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History of Bathing




The origins of personal cleanliness probably date back to prehistoric times.  Bathing as a concept or purposeful activity has no clear starting point, so it takes a certain amount of deduction and detective work to know how bathing evolved over the millennia.


Since water is essential for life, the earliest people probably lived near at least one water source.  These people also knew something about water’s cleansing properties - at least that it rinsed mud off their hands.  It is also assumed that people liked feeling clean, so they used water from lakes, streams or captured rain water to wash away dirt or mud or other substances.


During a drought though, water usage was prioritized according to necessity, that is, for personal consumption, livestock and for agriculture - in that order.  As a consequence, water was not always available for bathing which was probably fourth on the priority list.


For a variety of reasons, bathing has been in and out of fashion over the centuries.  Bathing as a regular personal hygiene regimen did not take hold until the 1700s.  There were periods of time when the concept of bathing was thought of as a bad practice or there were times when bathing was considered as just a yearly or monthly activity.



Bathing has had a socio-economic aspect as well a religious dynamic.  While the church frowned upon public bathing at times, it also promoted the idea of personal cleanliness.  The church regarding bath houses as a place that encouraged promiscuous behavior and, therefore, bathing was regarded as something that lad to sinful activity.  As a result, the Church spoke out against bathing and this was construed to mean that cleanliness was evidence by association) of sinful behavior.




The development of soap somewhat parallels the evolution of bathing.  It's unclear when soap came into wide use.


A soap-like material found in clay cylinders during the excavation of ancient Babylon is evidence that soap making was known as early as 2800 B.C. Inscriptions on the cylinders say that fats were boiled with ashes, which is a method of making soap, but do not refer to the purpose of the "soap." Such materials were later used as hair styling aids.


Records show that ancient Egyptians bathed regularly. The Ebers Papyrus, a medical document from about 1500 B.C., describes combining animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to form a soap-like material used for washing and for treating skin diseases.


At about the same time period, Moses gave the Israelites detailed laws governing personal cleanliness. He also related cleanliness to health and religious purification. Biblical accounts suggest that the Israelites knew that mixing ashes and oil produced a kind of hair gel.


According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,


"Soap has been known for at least 2,300 years. According to Pliny the Elder, the Phoenicians prepared it from goat's tallow and wood ashes in 600 BC and sometimes used it as an article of barter with the Gauls.


Soap was widely known in the Roman Empire; whether the Romans learned its use and manufacture from ancient Mediterranean peoples or from the Celts, inhabitants of Britannia, is not known. The Celts, who produced their soap from animal fats and plant ashes, named the product saipo, from which the word soap is derived.


The importance of soap for washing and cleaning was apparently not recognized until the 2nd century after Christ; the Greek physician Galen mentions it as a medicament and as a means of cleansing the body.


me·dic·a·ment /mə'dɪkəmənt, 'mɛdɪkə-/ [muh-dik-uh-muhnt, med-i-kuh-]


a healing substance; medicine; remedy.


 Also called med·i·cant /'mɛdɪkənt/ [med-i-kuhnt]


[Origin: 1535–45; < L medicāmentum remedy, physic, equiv. to medicā(rī) to cure + -mentum -ment. See medicate]



Later, the writings attributed to the 8th-century Arab savant Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber) repeatedly mention soap as a cleansing agent.


In Europe, soap production in the Middle Ages centered first at Marseilles, later at Genoa, then at Venice. Although some soap manufacture developed in Germany, the substance was so little used in central Europe that a box of soap presented to the Duchess of Juelich in 1549 caused a sensation.... The first English soap makers appeared at the end of the 12th century in Bristol. In the 13th and 14th centuries, a small community of them grew up in the neighborhood of Cheapside in London."


Soap in that period would have been produced by the mixture of fats and ashes; modern 'glycerin' soaps seem to only appear after 1823. Olive oil or animal fats were used. Soaps are one of those products that were made by guilds whose recipes were restricted.


Scented soaps for face and hand-washing, made by the 're-batching' process where cut-up soap is mixed with scenting agents, appear in 16th and early 17th century housewifery texts.


