7: The Victorian
Turkish bath and women's health
In a classic
example of the medical profession exercising social control, women of
all ages were linked with ‘all who have any kind of constitutional
weakness, and all persons over thirty-five years of age’—all of whom
should ‘ask medical advice before taking their first Turkish bath.’
In truth, not
all doctors liked the Turkish bath. Some saw themselves being deprived
of work. Others, like Elizabeth Blackwell, felt the bath should only be
given under medical supervision.
often seen as quacks by the medical profession—indeed, some of them
were—but it was ‘good business’ not to offend the local doctor and
risk the loss of his patients; the proprietor most certainly knew the
bath itself was not harmful to women. Indeed, those women who worked
long hours as masseuses in the hot baths, not only came to no harm, but
frequently lived longer lives than those persuaded to avoid exercise.
While, as we
have seen, some Turkish bath companies restricted the times when their
baths were available to women on the basis that they were underused,
others companies were not averse to making arrangements for special
groups of bathers if there was the possibility of making a profit.
In 1882, when
the Oriental and General Bath Company of Leeds refurbished its sixteen
year old baths in Cookridge Street, it was decided to build a separate
Turkish bath suite for women.
special feature of this establishment is the Jewesses’ baths,
comprising first and second class, built at the request of the Jewish
community, from plans supplied by the Chief Rabbi, and used exclusively
The mikveh (a
ritual bath which requires running water) is used by Jews on particular
occasions, but especially by women after childbirth or menstruation. The
Oriental was one of a number of companies and, later, local
authorities which made such provision as part of their Ladies Turkish
baths suite, the most recent probably being the Pier Approach Baths at
Bournemouth, opened in 1937.
As early as
1859, Potter somewhat coyly advertised the arrangements made at the
first Turkish bath ‘for the special accommodation of ladies,’ few of
whom were yet, it seemed,
of its power to mitigate the natural ills and inconveniences to
which nature and an artificial mode of life have subjected them.
This portion of the subject can, however, only be slightly touched
upon, but a word to the wise will be sufficient.
The Turkish bath
was felt to have had a beneficial effect in connection with irregular
periods. Charles Lockhart Robertson believed that even if its only
remedial power was to restore ‘suppressed menstruation’ it would
still be valuable.
‘I have within
the last two months,’ he wrote to Urquhart ‘discharged two young girls
cured, who for many months suffered from maniacal symptoms, connected
with irregular menstrual action . . .’
And when Edgar
Sheppard introduced the Turkish bath at Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, it
was welcomed by his (un-named) colleague in the female department who
attributed the recovery of a patient from ‘puerperal mania’ to her third
commissioners in lunacy ‘witnessed its application’ to ensure no cruelty
was involved, reporting that the patients enjoyed their Turkish baths.
Hardly surprising when, using traditional bathing facilities, ‘from
three to six women are bathed in the same water’.
Turkish bath was often recommended as a palliative, it was undoubtedly
less harmful than most patent medicines. Some made claims that it ‘removes
the cause of barrenness’; others, more sensibly, advised women that it
would not harm them while pregnant or nursing.
Bartholomew’s guide to his own Turkish baths
testimonials claiming relief from pain in a wide range of illnesses,
including many for which there was then no known cure. About a third of
these were from women.
there are few personal accounts of the use of the Turkish bath other
than those written by men. Who were the women bathers? How did they
travel to the baths? Did they go singly or with friends? How did they
finance their visits? Were women able to use male approval of the bath
to facilitate the management of such visits for their own enjoyment? Was
there a social change between the 1850s and 1880s which made it
acceptable to ‘pamper’ oneself without the need to justify the bath
as a medical necessity?
There is plenty
of scope for other researchers!