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The History of Bathing

Updated on August 24, 2009

The bath in the bathroom has had perhaps a more peculiar development than any other article of everyday use. We think of it as a receptacle for water used in a private house by one person at a time. Until the early 1900s mankind was not partial to bathing in this way, preferring the public bath; or no bath at all.

The custom of washing and immersing all or part of the body in water or other liquids,  has been practiced since ancient times in many ways and for many reasons. In the past, religious, economic, and political factors often played a vital role in determining how, when, and where people bathed. Until the middle of the 19th century many persons believed bathing to be responsible for the spread of disease and therefore harmful. It was not until well into the 20th century that people became aware of the importance of bathing for health.

History of Bathing

Ancient peoples, including the Greeks and especially the Romans, who made bathing into an art, bathed for relaxation and a sense of well-being. Many religions required the cleansing of the body as a form of ceremonial purification. The Mosaic code of the Jews and the laws of the Hindu peoples, for example, required washing in connection with religious ritual. The supposed curative powers of certain mineral waters and springs have provided another reason for bathing. From the time that the healing qualities of such waters were discovered, people have bathed in these waters in the hope of curing illnesses.

Among the earliest civilizations to build separate quarters for bathing purposes were the Egyptian and the Cretan, or Aegean, cultures. Although there are few surviving remains of Egyptian bathing facilities, those of the Cretans have been well preserved. These baths have excellent drainage systems.

Although the Greeks did not build public baths until at least the 5th century B.C., their bathing habits had been established many centuries earlier. Homeric heroes took warm baths in tubs, and the later Spartans and Athenians often took cold showers. The Athenian public baths, although small, became places of recreation and centers for social gatherings. After doing violent exercise, an Athenian would bathe or shower. Perspiration was then scraped from his body, and he would be rubbed with oil.

The Romans made bathing an art and almost a way of life. By the 4th century A.D. there were at least 1,000 public baths in Rome and many in the provinces of the Roman Empire. One of the most famous of the Roman baths was the Aquae Sulis ("Waters of Sul," a British divinity whom the Romans associated with Minerva), built in Bath, England, in the 1st century A.D.

The process of bathing in Roman public baths, though based on the Greek tradition, was much more complex than the Greek method. The bather was first anointed with oil. He then performed exercises and gymnastics, and went through a series of rooms of varying temperatures, ranging from warm to hot. He then plunged into a cold bath or pool, after his body was carefully scraped of excess perspiration and oil. A final anointing of the body completed the elaborate Roman bathing ritual.

Among the outstanding public baths of Rome were those built by the emperors Titus, Trajan, Caracalla, and Diocletian. These vast thermae, as they were called, were huge, luxurious buildings calculated to gain popularity for the emperors who constructed them. Equipped with libraries, shops, conversation rooms, gardens, and restaurants, these public baths became social centers to which all but slaves were admitted for a small fee.

The excessive luxury of the baths and the self-indulgence which they encouraged were offensive to the Christian Church. By the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, the censure of the Church Fathers, combined with the annihilation of the great aqueducts that were the city's major water supply, resulted in the closing of the baths. Christians were permitted to bathe, but simply and for practical purposes.

During the Middle Ages, members of the Church occasionally did penance by refraining from washing, since the unpleasant condition of dirtiness was considered a suitable punishment for the flesh. Despite the opposition of the Church, public baths continued to exist through the Middle Ages. Gradually, however, fewer respectable people used them. As the reputations of medieval public baths declined, they were forced to close, and when the Renaissance began, no public baths remained.

Throughout the Renaissance, an age of the highest development of literature and the arts, personal hygiene was neglected. Not until the 19th century was physical cleanliness once again regarded as important. The disapproval of the Church and the widely held medical opinion that bathing spread diseases discouraged frequent bathing. In England, during the 16th century, the courtiers of Elizabeth I marveled at her apparently excessive cleanliness because she insisted on bathing at least once a month.

Interest in bathing continued to decline in the 18th century. However, while the cleansing power of water was ignored, its curative qualities were widely exploited. One of the most famous of the many places that boasted mineral springs was in Bath, England. Founded by the Romans, it survived the medieval and Renaissance periods to become England's most fashionable resort in the 18th century. Bath became the forerunner of many elegant spas, or watering places, which flourished throughout Europe in the 19th century. Among these spas were Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia) and Baden-Baden in Germany.

Although some of the wealthy members of the upper classes had bathtubs in their homes at the beginning of the 19th century, most of the lower classes had no facilities for bathing. The British Industrial Revolution in the middle of the 19th century intensified the bad living conditions in the slum areas. The grit, smoke, and vapor of factories polluted the workers' living areas, and sanitary reforms were brought about.

To compensate for the lack of domestic bathing facilities, new public bathhouses were built. Gradually, plumbing was modernized and made generally available. By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the trend toward improved plumbing and private bathrooms had spread to other European countries and to the United States. During the 20th century the United States far surpassed all other nations in technical advances in plumbing and bathroom fixtures. As a result, the bathtub did not remain the symbol of wealth and prestige that it once was.

Throughout the history of bathing there have been various specialized baths in different parts of the world. One of the most famous of these is the Turkish bath, developed from the highly sanitary bathing techniques of the Moslems. It consists of a hot steam bath, followed by a brisk rubdown, during which the bather gradually cools off until he reaches his normal body temperature. Russian steam or vapor baths are somewhat similar but less complex. They involve exposure to hot steam or air, followed by a cold bath which may be had in a river, outdoor pool, or snow. The Finnish sauna is another variation of the steam bath, in which the bathers beat their bodies with birch twigs to activate circulation before plunging into a cold bath or into snow.

Bathing as a pleasurable necessity continued for a time in the Middle Ages in spite of Christian opposition to it.
Bathing as a pleasurable necessity continued for a time in the Middle Ages in spite of Christian opposition to it.


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