Victorian Turkish Baths—the book


Reviews and readers' comments

Extract from review in Post-Medieval Archaeology, by Gordon Marino (Vol.50, Issue 3, 2017; pp.541-2) (Online: 21 Mar 2017; DOI: 10.1080/00794236.2016.1250443)

'…Malcolm Shifrin has produced a resource that could be used extensively by both professionals and those who have a personal interest in the field…

'The individual chapters can be useful as stand-alone sections, but the author has also succeeded in producing a publication that flows with a narrative of development and use.

'Each individual chapter is not only well illustrated, but contains extensive relevant information for the scholar. The style of writing is engaging and enjoyable, whilst managing to contain a level of detail that is impressive. This extensive level of attention to detail gives an impression of a well-researched and studious volume…

'Overall, this is a useful resource for those interested in the field. It is well thought out, developed and produced, giving the impression of being a real labour of love. It provides an enjoyable and absorbing read, ensuring you appreciate the sheer scale of the project Shifrin has accomplished. For the casual reader this book has a role—it is pleasant to ‘dip into’ at odd occasions. As a resource for those studying the topic, it is probably the most comprehensive collection of materials currently available—and makes a superb starting point for those new to the subject, or reference material for those more knowledgeable. For either pleasure or research, this book has a worthwhile and informative role to play and is a worthy read.'


Extract from review in Industrial Archaeology Review, by Alastair J Durie (Vol.38, Issue 2, 2016; pp.146-7) (Online: 16 Feb 2017; DOI: 10.1080/03090728.2016.1248533)

'…Shifrin is very thorough in his examination of the economics and personalities of the Turkish Bath business, but it is in his appreciation of the architecture of these baths that he excels. British architects took with élan to the challenge of designing baths in what they imagined was an Islamic or "Saracenic" style, distinctive both outside and in. William Hay's Turkish baths at Lochhead in Aberdeen, which opened in October 1860, had gilded minarets, which must have been a striking dissonance to the surrounding sober granite terraces, not that a call to prayer ever went out. Inside the Turkish baths complex there was a profusion of tiling, mosaics, ornamented pillars and ceilings, stained glass and statuary. It is one of the many virtues of this study that so many delightful photographs are provided — some contemporary in sepia, some present day in colour (of which he himself has taken a considerable proportion) — to illustrate the detail.

'…Shifrin also deals with what it was like to take a Turkish bath. They were open to women as well as men, suitably segregated, and he has found a delightful account of a visit in 1892 by a Maude Berkeley who "expected a Turkish pasha to leap out at any moment and entice us into his harem". In a chapter entitled ‘sites of sex and sociability’ he also deals with the question of the baths as a locus for homosexual activity. By the 20th century in respectable circles, Turkish baths had come to have something of a seedy reputation, but Shifrin questions whether there was any justification for this being a feature of the Victorian bath. Here, as elsewhere, Shifrin leaves no stone unturned in his examination of all available sources, literary and archival. A lifetime of reading, research and site visitation has gone into this study, which is lavishly illustrated with postcards, photographs, trade cards, advertisements and plans, many of which are drawn from the author's own collection amassed over the years, or copied from archives. There is a helpful glossary of architectural and other terms, a full bibliography, and indexes of baths open to the public, private and other baths, and of people.'


Extract from 'Sauna Studies as an academic field: a new agenda for international research' Jack Tsonis In: Literature and aesthetics (26; 2016)

'…Victorian Turkish Baths by Malcolm Shifrin is a game-changing milestone…'


Extract from review in Landscape History, by Timothy Brittain-Catlin (Online: 25 Oct 2016; DOI: 10.1080/01433768.2016.1249727)

'…almost every page has colour illustrations on it. These depict the architecture of each building in several different ways: the architects’ original plans (some are wonderfully complicated) and elevations; technical details; the building in use; the building today. But we see, too, portraits of the founders, and sketches or photographs of the bathers; views of the furniture and fittings; exotic stained glass windows; glazed terracotta details, some surviving within closed-down premises; a profusion of oriental symbols, mostly crescent moons making their first appearance in British towns; the notice boards (some in Yiddish); even the entry tokens, including ones printed by a railway company to match their train tickets.