Bathing in Ancient Egypt


Records show that ancient Egyptians bathed regularly. The upper classes certainly had more time and more access to facilities.  Indoor plumbing and running water were not widespread until much later, so the common person did not have access to bath tubs or showers.  Bathing was probably done via a bucket, barrel, bath house or in the nearest river.


The Ebers Papyrus, a medical document from about 1500 B.C., describes combining animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to form a soap-like material used for treating skin diseases, as well as for washing.


Ancient Baths of Rome and Greece


Although the Greeks and Romans discovered the perks of bathing around the same time, each had their own unique approach. The Romans bathed to keep themselves healthy while the Greeks believed only women should immerse their whole body in water.


As early as the third century, bathing emporiums quickly became the fashion. The Greeks and Romans were the leaders in erecting many elaborate, expensive bathhouses in which they could conduct business, gossip with friends, eat, drink, or arrange romantic liaisons.


The Roman baths were very elaborate including hot, tepid and cold pools. The floors were heated by hypocausts, passages under them, supported by stacked tiles, for air heated by a wood burning furnace.


The Romans were known for their baths.  The Roman bath and the concept of bathing was spread throughout Europe and the United Kingdom.  Most Roman manors had their own smaller private bath-houses and the Roman public generally frequented relatively inexpensive public baths. At the height of their popularity, a typical bath house included hot rooms, cold rooms and a variety of lounging rooms for exercise, food or personal training.  Some public baths were so grand that they could easily contain lecture halls, art galleries, meditation rooms, and prayer stalls. As well, there were always numerous separate enclosures for "private" business.

The majority of the bathhouses were very spectacular and ornate, accommodating as many as 6,000 bathers at one time. The elite would even bring their servants to run errands, feed or massage them.


Roman bath houses were gender segregated at some points in time and at other times bathing was mixed with no separation.


The larger bathhouses combined healing practices with entertainment, social festivities, and physical fitness. It was not uncommon for wounded or weary soldiers to find comfort after a battle before returning to society. Some of the finest healers worked in the baths and could tend their wounds.


The early Greeks bathed for aesthetic reasons and apparently did not use soap. Instead, they cleaned their bodies with blocks of clay, sand, pumice and ashes, then anointed themselves with oil, and scraped off the oil and dirt with a metal instrument known as a strigil. They also used oil with ashes. Clothes were washed without soap in streams.


As Roman civilization advanced, so did bathing. The first of the famous Roman baths, supplied with water from their aqueducts, was built about 312 B.C. The baths were luxurious, and bathing became very popular. By the second century A.D., the Greek physician, Galen, recommended soap for both medicinal and cleansing purposes.


Medieval Times


Bathhouses became so popular in Rome that not long after the third century the government learned to transport water by means of aqueducts. The initial reward was all of Rome was supplied with abundant water. The aqueducts became so successful that soon they were being built all over Europe. To this day remnants of these majestic aqueducts are still visible by the roadsides of Europe, especially Italy and Spain.



The success of the bathhouses was short lived as many plagues, epidemics and diseases were quickly spread by water throughout the population of Europe and England. The early viaducts were made of lead and it was discovered that this was the source of the poisoning or toxicity. As well as disease, many people suffered from a form of poisoning while others became impotent or sterile. The baths soon became suspect and attendance dropped once the connection was made between the bathhouses and the spread of disease. It was not long before they were very quickly ordered closed.


Early Christians


In the 4th and 5th centuries AD, fathers of the Christian Church' such as Clement and Jerome condemned excessive attendance at the public baths and attendance for pleasure. Because bathhouses had mixed facilities, church authorities condemned women's attendance at mixed gender bathhouses.  Jerome, more strict than most, felt that female virgins should not bathe with other women and that they should not bathe naked.



 However, bathing was not forbidden.  The 'Apostolic Constitutions,' an old Episcopal manual originally compiled about the beginning of the third century, looked upon the use of the bath as quite a manner of course and only provide against certain abuses... The early Fathers, in general, had no objection to baths being used for cleanliness or health.


Middle Ages


After the fall of Rome in 467 A.D. and the resulting decline in bathing habits, much of Europe felt the impact of filth upon public health. This lack of personal cleanliness and related unsanitary living conditions contributed heavily to the great plagues of the Middle Ages, and especially to the Black Death of the 14th century. It wasn't until the 17th century that cleanliness and bathing started to come back into fashion in much of Europe.




