I entered my bath as I usually do on weekends (the shower takes care of weekdays) but as I lowered myself into the warm pool of water easing my senses I began to marvel at the progress and the innovation we have witnessed in every sphere of life, especially baths. I have 24-jets tied with eyeball fittings to spray in multi-directions covering every imaginable angle to have a soothing effect on the user with hydro-massaging which got me thinking about the Thermae—bathing facilities in ancient Rome modeled and inspired from the Greek baths.
Homer’s Iliad goes at length to express the Greek passion for bathing: the idea possibly conceived in Sparta for those who have seen the movie 300 will recall Spartans. Besides great philosophy we have to thank the Greeks for the variety they brought showing preference for hot water baths, hot air baths and let not forget how much they venerated hot springs for their healing properties and built their bathing facilities reposed on these natural sources thereby having given birth to the idea of the modern day Spa and recognizing the importance of hydro-massage.
Inviting a guest to a bath had a high degree of dignified social merit attached to it in the ancient world of both the Greeks and subsequently the Romans who inherited and improved upon the idea of social bathing and added better facilities and quality to this art form. We may not know of other civilizations earlier that might have invested their energies toward this wonderful cause and practiced it as an art form but we do have evidence in the form of a public bath discovered in Mohenjo Daro known as the “Great Bath” hinting at the everlasting affinity man has possessed and cultivated for bathing.
Dating back to 3rd century BCE bath houses consisting showers, stone basins and a stove for heating water have been excavated at Faiyum, the oldest city in Egypt. Wash basins for washing hands before and after meals, morning ablutions have been identified as integral to the Egyptians and show a high level of hygiene awareness.
The ancient well-to-do Egyptian is found to have had a small room tucked away in the recesses of his dwellings where he/she seated on a limestone block would be bathed by slaves. A rudimentary plumbing system devised to collect the waste water flow does hint on the importance given to hygiene and leaning towards personal bathing. Although elaborate focus on washing feet is evident through foot baths found during excavations (able to accommodate only one at a time) made of wood and clay, researches safely conclude that most Egyptians were content with a dip in the river, this practice however changed with the evolution in plumbing and drainage as bathrooms began to appear to support religious rituals condoning or rather prescribing use of water for purification and the bathroom also finds its rightful place in daily living—the need for a bathroom, however, is extended well into afterlife reflecting from the bathrooms found in the tombs of the dead!
What deserves our attention as the centre-piece of bathing is the Roman experience where it beautifully assimilated into mainstream culture and concurrently dominated the Roman way of life as the skies would signal the decent of noon, every youth who was somebody or aspired to reach the echelons of high society would head towards the nearest public bath.
Truly, there was nothing like Rome where bathing was transformed into a social event later emulated by the Turkish people in their Hamams. The sheer scale of this operation was grand and was dependant on aqua-ducts, an elaborate system devised to carry the water into this great city that brought a new meaning to bathing as an activity and was to become the gold standard in bathing.
The back-drop of this culture was one of necessity than philanthropic aspirations. Bathing in common Roman households was not possible due to the small size of pipes meant for basic supply to cover the bare essential activities dependant on water and was thus limited in supply attracting taxes in higher percentage with increase in the size of the pipe thus there was no option but to visit the common baths which were connected to a rather lush supply thereby attracting increasing number of clients from all quarters of the Roman society which led to the undertaking of building more aqua-ducts in order to supply water to the city of Rome from distant sources.
The outdoors of the Thermae greeted the visitor with an area known as atrium reserved for exercise and sports and for commercial enterprise relevant to the bathers needs.
It was inside this building where bathing was refined and treated as fine art defined by three stages namely: Frigidarium(cold water bath), Tepidarium(warm bath) and Caldarium(hot water bath). But even before that there was a dressing room known as Apodyterium where the bather would undress and proceed to a Gymnasium to exercise and have their bodies oiled and prepared for the cold bath—Frigidarium which was followed by a visit to the warm room—Tepidarium, heated by an under-floor heating system where no water existed as cited in the cases of the famous thermaes at Pompeii and Hippias. The bathers would last step into the hot bath—Caladarium to cleanse their bodies and enjoy a state of relaxation, it’s interesting to note that in ancient Greece the hot baths were forbidden for men, considered rather effeminate or extravagant. The Spartans rather prescribed Loconicum for men which was hotter than Caladarium and was added to the Thermae later at the insistence of King Agrippa.
The process finished with a device called strigil made for removing any remnants of the oil left on the bather’s skin which was simply scraped off the skin by oneself or by a slave if the bather was rich. Later additions to the Thermae also consisted of a sudatorium or a sweating room.