'…the amount of information about the buildings and the processes within them is remarkable, the bibliography is extensive, and the glossary and four separate indices for people, places, users, and subjects are helpful.'


Extract from review in SPAB Magazine, by Clive Baker (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, Autumn 2016)

'…The author’s research is breathtaking in its exhaustive nature and his collection of photographs, ephemera and plans is amazing.

'…The bulk of the book deals with individual bath buildings and the photographs and drawings are a true delight. To have discovered so many must have taken the author an amazing amount of time (his research has spanned about 25 years!) but they do graphically demonstrate the sometimes sumptuous facilities.

'…By appearance this is almost a coffee table book but it is nothing of the sort. For anyone interested in Victorian buildings, with an emphasis on architectural detail, then this would be an interesting acquisition: I am happy that it can now be added to my own collection of architectural books!'


Extract from review in Journal of Victorian Culture, by Rohan McWilliam (Vol.22, Issue 1, 2017; pp.131-3) (Online: 6 Oct 2016; DOI: 10.1080/13555502.2016.1234100)

'…We have always known that Turkish baths were an enormous Victorian craze but have lacked a serious history of them. This is surprising as they were a major feature of the built environment and many Victorian gentlemen patronized them. In recent years, however, former librarian Malcolm Shifrin has been on a quest to recover the Turkish bath and reveal its significance in Victorian culture. We are able to follow his inquiries on his ongoing website ( but we now have the distillation of his research in book form. The result is a major act of historical recovery; it is also a true labour of love. The book is presented as a popular history but it offers some serious cultural history as well with which Victorianists should engage.

'Few Turkish baths remain today but they have left behind a remarkable residue of visual material: advertisements, illustrations, plans, and photographs. The result is a sumptuous and delightful book, a tribute to Historic England who produced the volume. Many photographs I notice were taken by Shifrin himself as he has travelled around the country tracing this forgotten legacy.

'…How should we use this book? Clearly it speaks to discussions about Orientalism and the Victorian engagement with the Islamic world. The Turkish bath was one of a range of buildings that employed Orientalist references, including some shops and theatres. This is also a story about a particular kind of Bohemianism which relished the appeal of the exotic. One presumes there was a performative element to a visit to a Turkish bath: understanding the different rooms; appreciating the wisdom of the East; not minding the semi-nakedness. Here was a truly cosmopolitan space. More substantially, this book is really about the Victorian search for health and cleanliness and should become part of that larger history.

'After 1900, the Turkish bath began its decline and felt like the relic of a bygone era. Hot and cold running water was no longer such a luxury and painkillers were more effective, removing a reason for bathing. There was also competition from the sauna and the swimming pool. Alas, very few Turkish baths remain today. Shifrin is the pre-eminent historian and archaeologist of this phenomenon. The Turkish bath endures at least through his pages.'


Extract from review in The Victorian Web: literature, history, & culture in the age of Victoria, by Susan Gurainik (8 July 2016) Full review online

'This is a beautiful book. Responding to the title and glancing at the abundance of sumptuous illustrations, the modern reader, accustomed to indoor plumbing as a standard feature in every house, may be tempted to think that this is an exploration of a sybaritic (though immaculate) luxury. It is much, much more. The physical beauty of this book is not to be minimized: it is large and dense with illustrations, charts, and diagrams, all of which serve the text well. The author’s style is straightforward, clear and enhanced by the use of terms as they were used then. The curious are well served by extensive notes, references, indices, and the associate website …'


Extract from review in Context: the magazine of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, by Michael Scammell (144: May 2016; p.44)

'Malcolm Shifrin’s magisterial and frequently surprising book charts the rise and fall of the Victorian Turkish bath movement from the very first establishment in County Cork in 1856, quickly spreading across Ireland to northern England, then onward to the whole nation and the furthest bounds of the former British empire. It is not an exaggeration to describe it as a movement…

'While there is an optimal layout for a proper Turkish bath, dictated by the necessary arrangement of hot, warm  and cooler rooms, Shifrin describes an enormous variety of different buildings, large and small, across Britain and Ireland, sometimes purpose built but frequently converted…

'The broadest value of this book is to shine a light on aspects of Victorian society that we, burdened by preconceptions, might never imagine…

'Only a handful of Turkish baths survive in their original form and use. A whole world has been lost, but Malcolm Shifrin is to be commended for bringing it back to vivid life.'