Still, there were areas of the medieval world where personal cleanliness remained important. Daily bathing was a common custom in Japan during the Middle Ages. And in Iceland, pools warmed with water from hot springs were popular gathering places on Saturday evenings.


Cultural attitudes also determined the use of water. In the latter middle ages, public bathhouses were common in larger villages and cities. The appearance of the body - of cleanliness - was believed to reflect one's soul (i.e., the common phrase 'Cleanliness is next to Godliness') and most of the townspeople and aristocrats bathed frequently. This, however, required public nudity, which was frowned upon by liturgical factions of the period. The public baths were also havens for prostitution, thus much opposition to the public baths was to be found.




During the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation, the quality and condition of the clothing (as opposed to the actual cleanliness of the body itself) were thought to reflect the soul of an individual. Clean clothing also reflected one's social status; clothes made the man or woman. This fact still is reflected today in the industry of fashion.



Additionally, from the late Middle Ages through the end of the eighteenth century, etiquette and medical manuals advised people to only wash the parts of the body that were visible to the public; for example, the ears, hands, feet, and face and neck. This did away with the public baths and left the cleaning of oneself to the privacy of one's home.


Medieval people did bathe. There are lots of pictures of people bathing in medieval art. However, most people did not have indoor plumbing, so water would have to be fetched from the well or spring in a bucket, and if you wanted a hot bath it would have to be heated up over an open fire before you filled the tub, so it is likely that the upper classes would have bathed more often, as they would have servants to do the hard work for them.


More people would wash themselves bit by bit, from a basin of water, without actually taking a bath as such. However, there were public bath houses in medieval times, and steam baths were very popular.  They would probably wash their hands before and after meals, medieval people were very particular to do that as the ate with their fingers, so having clean hands at meal times was very important.


Up until the 19th century, most people in Europe and the American colonies did not have indoor plumbing, so having a bath was hard work. Bathtubs only became widely popular in America after the Civil War for instance. Before that time, people were more likely to wash in a basin, just a bit at a time.


In the late 16th century, and for the next two centuries, bathing lost its popularity.


Churches became increasingly more outspoken about the sins and self-indulgence of those who spent more of their time in the various bathhouses rather than in church, working, or looking after their families. The Ministers were particularly disturbed that so many illegitimate children were created from dubious encounters outside of marriage.


As time passed by, various citizens began to protest against the sins of the bathers. The new Christian trend was to become grubby because cleanliness was considered to be too sensuous and sexual. Dirt was a symbol of one's spiritual purity and indicated that the focus was outside one's self, rather than on personal hygiene. Refusing to bathe was proof one was beyond such things and thus not egotistical or self absorbed.


It was also believed that dirt was a protection from germs due to the numerous plagues that had previously killed a large population of England and Europe. Rather than being put off by the smell, body odor was thought to be magnetic and a turn on. Powders, perfumes, wigs, cosmetics, and layers of clothes hid the grime and body scent. If overwhelmed by a particularly potent smell, a bit of snuff to clear one's nostrils was all that was needed.


Most authors suggest that the decline in bathing, baths, and general washing may date to the period of the later plagues. Simple principles of contagion did suggest to Renaissance people that bathing with others was a significant risk. Immersing in water or opening the pores with a steam bath might also make one more vulnerable to disease if it was spread via 'miasmas,' a common theory at the time.


mi·as·ma /maɪ'æzmə, mi-/ [mahy-az-muh, mee-] –noun, plural -mas, -ma·ta /-mətə/ [-muh-tuh]

1.  noxious exhalations from putrescent organic matter; poisonous effluvia or germs polluting the atmosphere.

2.  noxious exhalations from putrescent organic matter; poisonous effluvia or germs polluting the atmosphere.


[Origin: 1655–65; < NL < Gk míasma stain, pollution, akin to miaínein to pollute, stain]




The switch from woolen to linen clothing by the sixteenth century also accompanied the decline in bathing. Linen clothing is much easier to clean and maintain - and such clothing was becoming commonplace at the time in Western Europe. Clean linen shirts or blouses allowed people who hadn't bathed to appear clean and well groomed. The possession of a large quantity of clean linen clothing was a sign of social status. Thus, appearance became more important than personal hygiene. Medical opinion supported this claim. Physicians of the period believed that odors, or miasma, such as that which would be found in soiled linens, caused disease. A person could therefore change one's shirt every few days, but avoid baths - which might let the 'bad air' into the body through the pores. Consequently, in an age in which there were very few personal bathtubs, laundry was an important and weekly chore which were commonly undertaken by laundresses of the time.


