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MEDITERRANEAN BATHS

Visiting the modern Hammam in Ankara and lstanbul
Early Greek and Roman Batths
Mass Bathing in the Balnea and Thermae
The Islamic Hammam is Born
The "'Turkish Bath" Visits Europe and
America
Private Sweat Bathing Cubicles

FINNISH SAUNA

A Visit in the Dead of Winter
History of the Nordic Bath
Sauna in Europe
Sauna in Japan
Sauna in America

NATIVE AMERICAN SWEAT LODGE

Joining Running Foot in a Navajo Sweat
Lodge

A Guest at an Oglala Sun Dance Ceremony
History of Sweat Lodges
Hot Rock Sweat Lodge
Direct Fire Sweat Lodge
Sweating Without a Sweat Lodge
Origin of the Temescal
The Temescal Today
The Sweat Lodge Joins the Modern World

 

BUILD YOUR OWN

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MEDITERRANEAN BATHS

The "Turkish Bath" Visits Europe and North America

©1997 Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved

Turkish baths on Jermyn Street in London as portrayed in the Illustrated London News,1862.
From Sweat, copyright Mikkel Aaland.

 

In 1850, anything oriental was in vogue and bathing caught the attention of Europe. David Urquart, author of "The Pillars of Hercules," spent much time in Greece and Moorish Spain where hammams still enjoyed popularity. He was impressed by their extensive use by the poor and included detailed plans for the construction of a hamman or, as he coined it, a "Turkish bath."

Urquart believed if a comparable structure could be built in the smoke-blackened towns of the British industrial centers, perhaps the filthy plight of the workers could be alleviated. So he offered a plan to establish 1000 "Turkish baths" for the two million inhabitants of London. He offered the bath house as the weapon in a "war waged against drunkenness, immorality, and filth in every shape."

Urquart's book received wide acclaim. One of the new enthusiasts, a Charles Bartholomew, with Urquart's help, built one of these "Turkish baths" in his home. Bartholomew was suffering from a bad case of gout at the time. But soon after taking regular baths, he was cured. He became an instant prophet. He entertained many visitors at his bath and many left as converts. "I went there on crutches, but after a few baths, I was dancing to the bagpipes," wrote General Abraham Sir Roberts.

Urquart's book inspired Dr. Richard Barter to build the first "Turkish bath" in Ireland. St. Ann's Hydropathic Institute opened in 1856. He built ten more such institutions before he died. Barter's biography says, "What the secret of the transmutation of metals would have been to an alchemist of old, what the discovery of America was to Columbus, the Hot-Air Bath became to Dr. Barter."

By 1862 this "Turkish bath" had appeared in Germany, England, America and Austrailia. The bath's prototype was modeled after the bath Urquart described. Air was saturated with steam. But Barter was able to improve the bath by raising the temperature and creating the effect of a dry bath. It was called the "new and improved" Turkish bath, the Turkish-Roman bath, or the Roman-Irish bath.

In 1862, the Illustrated London News reported a company by the name of London and Provincial Turkish Bath was formed for the purpose of "realizing Mr. Urquart's wish in the establishment of a genuine 'hammam' or 'hot-air bath'." Urquart became head of the company, and under his supervision, the baths at St. Jermyn Street were built.

Medical journals were full of glowing accounts for, and acrimonious accounts against, the Turkish baths. Pamphlets were published, lectures held, and discussion groups assembled. "The Turkish baths cured everything," some said. "Urquart was a charlatan," said others. General Sir George Whitlock said, "I was confined to my bed as a result of a kidney and liver infection, but after the third bath, I could ride my horse home at 3:OO in the morning all by myself."

Some doctors claimed the Turkish bath was a good treatment for mental illnesses. And Dr. Robertson from Essex said the bath was good for "constipation, bronchitis, asthma, fever, cholera, diabetes, edema, syphillus, baldness, alcoholism, and not to mention the fact that the health of the average bather was improved."

Soon Turkish baths appeared in Europe. They sprang up in Paris, and the German towns of Nudersdorff, Friedrischshafen and Wittenberg. The Swedish balneologist, Carl Curman, encouraged the construction of two Turkish baths in Stockholm. In 1871 he wrote Om Bad (About Baths), one of the first comprehensive studies of bathing habits, which lauded Urquart for introducing the Eastern bath to the West.