Extract from review in Cercles: Revue pluridisciplinaire du monde anglophone, by Jacqueline Banerjee (16 June 2016) Full review online

'In his preface to Victorian Turkish Baths, Malcolm Shifrin reaches out to anyone who likes any type of spa or hot-air bath, not simply Victorian ones; but his book is so appealing to the eye and so full of fascinating information that those with a more general interest in the Victorian period, or even the simply curious, will also find it a pleasure to read. This is so from the glossary onwards, where one learns, for example, that 'shampoo' only came into use in the modern sense from about 1860, before which it referred to a massage…

'…perhaps the area into which he sheds most new light is social history. After looking at the history of the baths themselves, the early controversies surrounding them, and the various sectors of society for which they catered, he turns to 'The World of the Bather', with an opening chapter on women…

…The chapter on the baths as possible 'sites of sex and sociability' carries the suggestion of intimacy and conviviality further, and will be welcomed by many searching for evidence of the gay scene as it began to emerge in these years, particularly around the turn of the century and in the early twentieth century. Shifrin meets the difficulties here with admirable caution and exactly the 'rigour' he himself recommends, pointing out the dangers of extracting reliable information from fictional accounts such as Trollope's in his short story 'The Turkish Bath', first published in St Paul's Magazine in 1869.

'…Amply and beautifully illustrated, Shifrin's wide-ranging book looks to the future as well as being a unique reminder of things past.'


Extract from review in Social History, by Dave Day (Vol.41, Issue 3, 2016; pp.328-330)

'…Given his acknowledged expertise on the subject of Turkish baths, as evidenced by being widely cited in publications that touch on the topic, it is no surprise that Malcolm Shifrin has produced an excellent text on the Victorian manifestations of these facilities. His association with publishers Historic England has resulted in a lavishly illustrated volume that will appeal to all academic historians of the nineteenth century, most especially perhaps those interested in architecture and its interaction with the social history of the period. Shifrin has managed to bridge the divide between the ‘coffee table’ volume and the academic monograph, never an easy task, by combining visual appeal with meticulous, well-referenced research, and the end product will satisfy the expectations of most of the potential audience for his work.

'…Whatever route researchers take over the next few years, they will all owe a debt of gratitude for the uncovering of these issues and the foundations provided for their studies by Shifrin in this text. It is an essential starting point as well as being a stimulating and informative read.'


Extract from review in Glazed Expressions: The Magazine of TACS, the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society, by Lynn Pearson (Issue No.77 2016; pp.22-3)

'…This hefty and all-encompassing tome, with well over 450 illustrations, does an excellent job of describing the social, architectural, political, technical and financial history of the Turkish bath; those who wish to know even more may visit the author's huge and complementary website

'Of course, this review must focus on the book's ceramic content, and more than 60 of the illustrations feature tiles, terracotta or glazed bricks. Their impact is mostly as repeats within tile panelling in various glamorous baths, notably those of the early 20th century ocean liners such as the Titanic, while two photographs show pretty pictorial tile panels in the Friedrichsbad (1877) at the spa town of Baden-Baden in Germany.…'


Extract from review in A Magazine for RIBA Friends of Architecture, by Peter Parker (Spring 2016; p.55) (Selected as one of 'the season's best architectural books')

'…Malcolm Shifrin’s Victorian Turkish Baths, an absorbing, scholarly and generously illustrated book, is also an elegy for an almost vanished piece of our social history and architectural heritage.'


