Quick History: Public Baths & Bathing

Quick History: Public Baths & Bathing

Anna Hoffman
May 12, 2011

5-12-listverse.jpgFor most of us (even bloggers), bathing is an essential part of every day, mostly for the hygiene factor, but also as an enforced moment of private contemplation at the start (or end) of a frantic day. For thousands of years, though, bathing was a public and social activity that bore little resemblance to our own rituals of cleanliness.

Bathing was an important part of many ancient cultures, as evidenced by religious rules surrounding bathing in all the major religions. The Jewish mikvah and Muslim hammam, for example, were essentially public baths that were part of religious ritual cleanliness. But these had their secular counterparts.

5-12-palaestranova.jpgIn ancient Greece and Rome, public baths were not only the norm, but one of the centers of public life. Typically, one would go to the bathhouse, get rubbed down with olive oil, exercise in the attached gym, then scrape the sweat, dirt and oil off with a special tool before soaking in the waters and then maybe getting a massage. Well-to-do people brought their slaves, who would carry their bathing implements, help wash them, and watch their things for them while they bathed, which could take a while. You didn't only work out and bathe at the Roman bath — you could also buy medical treatment like bleeding, a shave and a haircut (the barber was also the surgeon, until just a few centuries ago), food and wine, books, entertainment, and, of course, sex. People would stay there for hours, even all day.

Contrary to popular myths about the filthy medieval citizen, bathing was still very much de rigueur during the Dark and Middle Ages. Public baths still existed, despite growing disapproval from the church, which objected to co-ed bathing and, obviously, the sex and prostitution that could go along with that. But the bath was still a social event, and there are several medieval images of people hanging out in a big pool and having dinner or drinks and enjoying entertainments.

By the Renaissance, the public baths had more or less died out in Western Europe, due largely to the Black Plague, which people thought you would catch more easily if your pores were opened from bathing. Dirt was seen as protecting against germs, while water was thought to be unsanitary (which it often could be). Regular bathing wasn't linked to health in Western Europe again until the early 19th century, by which point private bathing was more the norm.

In the rest of Europe, though, public baths remained popular through the Renaissance, and bathing could be surprisingly frequent, even several times a day. Religious rules and social mores meant that many baths kept the sexes separate, as we can see in two 15th-century Dürer engravings (above). But this was not always the case.

Non-Western cultures held onto their public bath tradition, as well. The public bath is still an important aspect of traditional Japanese culture, where bathing first became paramount in the 6th century during the rise of Buddhism. Japanese baths were historically communal, with men and women bathing together, but the resulting sexual activity led to laws keeping the sexes separate.

A separate category might be the sweat bath, or sauna, which is an age-old tradition in Scandinavia and across Asia. From what I've read, historians are unsure where this tradition began, since there are historical links between Finland and Asia, so it's hard to say which culture introduced saunas to the other. There were also sweat lodges in Native American cultures.

In the United States around the turn of the 20th century, it was a progressive move for a city to build public baths. The words of an 1897 editorial in a Brooklyn newspaper make public baths a moral imperative:

it is a duty of the public, as its own government, to educate [the poor] out of their condition, to give baths to them that they may be fit to associate together and with others without offense and without danger. A man cannot truly respect himself who is dirty. Stimulate the habit of cleanliness and we increase the safety of our cities. And give over the idea that a free bath is any more of a "gratuity" than the right to walk in the public streets.

We can't really discuss public baths in New York City without mentioning the rise of gay bathhouses in the 20th century. This is not to say that gay baths did not exist before 1900 — there are records of gay bathhouses and homosexual activity within bathhouses dating from at least the 15th century across Europe. And of course in the ancient world, homosexual activity would have been a natural part of the bathhouse experience for many. But with the gay liberation movement in the 1960s and '70s, gay-only bathhouses popped up around the city. Bette Midler famously got her start singing at these bathhouses, accompanied by a towel-wearing Barry Manilow on the piano.

A few famous (non-gay — though I'm sure those still exist, too) public baths still exist around New York, mostly in the Russian and Turkish traditions (which of course bear several similarities to the ancient Greek and Roman traditions). There are the Russian & Turkish baths on 10th and A and Brooklyn Banya (also a Russian/Turkish combo) near Prospect Park. There's also Spa Castle in Flushing, a Korean-owned combination of Asian-style saunas and European-style spas.

Have any of you been to the baths? Which is your favorite?

Sources: The quote is from Washing "the Great Unwashed": Public Baths in Urban America 1840-1920 by Marilyn Thornton Williams. I recommend gallowglass as an online source for a more detailed history. For more on Roman baths, check out vroma.org.

1 A medieval illumination of a public bath, with men and women enjoying a dinner party in the tub, and the nearby beds suggest that this is also a brothel. Via listverse.
2 A female hammam painted by Jean-Jacques-Francois Lebarbier in 1785; keep in mind that he was seeing the Turkish custom from a distinctly Western viewpoint, so we can't really take this painting as a historical document. Via most-famous-paintings.org.
3 An ancient mosaic showing a woman exercising at the baths, via vroma.org.
4 An engraving showing a public bath/dinner party with a musician providing entertainment and an amorous couple on the left. Many communal bathhouses had become brothels by the end of the medieval period. Via gallowglass.
5 The Baths at Leuk by Hans Bock the Elder (1550-1624), in the Basel Kunstmuseum, via kunst-fuer-alle.de.
6 The Women's bath sketch (1496) and the Men's Bath engraving (1497), both by Albrecht Dürer, show sex-segregated bathing. Via durerart.org and friendsofart.org.
7 A Japanese women's bath, via mybathhouse.com.
8 A heat wave in 1906 had so many people lining up for the public baths on Rivington Street in New York City that a riot nearly broke out. Image via nycgovparks.org.

Related post: Quick History: The Private Bath

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