Performance in the raw:
some aspects of the ritual of the
Victorian Turkish bath

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

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3. Theatre and performance

There is much theatre in the Turkish bath. Advertisements talk of Temples of Health. In Birmingham, Bartholomew's bathers enter one.

In London, anyone entering a Nevill's establishment was encouraged to set aside reality for the world of the imagination.

This is a Temple of Health and therefore there is an atmosphere of Peace and Silence, broken only by the soothing sounds of splashing fountains.

You leave the World and its Noise and Bustle behind you. You enter an Atmosphere of Repose. Let the spirit of the place enter your mind.

And the protagonist in Guy Thorne’s novel When it was dark sees the London Hammam as providing a necessary scene-change.

The physical warmth, the silence, the dim lights and Oriental decorations induced a supreme sense of comfort and bien être. It brought Constantinople back to him in vague reverie.

Perhaps, he thought, the Hammam in London is the only easy way to obtain a sudden and absolute change of environment. Nothing else brings detachment so readily, is so instinct with change and the unusual.

There is also much of performance in the taking of a Turkish bath.

Gordon Stables, pseudonymous author of the Medicus column on health matters in the Girls Own Paper, knowingly states in his little book on the Turkish bath that,

Taken simply for enjoyment, a man never fails to cherish the memory of his first bath, as does a maiden that of her first ball.

One of the bath’s many proselytisers, Stables lived up to his own contention that,

Next to the pleasure of enjoying the Anglo-Turkish bath oneself, in propriâ personâ, is that of hearing someone dilate on its merits. And few who have ever tried it, will be found unwilling to expatiate freely on the topic of Turkish bathing.

Those who so dilated and expatiated, were not averse to making of the bath a prize for one who had been initiated into its mysteries.

then to the frigidarium, or cool chamber, where, still clothed in warm towels, he sips coffee, smokes a narghile, and indulges in beatific sensations which only those can know who have passed through the three purgatories of the bath.

It is made clear that the uninitiated require guidance.

the companionship of a habitué is almost a sine qua non if you want to get the best results. He knows the ropes. You cannot and do not. Be advised by this very practical hint if you are a novice to the Ritual, for such it is.

Explanation—embellishment—ritual.

This page reformatted and slightly revised 22 July 2018

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Bartholomew's Birmingham establishment

Nevill's Northumberland Avenue London baths

The London Hammam: platform in the cooling-room

Gordon Stables

Turkish and other baths


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