steps under hanging towels.

The method now adopted in this country—a direct importation from the East—is to suspend a hoop from the ceiling, and from this hang cords attached to towels. This can be swung by an attendant over the end of the bath, and in it the bather can dry himself and be wrapped in towels before proceeding to his couch.

Quite a performance!

There seems to have been no fixed number of towels issued, and (apart from the loin-cloth) no standard way of wearing them; each establishment devised its own particular routine.

Trollope gently mocks the aficionado who flaunts his knowledge of what to do with the second of the towels provided. I quote him, even though his story is well-known, since such affectionate teasing of those who feel the bath must be an oriental experience is not only delightful, but helps illuminate contemporary attitudes.

some there are who carry it under the arm,—simply as a towel; but these are they who, from English perversity, wilfully rob the institution of that picturesque orientalism which should be its greatest charm. A few are able to wear the article as a turban, and that no doubt should be done by all who are competent to achieve the position. We have observed that men who can do so enter the bathroom with an air and are received there with a respect which no other arrangement of the towel will produce.

Trollope acknowledges that there may be problems:

It is not every man who can carry a blue towel as a turban, and look like an Arab in the streets of Cairo, as he slowly walks down the room in Jermyn Street with his arms crossed on his naked breast,

but he concludes with the sound recommendation,

that the second towel should be trailed. The effect is good, and there is no difficulty in the trailing which may not be overcome.

This page reformatted and slightly revised 29 October 2018

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


Riverside Turkish bath at the home of the Urquharts

The Nottingham Hammam, c.1898

Betowelled patron of the London Hammam

St Ann's Hydropathic Establishment at Blarney, Co.Cork

Towel tent in the London Hammam cooling room

The Order of the Bath


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