The Victorian Turkish bath:
should the hot air be dry, humid, or steamy?

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

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Defining the Victorian Turkish bath

The Victorian Turkish bath has already been defined on our home page as follows:

Turkish bath n. 1. a type of bath in which the bather sweats freely in a room which is heated by hot dry air (or in two or three such rooms at progressively higher temperatures), followed by a full body wash (sometimes preceded by a cold plunge), then by a massage, and finally by a period of relaxation in a cooling-room.
2. (sometimes pl.) an establishment offering Turkish baths.

This emphasis on hot dry air may seem surprising to those who have read travellers' accounts of 19th century establishments in Turkey, or who have themselves visited hammams in present day Turkey.

For the hot air in such establishments is not only humid, but often actually steamy, while the floors are frequently covered in water.

A potted history of the Victorian Turkish bath

There is, of course, nothing specifically Turkish about the so-called 'Turkish bath', any more than there is a unique type of English bath or American bath. It was those (mainly European) 19th century travellers who first came across public hot-air baths and Islamic hammams in the Ottoman Empire who labelled them Turkish—this despite their widespread existence in the Maghreb and wherever else there was, or had been, a Moorish or Islamic influence. But the hot-air bath did not originate in the Islamic hammam; it had been in use in Sparta (and probably even earlier) and reached its zenith in Rome after the development of the hypocaust.

The original dry heat bath, which was so important a part of the Roman thermae, survived only in the Eastern Roman Empire (the Christians in the west seeming to feel that if cleanliness was next to godliness, it was just as well to keep it a long way behind). Other parts of the Roman bathing process included massage (which continued in the hammam) and naked bathing in hot and cold pools (which was firmly rejected by Islam).

These pools, close to, but separate from, the hot rooms of the Roman thermae were replaced by washing facilities and, later, by decorative fountains which found their way into both hot rooms and cooling areas. Inevitably, the combination of hot air and cold water turned the original dry heat into the misty, steamy atmosphere of the hammam which is still to be found in Turkey today or, closer to hand, in the north African owned hammams behind the Gare du Nord in Paris.

The Victorian Turkish bath, on the other hand, though it aimed to reproduce the effect and, often also, the ambience of the hammams in Turkey, had to be re-created experimentally. In 1856, David Urquhart and Dr Richard Barter initially worked together at St Ann's hydro, near Cork, to try to create the first hot-air bath to be built in the kingdom since Roman times.

Barter soon realised that for the bath to have a therapeutic effect, the temperature had to be as high as possible, and that the body is able to tolerate much higher temperatures if the air is dry. Urquhart, was not immediately conscious of how humid the Turkish baths had been, but later he admitted that when he had originally written The Pillars of Hercules, 'I had then but most imperfectly apprehended the value of HOT AIR, to which, as distinguished from vapour, the Turkish bath owes its peculiar excellence.'

Thereafter the aim of most Victorian Turkish baths designers was to ensure that the hot air was maintained in as dry a state as possible. Initially, there was much disagreement between doctors as to whether the bath should be dry or wet. There was considerable correspondence in the medical press and elsewhere at the beginning of the 1860s as to whether hot or dry air was better, but by the middle of the decade hot dry air was the generally agreed standard. (This correspondence is treated in more detail in The Hot air controversy in the History Section of this website)

As mentioned in the introduction, the Germans did not use the term Turkish baths but usually called them, rather more accurately, Irish-Roman baths as a tribute to Dr Barter. These are the baths which form the subject of this website and which are here called Victorian Turkish baths.

This page revised and reformatted 02 January 2020

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