We see bathing as healthy and hygienic today, but the thought of bathing in water would have scared the daylights out of an average 17th century Briton. After all, bathing would open the skin pores and make the body an open target for all kinds of diseases, demons, and even death…or so it was believed in the medieval times. Going further back in history, to ancient Rome, public baths used to be dens of luxury and promiscuousness. Apart from bathing, visitors could get massages, haircuts, drinks, healing treatments, and even prostitutes to satisfy their secret desires.
Bathing has been different things to different cultures through history. The story of bathing is also the story of the rise and fall of nations, as vivacious baths were one of the symbols of a burgeoning civilization. Let’s take a look at the chronological evolution of bathing to what it has become today.
Bathing in Ancient Times
The earliest historical accounts of bathing come from ancient Indians, who used to bathe three times a day for personal hygiene and religious reasons. In Europe, the earliest remains of baths, unearthed at Crete, date from around 1500 BC. The ancient Greeks bathed in small bathtubs, washed their faces in basins, and even had footbaths for personal cleanliness. The Greeks were also probably the first to establish public baths and showers as parts of gymnasiums, where naked athletes bathed and relaxed after a workout.
Bathing without Soap
Interestingly, there was no concept of soap or shampoo back in those days, at least for the common bather. Instead, the ancient Greeks put a little oil on their body, rubbed it with dust, worked up a sweat, and asked someone to scrape away the sweat using a tool that looked like a small rake. This was followed by a warm bath, then a very hot bath, and then a cold bath. Although the Egyptians had made much progress with a combination of animal fats and lye that was suitable for the human skin, soap did not become a consumer product in Europe until about the middle of the nineteenth century. Before that, it remained a luxury reserved for the elite.
The Roman Twist
Ancient Romans weren’t far behind, but unlike the Greeks, to whom bathing was a cleansing ritual, the Romans found it to be a source of pleasure and relaxation. Soon, bathing was in fashion and bathing emporiums became the hipster joints of the day. Opulent, expansive bathhouses were built, which housed every imaginable luxury of that time.
Rise of the Public Bathhouse
The décor boasted plush hand-woven carpets, tapestries and ornate columns, and gold, silver, or brass sculpture. The in-house facilities included pools, massage rooms, gymnasiums, spas, and enclosures for intimate purposes. Some of these public baths were so grand they could accommodate as many as 6,000 bathers at one time and hosted public festivals, entertainment events, and art exhibitions. These luxurious bathhouses were called ‘temples of beauty’ by the ancients.
More Water for the Rich
By the fourth century, the Romans had become so obsessed with their temples of beauty that they were building aqueducts to transport water over long distances. The success of the aqueduct not only gave Roman bathhouses plenty of water, but the trend also spread to the rest of Europe, where aqueducts were built and public bathing swung into fashion. The remains of these aqueducts can still be seen in Italy, Spain, and France.
Bathing in the Middle Ages
Unfortunately, the golden age of bathing in Europe was short-lived, and the spectacular bathhouses were soon to be turned into little more than archaeological relics. The rapid outbreaks of plague and epidemics were aided by public bathhouses, where these diseases were spread through water, afflicting large swaths of the Europe and England. The lead used in the construction of viaducts also caused poisoning and impotency among frequent bathers. Before long, bathhouses became suspect and people stopped visiting them. This was followed by government bans and public bathhouses were ordered to close. Finally, the Church prohibited Christians from bathing naked, proclaiming that it led to immorality and disease.
The Stinking Age
In the following centuries, most people stopped bathing altogether. It was widely believed that water opened up the pores in the skin, so the infection carried by water or air could easily enter the body. As a result, personal hygiene was reduced to washing hands and parts of the face and rinsing the mouth. People did not even wash their full face, believing it would weaken their eyesight. Aristocrats reduced their bathing to a few times in a year, or in a lifetime. King Louis XIV of France is said to have bathed only twice in his lifetime. Queen Isabel I of Spain once confessed she had taken a bath on only two occasions in her life, her birth and her marriage. It was in these times that the art of perfumery was perfected, thanks to some rich folks who wanted to get rid of the awful body odour as well as avoid the ‘ill effects’ of bathing.
Bathing In Japan and Turkey
The stinking times in Europe continued until the mid-1700s, but bathing continued to thrive in other cultures. The Japanese used to bathe in the many natural springs before the seventh century until Buddhism arrived from China and bathhouses were built alongside every Buddhist temple. The first public bathhouse is recorded in 1266, and the first sento, a type of Japanese communal bath popular even today, was established in Tokyo in 1591. The Japanese were also the first, along with the Turkish, to introduce public steam baths and hot-water baths. Called yuya (hot-water baths) or mushbiro (steam baths) in Japan and hamam in Turkey, steam and hot-water baths are still popular all over the world.
Bathing in America, Russia, and India: Far away in the New World, bathing was as common as eating among the Mesoamerican Indians. They bathed in natural fountain and streams and had their own version of a steam-and-hot-water bath called temazcal. Bathing was a ritual in India and a religious duty in the Muslim world. Even the Russians bathed regularly, unperturbed by Western Europe’s hydrophobia.
Bathing in Modern Times
The resurgence of bathing in Europe and England started in the middle and late eighteenth century with therapeutic bathing. Public baths began reopening during the nineteenth century and continued to thrive well into the twentieth century when individual access to hot and cold water became common. There are still several public baths and Turkish steam baths in England, but they serve an exclusive niche, unlike the public bathhouses of yore.
Rise of the Private Bath
With the development of city waterworks, access to clean water became common, and trends started shifting towards private baths. Plumbing, flushing toilets, water heating, electricity, ventilation, and an endless variety of fixtures and materials became available. The modern bathrooms sports rain-showers and digitally controlled faucets, and luxury bathing has evolved into infinity pools, saunas and Jacuzzis. But, the modern luxury may still not rival the opulence and relaxation of ancient Roman bathhouses or medieval Turkish hamams.