IN AMERICA

In America, the Turkish baths never gained more than tentative popularity. The Industrial Revolution in Europe brought thousands of immigrants daily into the United States. Most of them were absorbed in the fast growing factories.

Socio-political adjustment and reform had a difficult time keeping up with the overwhelming numbers. Bathing facilities were sparse and the practice of bathing was endured rather than enjoyed. Five out of six city dwellers had "no facilities for bathing other than such provided by pail and sponge," claimed a survey in the 1880s. A warm bath was for the infirms: otherwise, a small basin of cold water and a wash cloth sufficed.

Tenement housing sprang up in industrial centers, but never included bathing facilities and little was done to provide them. Mass production of the tub and invention of the shower found immediate acceptance--an innovation consistent with the accelerated life style.

Whatever interest there was in public sweat baths waned as industrialization of America voraciously consumed most of the people's free time. The few Turkish baths that did exist were usually for the wealthy or for therapeutic institutions, not for the general public.

In 1913, an American writer attempted to popularize the Turkish bath. J.J. Cosgrove, in his book, Design of the Turkish Bath, complained that Turkish baths were only accessible to the elite. "The Turkish bath by right must become a regular part of all hospitals, hotels, homes for the aged, even private homes." He offered blueprints for building inexpensive Turkish baths in the home. But for every Cosgrove, there were a dozen politicians and writers suspicious of foreign customs, waving the flag for showers and tubs.

In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain sarcastically laid out his expectations of the Turkish bath in Turkey. "When I think how I have been swindled by books of oriental travel," he lamented, "I want a tourist for breakfast. Here endeth my experience of the celebrated Turkish bath, and here also endeth my dream of the bliss the mortal revels in who passes through it. It is a malignant swindle. The man who enjoys it is qualified to enjoy anything that is repulsive to sight or sense, and he that can invest it with a charm of poetry is able to do the same with anything else in the world that is tedious, and wretched, and dismal, and nasty."

Prevailing American sentiment in 1914 was capsulized by Dr. William Paul Gerhard in a report to the American Association for the Promotion of Hygiene and Public Baths. "Since the sweat bath is a very efficient cleansing bath, simple Turkish baths or hot-air rooms, should be included in municipal bath houses. I fear, however, that the added expense in construction and maintenance, which is not inconsiderable, would rule them out. Unless Turkish baths are very well patronized they are likely to prove a financial failure. There are few such establishments in the United States. They are not so necessary in our country, because of the universal use of bathrooms in the homes of the middle class and the rich . . ."

At a time when cities were vaguely interested in providing public baths in America, members of the medical profession advocated the more "economic and sanitary" shower over the communal sweat bath.

TURKISH BATHS TODAY

Those Turkish baths in America today are found in the larger cities and cater to few Americans.* Rarely do they resemble the original hammams or even Urquart's prototype. In San Francisco, the Turkish bath on Ellis Street, opened to the public in1911, but closed in the 1980s because of the AIDs epidemic. Only men were allowed. For $4.00 you could enjoy a steam room, a dry-heat room, and showers. You could work out with gym equipment, relax in a small private dressing room, watch television or read in the study. Another $6.00 got you a massage, "the way only a man can do it." After depositing your valuables and receiving a key and two towels, you went upstairs to your dressing room. Then, back downstairs, you walked a plush carpet separating a reading room from an enclosed, cool-water pool. Behind you, flanking the pool, was a spacious communal hall where bathers came to watch TV (a pale imitation of the Roman intellectual room). Beyond the exercise area was the dry heat room which enclosed, in one corner, the smaller steam room. The dry-heat room, which hovered around 15O degrees F., was large enough for five chairs, four couches and two sets of six radiators that lined two walls. Perhaps the size of this room was the only feature this bath had in common with its namesake, the hammam of the Middle East. If you asked anyone what made this a "Turkish Bath" they would probably shrug their shoulders and say, "Maybe it's the steam room, or the hot room. I don't know."

*Author's note: It's been many years since I researched the Turkish bath in America. I wonder if any are left. I'd apprecipate if anyone having information about the current state of these baths contact me.

 

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