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History of Bathing

Updated on March 16, 2012

Public Bathing

Of Greek bathing we know a good deal from excavation, literature and vase-painting. A private bath in the shape of a pottery bowl has been found at Phylakopi, the Mycenaean city excavated on Melos. Public baths of the Mycenaean era are known from Tiryns. Homer relates that when Hector returned from the battlefield he found a hot bath awaiting him, and that Ulysses and Diomedes bathed in the sea and then took to a hot bath. However, the Greeks enjoyed their hot baths generally at public bathing establishments, which were less elaborate than those built later at Rome in imperial days.

Under the Romans bathing spread far and wide. Thus the cult of bathing was developed highly in Roman Britain, where quite small communities had their baths. Baths which might have been used more or less privately have been found in isolated villas (i.e. farm or estate houses), but these belonged to wealthy persons.

Public bathing led to excesses; in consequence early Christians were against such ablution in any form, except as a religious rite. In the medieval monasteries of many orders, the hands and face were cleansed in a common wash-room, but the entire body was bathed only on Saturday evening, in preparation for Sunday.

The Cistercians forbade bathing altogether, except at Christmas and Easter. But that was not typical of the Middle Ages, in which the upper classes attended a good deal to cleanliness. Hot bathing, public and private, returned to favor, largely as a result of the virtues of the hot springs at Aix-la-Chapelle and elsewhere. Jug and basin were kept in medieval sleeping-rooms; hands, faces, teeth were washed every morning, thus fulfilling the advice of the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum.

Baths were taken every two or three weeks, not merely in the spring,

The spring is moist, of temper good and warm, Then best it is to bathe, to sweate, and purge - and a wooden tub was placed in the bedroom to be filled with hot water heated in pans over the fire.

In the sixteenth century the domestic and personal hygiene of the rich might have made some further advance. But this was the era of the Reformation, and nakedness was now religiously obnoxious; it was a state for witches at the Sabbath. Elizabeth I, it is true, had bathrooms installed in the royal apartments at Windsor; it was written that she did 'bathe herself once a month whether she require it or not'. But the public bath began to disappear, and nothing took its place; it was thought enough to change shirt and smock and wear fresh linen. People boasted they had never bathed. Louis XIV (1638-1715) in France bathed only once a year. The great ladies of his Court seldom washed their hands and faces more than once a week. At the end of the eighteenth century Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) did little better; and it was said that the lower classes in France never saw a bath tub from one year's end to the next.

Eighteenth-century England could hardly boast. Those who preached cleanliness were sometimes roughly handled in the press; and in 1769 the Gentleman's Magazine was stimulated to a mild but revelatory rejoinder. After pointing out that the ancients had bathed frequently, the journal added, apropos the mere changing of linen, 'Our shirts cannot answer the same purpose [as washing the body], however careful we may be to change them often. This is evident; for notwithstanding the frequent shifting of our linen, we still collect filth, which can only be removed by water and bathing.'

In the late eighteenth century there was a revival of sea-bathing in England, under medical stimulus. Dr Richard Russell, whose memory is still honored in Brighton which he made popular, had advised sea-water for the cure of scrofula. Watering-places multiplied. All this was reflected later in personal hygiene, though in the first three or four decades of the nineteenth century, the pendulum sometimes made a ridiculous and extreme swing. Milk was not infrequently preferred to water. In France, the sister of Napoleon Buonaparte, the Princess Borghese, bathed in milk, and other ladies followed suit. In England Beau Brummel (1778-1840) frequently had a milk bath, and William Douglas, the notorious fourth Duke of Queensberry (1724-1810), had such a bath every day.

In the way of cleanliness there were difficulties which ought to prevent us from being too critical of our dirty ancestors. Some at least realized they were dirty - that they were members - to quote the phrase Thackeray invented in Pendennis in 1850, three years before Gladstone repealed the soap tax - of the 'Great Unwashed'. Baths had to be filled and emptied; and the favorite round wooden tub was not only inclined to leak - it soon stank. Water was not laid on; houses had no room easily convertible to a bathroom. Doctors, however, were on the side of soap and water, first by the shower, and then by the bath - or the bath-tub - which gradually changed, remaining to begin with only a portable bath, pleasantly enjoyed before the fire in the winter months. In the nineteenth century the wooden tub gave way to metal baths. These had to be light, easy to handle and easy to empty, factors limiting size, shape and depth of water; it is no easy job to empty an overfilled hip bath or tin tub, with its shallow water slopping from side to side.

The bath could not elongate, the luxuries of depth could not be indulged, until the bath became a fixture and until bathrooms began to appear in the eighties or nineties. Then at last man had no longer to bath in a crouched, contracted position, or else to sit in the tub with part of his legs outside and his feet on a bath-mat. Many obstacles still had to be overcome. Efficient hot-water systems, and sewage systems, public and private, had to be developed. Builders had to be convinced that it was worth installing special bathrooms, landlords to be persuaded to carry out conversions. In the transitional period on either side of 1900 baths were frequently made of expensive materials such as marble, and great canopy constructions with many taps combined bath and shower-bath, before our simpler baths of enameled iron or porcelain were developed.

Slowly tin tub and hip bath disappeared, slowly the mechanized bathroom and the idea of the bath as a sine qua non conquered after the First World War, though even in the twenties and early thirties it was still common for English and other hotels to charge extra for a hot bath in the one bathroom.

State housing in Great Britain meant baths for the working class, though superior persons forgetful of the bodily smell of their own bathless grandparents were apt to maintain that the working man's bath was useful only for storing the coal. The sting of this remark has long gone; and from top to bottom the modern public is more healthily bath-conscious than at any previous period in history.


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    • Historia profile image

      Historia 6 years ago

      You are correct. I haven't published articles on it, but would love to read one with such information.

      I do know the Mongolians (Genghis Khan era) weren't big on the bath time, but the Chinese were quite fastidious about bathing.

    • sandra walsh profile image

      sandra walsh 6 years ago from Axarquia

      Interesting bit on attitudes especially bragging about not having a bath. I assume this is the history of the western bath as I'm sure it differs entirely to the history of the cleanliness and bathing rights of the Far East. Have you written other articles on this?