is a slightly extended version of the paper given at
12th Annual Conference of
the Women's History Network
terrains: gendered knowledge, landscapes, and narratives
at King's College, University of Aberdeen,
14 September 2003
Of more than 600 Turkish baths which I have traced in the British Isles,
only 21 remain at the time of writing. At least 370 were opened during Victoria’s reign—just
over a hundred of them catering for women (see
Yet women were involved in
almost all of them—as managers, proprietors, or shareholders, and as
attendants or masseuses.
This paper takes
a first look at these Victorian Turkish baths for women: their
facilities, availability, admission charges, and the wages they paid.
aims merely to highlight just a few aspects of a virtually unexplored
subject, gently suggesting it as one worthy of study by those who,
perhaps, may more appropriately consider it in relation to other areas
of women’s history—for it spans such discrete spheres of activity as
beauty aids, health promotion, therapy, and aids to cleanliness.
first Turkish bath was built as a therapeutic facility, an anonymous
leader in the Manchester Critic
in 1872 advised:
ladies only knew what a real and lasting beautifier the Turkish Bath
is, they would abandon all agitation for ‘Women’s Rights,’
&c, and at once build a Turkish Bath for their own special use.
By using it, they would thereby render themselves so fascinating and
beautiful, that there would be no resisting any appeals they might
make to the weaker sex.
And by the late 1880s, when
Lillie Langtry was promoting the Pilgrim Street Turkish Baths in
Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the promise of softer skin and beautiful hair was
the most common advertising approach to women as potential bathers.
Less appealing still, was Dr
Thomas Lewen Marsden’s view of the male/female relationship:
show the delightful influence of the Turkish Bath, suppose a man
comes home ill-natured, jaded, and weary with the affairs of the
world, cross with his wife, and quarrelling even with his dinner;
let the good wives who hear me take my advice, and tell their
husbands to go wash in a Turkish Bath, and they will throw off their
ill-humours--mental and bodily--and then return delighted, as I am
sure they will be, in spirit, happy with their wives, contented with
their dinners, and playful with their children.
It is true, however, that the
Turkish bath is a great relaxant and,
the various processes a feeling of delicious languor and indescribable
enjoyment generally prevails, while afterwards there is a wonderful
feeling of buoyancy and vigour.
But to begin at
The first Victorian Turkish baths