Baths mushroomed throughout the Roman empire and their proliferation continued with the empire’s expansion, the mileu of newly acquired territories absorbed the Roman styled public baths and the Turks would later during the conquests of Anatolia would encounter the baths become one of the chief exponent of this art giving birth to a new variant: The Turkish Hammam which reversed the order of bathing thus a person would finish with the cold bath which was not a pool anymore but rather a shower under running water. Though the later version had more religious undertones it branched out eventually as a place for socializing leaving an indelible mark in countries such as Turkey, Morocco, India, and Syria where according to a legend there existed 365 Turkish Baths in the city of Damascus the use being one of each day.
Britain would later receive the Turkish bath with a Victorian element of its own that of adding a cold bath pool and using dry air as opposed to steamy air in the warm room preferred by Turkish practice.
Ventriloquizing for the medieval period or more derogatorily known as the Dark ages is rather ironical than embarrassing: a decline in hygiene standards which led to the outbreak of Black Death resulting in a decree ordered by the parliament of England banning careless disposal of waste coupled with a fine of 20 pounds to effect immediate restraint on such practice was merely treating the symptom and not the real cause which was the exclusion of water from people’s lives.
As it is known now that London along with cities of similar magnitude had no running water facility for their citizens, as a result these populations had to carry water from the river and wells for their daily use and bathing had no place in daily chores and was relegated to an unimportant task and observed only during fall and spring time making it a bi-yearly event thereby exacerbating the chances of contracting infections. The outbreak of bubonic plague and other diseases meant the clientele for hot tubs went on a decline. Queen Elizabeth was known to have bathed just once a year thus the standard was set for the rest of the population leaving little in the hands of the people to decide what was best for them.
Progress had been made as far as hand pumps to reduce the distance and tedium of carrying water back home for the masses but in 1854 while London was already swarmed with the cholera epidemic Dr John Snow who first made the connection between water contamination and health thus revolutionized the germ theory of disease which regarded foul air to be the cause of cholera. As a result of John Snow’s findings the Metropolitan Water Act was brought to make provisions to secure and supply clean water into people’s homes which was to usher in the bathroom revolution and was revolutionary by itself.
It was the acceptance of germ theory and the concurrent trial and error of changing the sink and tap location from bedrooms and moving the toilet from the closet in the hall or under the stairs in order to avoid excessive and haphazard plumbing work into many locations which proved to be an expensive affair to a single location following the rationale of cost effectiveness giving birth to the concept of the modern bathroom.
We all know about the rich contributions made by the Jacuzzi brothers who revived hydrotherapy as a concept in the mid-50’s and made constant innovations to their original invention and are the founding fathers of the modern bathtub which is able to replicate a hot spring and is armed with sophisticated controlled jets known commonly as the whirlpool bath.
The idea of reversing the order of baths as the Turkish Hammam envisaged was applied and achieved by way of construction and above all time consuming visit to the Hammam which would also include waiting your turn. Today, all of that can be arranged in a moment, from running water to spring like effects just as patrons of the Turkish Hammam wished, conversely the Roman order of things can flow in your bathroom as and when you desire or if you want your water tub as hot as the Spartans that can be arranged as well within minutes.
The nature of bathing can be transformed within minutes in the modern bathroom which is able to fill you a bath tub within minutes if you desire a long soak and the ones with a busy schedule can opt for showers with multiple spray patterns that can even replicate a rain shower. No more do we have to consider bathing as luxury as was thought by the people in the dark ages nor are we extravagant in terms of exceeding our water consumption with faucets and showers approved under the Water Regulatory Advisory Scheme(WRAS) as regards maintain safe water temperature during a shower or a bath the thermostat always assures physical safety along with emulation of standards and style espoused by King agrippa.
The most important bit here is the absolute satiation of our senses with actual experience or better put experience second to none which is as good as first hand and certainly not vicarious like many other technologies which cannot bring home the complete experience.
We looked at some of the most significant moments in bathing history and cultural practices in hygiene that engendered both the organized act of bathing with sometimes a prescribed formula and the creation of a special area within our households no matter how big or small, to address one of our most basic requirements—hygiene, imperative to our well-being.
As Jane Powell introduces her book Bungalow Bathroom with John William Gardner’s epigram is certainly a tribute to the art of making good bathroom which reads: “an excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it’s an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes not its theories will hold water.” This insightful thought clearly shows how far reaching the impact of plumbing on our society is.
From fragmented shards to a mosaic of meaningful functionality tied with aesthetic indulgence – the journey may have begun from what may have been an accidental splash or a recreational activity born out of adventure, bathing has changed forms and arrangements associated with it over millennia and centuries before finding a dedicated position and place in our homes so as to become the most important part of our lives especially with regards to hygiene and personal grooming—the quintessential “bath” is thankfully here to stay.
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