Extract from review in The Ephemerist, by Graham Hudson (Spring 2016; p.2)

'…[The author's] coverage of the subject is comprehensive with chapters on, for example, Victorian attitudes to the Turkish bath, commercial and municipal baths, baths for the working classes, the bath in hospitals, workhouses and asylums (one medical man noting that the bath was particularly helpful in cases of melancholia); also Victorian women's attitudes to the bath and Turkish baths as "sites of sex and sociability". There are discussions too of ocean going liners (with a poignant image taken deep in the Atlantic of the still-in-situ bath on the Titanic, in the domestic setting, and baths for animals, [Dr] Barter himself providing a purpose-built Turkish bath for the cattle on his St Ann's farm. Of particular interest to further researchers will be the four indexes (public baths, baths for special classes of user, people, and by subject) and the illustrated glossary covering all aspects of recuperative bathing.

'…Victorian Turkish baths will be of most appeal to readers interested in Victorian social history, architecture, gendered spaces, public health, etc, rather than the general ephemerist. But like all enterprises, the Turkish bath was serviced, promoted, and commented on by means of tickets, letterheads, advertising and cartoon comment etc, and examples are included in the text at points where they complement the discussion. In addition chapter 29, "Advertising the Turkish bath", is devoted to such material, and limited in amount though it may be, the ephemera shown well illustrates how, seen in conjunction with well chosen photographs, plans and engravings, the everyday reality of such here-today-gone-tomorrow material effectively helps complete the historical picture.…'


Extract from review in The Victorian, by Kathryn Ferry (March 2016; pp.28-30)

'…Shifrin has been researching the history of Victorian Turkish baths for the past 20 years and Historic England has done his passion justice in this beautifully illustrated publication. His enthusiasm is infectious and there can be no doubt that David Urquhart (1806-77), first advocate of the Victorian Turkish bath, would approve. It is the story of Urquhart's passion and the unique way that he chose to share it that provide this study with such fascinating material. Were it just a question of cleanliness and health improvement there would still be reason to explore this under-appreciated Victorian advance, but Urquhart made it a political cause and his chief exponents were working men from the North and Midlands whom he helped to educate. …'

Some emailed comments from readers in six countries

I have your book now, especially chapter 25 is the best part as you know I am Turkish vet :-)   (16.3.16)

CONGRATULATIONS on Victorian Turkish Baths.  What an outstanding achievement.   It's one of the most exciting books I've seen for a very long time! (8.3.16)

The book looks lovely - you did a brilliant job with the pictures   (6.3.16)

The book is really excellent.   (5.3.16)

…it's an impressive work.   (29.2.16)

Fascinating cultural history of Turkish Baths in Britain   (15.2.16)

…I’ve been a fan of your website for years and having bought your book prior to coming to Cork, I’m writing to say a big thank you for publishing it.
It’s so comprehensive and your detailed references have been a great timesaver.   (9.2.16)

From a publishing point of view your book is a delight. The printing is admirable. The paper grade used—perfect for the job. The layout is clear and uncluttered.
The myriad illustrations—unlimited joy, with captions short and to the point.
Just a mere glance at the extent of text proves how many years of effort you have invested in this love of yours… (3.2.16)

It is a beautiful book… (8.1.16)

Thoroughly enjoying book, which hits twin spots of being simultaneously fascinating and scholarly. (7.12.15)

The book is gorgeous! …this thoroughly comprehensive and intriguing volume of work. (4.12.15)

I think it actually is one of those rare books that does meet both [academic and general readership] interests and there's plenty there for both constituencies… It really is a something in it for everyone book - and the graphics would be of real interest to design and advertising folk as well. (2.12.15) fills a real gap in the literature! (26 11.15)

It is BEAUTIFUL. Very, very well done for such an amazing achievement…And this is such an important publication. (19 11.15)

I just have to write immediately and say what a totally magnificent volume. The cover photographs are superb and eye catching, the international coverage and detail you have discovered is astonishing, I find your meticulous indexes the last word in luxury and I am totally blown away by the images, their variety and, of course, humour. (17.11.15)

Because I know your website, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the book might be like, but it is even more thorough and diverse and absorbing than I imagined. Say what one will about high-resolution screens, there's nothing quite like the best coated paper for presenting illustrations, and these fairly leap off your pages. The book is thoroughly delightful... (5.11.15)

This page last updated 31 October 2018

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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development,
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