Victorian Turkish Baths

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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline
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1. The Turkish bath in use

Victorian hydropathic establishments mushroomed after the introduction into the British Isles of the cold water cure made popular on the continent by the disciples of Vincent Preissnitz.1 The rigour of the treatments—the wet sheet bath and the icy rain bath (shower)—was an obvious target for humorists. Contemporary caricaturists, such as Thomas Onwhyn, produced several series of drawings depicting the tortures to which patients were subjected. These were later reproduced as postcards, and since they were often posted by those 'tortured' to their loved ones at home, hydros (such as Smedley's at Matlock Bank in Derbyshire) must have taken their humour with good grace while profitably selling the cards in great numbers to their 'victims'.

Later, when hydropathic establishments added Turkish baths to their facilities, further cartoons were inevitable. These four, from a set of six, are dated 11 June 1861 and signed with Onwhyn's characteristic monogram.

The sudatorium The shampoo

The sudatorium

The shampoo

The sudatorium The shampoo

The shower

The cooling-room

The caricaturist has followed the writer, for it is rare in newspapers or magazines to find serious accounts of the process of taking a Turkish bath. The majority of such articles, from the earliest to the most recent, seem to follow an unstated rule that they must be written in humorous vein along the lines of 'These are some of the tortures I have endured, but I have just about survived, and surprise, surprise, I seem to feel better for taking the bath, and I might even go again'.

The topics which are most commonly lampooned by caricaturists are the heat itself and shampooing, though the former is mostly a metaphor used in political cartoons and is discussed later.

Each of these topics is included in a series of eight sketches published, some time between 1879 and 1883, as a small booklet called Jones' first visit to a Turkish bath. Intended as a free booklet for customers of Benjamin Bell's Grosvenor Turkish Baths, it was reprinted when he opened a second establishment in Basinghall Street.  The artist is unknown, and might have been Bell himself.

Jones can't beleive it [sic] shampooing

George Luks (1866-1933) was an American artist who began his career in the graphic arts before becoming associated with a group of American impressionist painters who were popularly known as the Ash Can School. The members of this group chose to paint ordinary people involved in aspects of their everyday lives. This is one of a series of Turkish bath sketches, each with a lengthy caption, done in 1926 for Vanity Fair.2

Shampooing by Luks

By the middle of the twentieth century, when many more people had washing and bathing facilities in their own homes, the idea that some people could actually enjoy sweating in a hot room, be refreshed by a dip in a cold plunge pool, or feel more relaxed after a massage, was still, in some eyes, as funny as it was a century earlier—and perhaps, to the uninitiated, will remain so for ever.

Here is David Low's take on shampooing, one of a series of Turkish bath caricatures published in a booklet, A visit to the Turkish bath, given away in the 1930s by Nevill's.

David Low's take on shampooing

But for a powerful drawing which really caricatures the Turkish bath shampoo, it would be hard to better that in the British Museum by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.3

Edward Burne-Jones on Shampooing

Drawn in the 1880s, it needs no words to make its point.

This page first posted 18 November 2018


Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline

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