Detail of the shower by Thomas Onwhyn  

Caricatures and cartoons:

The lighter side of the bath

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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 two, from a  set of six, are dated 11 June 1861 and signed with Onwhyn's characteristic monogram.

The sudatorium At the mercy of the shampooer

The sudatorium

The shampoo

Not all illustrations poked fun at the bathers. Mr Punch's visit to a Turkish bath in 1861 was recorded in a relatively straightforward manner.

Being anxious to preserve our figure
we take a Turkish bath
Mr Punch takes a Turkish

And when, five years later, George Du Maurier drew At the Turkish bath, such establishments were already becoming popular and were to be found in an increasing number of towns and cities around the country. Du Maurier's point is made by linking here-now with there-later; to him, at least, the Turkish bath was no longer itself considered unusual or in any way ridiculous.

Come as you are!

Smith (abstractedly). "I say, Brown, come and Dine with us to-day, to meet Robinson and his Sisters. No fuss or Ceremony, you know! Come just as you are!!!".

Originally published in May 1866, this caricature was still considered amusing enough to be included in a series of humorous postcards published by Evelyn Wrench some time between 1900 and (probably) 1902.

The known difficulty of withstanding the excessively high temperatures to be found in some establishments was referenced, to good effect, in Tenniel's political cartoon, The Turkish bath. This appeared in 1876 shortly after Gladstone had published a pamphlet describing the atrocities committed by Ottoman forces in subduing the Bulgarian uprising. He attacked Disraeli's government for turning a blind eye to the massacres so as not to weaken Turkey's rôle as a counterweight to the growing influence of Russia. The pamphlet2  sold 40,000 copies in a week, and 200,000 by the end of the month.'3

Attendant. "How do you feel after your bath, my Lord?"
Lord B
.... "Pretty comfortable, thank you!—(Aside. Lost some weight, I fancy.) —You made it so confoundedly HOT  for me ! ! !"
Disraeli and Gladstone in the Turkish bath

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.

  On the brink   For his sins   Look at the clock   The ordeal by steam  

On the brink


For his sins


Look at
the clock


The ordeal
by steam

  Ferocious friction   Ready to serve      

                Ferocious friction


Ready to serve    


Terrors of Turkish bathing:
sample sufferings, hot and cold, we not only endure, but pay for

Artist's captions and text

These drawings were made (at about the half way point between opening of the first Victorian Turkish bath and today) by the American illustrator George Luks.4 It is interesting to compare them with those of Thomas Onwhyn published 65 years earlier, for it is clear that Onwhyn is the more incisive.

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