By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health
Near Çemberlitas Square in Istanbul, a stone’s throw away from the Grand Bazaar, stands the ethereal Çemberlitas hammam, built in 1584. At first glance, one might think the frontispiece of David Urquhart’s Manual of the Turkish Bath depicts this famous Turkish bath, with its domed vaults and cut-away star windows in the ceiling.
It does not. Instead, the engraving depicts a proposed new construction in 19th-century London.
By the 1870s, these baths, modeled on Turkish hammams, were scattered across England and America, largely through the efforts of Scotsman David Urquhart.
In the mid-19th century, Urquhart, an antiquarian and diplomat who had travelled widely in Spain, Morocco, and Turkey, ignited a wave of enthusiasm for public baths in Britain. He wrote about the dry hot-air bath, or hammam, he visited in Turkey in his travelogue, The Pillars of Hercules.
Urquhart’s ideas gelled when he met Irish physician Richard Barter. In 1843, Barter opened the first public bath facility of its kind in the UK designed for medical benefits and fitted with Russian-style baths. In 1856, Barter invited Urquhart to visit, and the two devised a new “improved Turkish bath,” using dry heat to maximize the medical benefits.1
In 1861, Urquhart spoke to the Medical Society of London, arguing that the Turkish bath could alleviate a long list of illnesses. Urquhart believed that visiting the Turkish bath was beneficial to pregnant women and could aid digestion. He also championed its potency as a remedy for bronchitis, asthma, fever, diabetes, syphilis, baldness, and a handful of other maladies, including dementia and insanity.2
By the following decade, Urquhart’s bath at his Riverside home in England was well known, and served as an early model for other baths, including the first bath in London, on Bell Street in 1860. The celebrated Victorian dermatologist Erasmus Wilson describes his visit to Riverside in the 1850s:
We arrive at the door of the Frigidarium; we loosen the latchets of our shoes, and we leave them behind the lintel; the portal opens and we enter. The apartment is small, but it is sunny and bright; throughout the glass doors we see a balcony festooned with the tendrils of the rose…3
The Riverside bath was comprised of a hot room, built directly over the part of the floor with the hottest air underneath (240-250 F); followed by a second hot room, kept at 170F; and, down a set of marble steps, a third area with a divan, kept at 150F. Soft pillows were available for comfortable reclining in each space.
Wilson describes an adjacent washing area enclosed by a curtain:
We seat ourselves on the clean marble at the edge of the Lavaterina; our host plays the soft pad of gazul4 over the head, the back, the sides; we complete the operation on the limbs and feet ourselves; Basin after basin of warm water rinses the gazul and the loosened epidermis from the surface, and we rise…
After this scrub-down, Wilson visited the piscina, a square pool, for a cold water plunge. Wilson explains that typically this might be followed by a second washing, a warm Turkish towel, and a period of relaxation.
In 1862, Urquhart supervised the construction of another London bath at 76 Jermyn Street (the hammam depicted in the first image of this post). After several decades of popularity with Londoners it closed because of disuse. A bomb destroyed the facility in April 1941.
Manual of the Turkish Bath presents many of Urquhart’s arguments for the health benefits of the Turkish bath in Socratic dialogue form. It is also notable for its case histories. A paper by Arthur Leared, “Treatment of Consumption by the Turkish Bath” notes the improved health of several patients he treated at 76 Jermyn Street. Leared reports that a 17-year-old wood engraver whose sister and mother died of phthisis and suffered from the same disease improved markedly with treatment:
April 16th—Twenty-first week of Bath treatment; has had about fifty baths in all. Is now in all respects going on well. Sleeps well, and has no night-sweats; appetite good; bowels regular; cough almost gone. Has worked ten hours a day for last two months, except on days when he takes a bath.
By the 1860s, Urquhart’s new Turkish bath had caught the notice of the Brooklyn physician Dr. Charles Shepard. Shepard’s 1873 pamphlet praised Urquhart’s revival of the bath, and promoted a new bath established by Shepard in Brooklyn Heights.
The pamphlet takes as its conceit the suggestion that even Cupid needs a pick-me-up sometimes:
The narrative unfolds with charming illustrations:
The pamphlet includes Shepard’s plan for his Brooklyn Heights bath. New Yorkers were encouraged to visit 9am to 9 pm, all days of the week except for Sundays. It remained open until 1913.
Whether in London or Brooklyn, these 19th and early 20th century baths provided centers of calm in a bustling city. As David Urquart said:
Well can I recall the Hammam doors which I have entered, scarcely able to drag one limb after the other, and from which I have sprung into my saddle again, elastic as a sinew and light as a feather.5
1. This was the Hydropathic Establishment of St. Anne’s in Cork. In many parts of Europe today, the “Turkish bath” is known as the “Irish-Roman bath.” See victorianturkishbath.org.
2. Urquhart, David. Manual of the Turkish Bath. John Fife (Ed.). London: John Churchill & Sons, 1865.
3. Wilson, Erasmus. The Eastern, or Turkish Bath: Its History, Revival in Britain, and Application to the Purposes of Health. London: John Churchill, 1861.
5. Shepard, Charles H. The Turkish Bath. Brooklyn, NY: S.W. Green, 1873. P.30.