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
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
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, 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
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
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