19th Century or the Modern Era


Before the late 19th Century, running water in individual homes was rare.


Provisions for bathing were scant because there was not enough simple plumbing to make household consumption available. However, when the plagues hit England in the early 1800's, so many people became ill or died that, an immediate investigation was made as to how to connect the average home with water. It was found that water was not the cause of the problem but part of the cure. England spent a lot of time and money researching this and soon became a leader in bathroom technology.


Public opinion about bathing only began to shift in the middle and late eighteenth century, when writers argued that frequent bathing might lead to better health. Large public baths, such as those found in the ancient world, would revive during the nineteenth century, and the germ theory of disease would eventually lead health authorities globally to urge people to bathe regularly, to rid the body of harmful germs. The great water projects of the nineteenth century thus had a lot to owe to the assurance of vast quantities of water obtained for the general health.


Once water became plentiful, new water healing modalities, which used water, were created to prevent or cure many diseases such as typhoid and fever. Going to the baths became fashionable again, with Epsom, mineral and sulfur baths being especially popular. Spas were the rage all over Europe and became so important that hydrotherapy and thermal healing were taught in medical schools. Sessions at spas are still prescribed by the Government of numerous European countries and clients are sent to spas that specialize in treatments for their particular ailments.


World wide, people have adopted the same general attitudes towards water, using it to clean, to socialize and to heal. Spas, saunas, Jacuzzis, birthing pools, hot springs baths, and mineral or sulfur baths are once again increasing in popularity.





Not only Europeans, but also many other cultures had a passion for the many pleasures bathhouses offered them. The Turks developed very hot baths, which to this day are still known as Turkish Baths, or steam baths. Their bathhouses were very artistic and expensive with rich hand-woven carpets, tapestries and ornate columns, and gold, silver, or brass fixtures.




Western writers claim that the soaking baths of Japan originate from the extensive use of Japanese hot springs. Situated between two volcanic belts, Japan offers countless natural thermal baths, furos. The tradition of public bathing dates back at least to A.D. 552 and to the dawn of Buddhism, which taught that such hygiene not only purified the body of sin but also brought luck.



For centuries, Japan has been a culture known for its bathing customs and obsession about cleanliness. Spiritual pursuits of purity, hygiene and ritual purification were an important part of Japanese culture and bathing was done communally without regard for division of the sexes.  However, as class distinctions became more pronounced, there was as much sexual activity taking place in the public baths as there had been in the Roman. Very quickly a law was passed segregating the sexes. Separate entrances and separate pools were created for the different classes, although sexes were not entirely kept apart. Where there is a will, there is a way. To this day bathing is still a major Japanese indulgence and passion.





The bath house was also an important part of Moslem history.  Bath houses were built where one could meditate, pray to the Creator, or think.  It was customary to cleanse at one of these public bath houses before going to the mosque to worship.  Many bath houses are located in close proximity to the neighborhood mosque.  The Roman bath houses suited the Islamic call for cleanliness extremely well and while Europe descended into the dark ages, this particular tradition and its building types were filtered through Arab, Turkish, and Persian cultures.


Judaic Ritual Bathing



 Ritual bathing is also part of ancient (and modern) Jewish culture. Ritual cleansing baths (mikvot) from the classical period have been found in archaeological digs at multiple sites, including Masada. Hanan Eshel summarizes the rules for the construction of mikvot::


"A mikveh must hold at least 40 seahs of water (approximately 60 gallons). The whole body of the person or vessel to be purified must be totally immersed. And, most significant for our purposes, the water must be "living" water. That is, it must come directly from a river or a spring or from rainwater that flows into the pool; it may not be drawn. To meet this latter requirement, the rabbis permitted the use of an otter, a pool of living water that was connected by a plugged pipe to the main immersion pool. The main pool could be filled with drawn water (not qualified for use in ritual immersion), and when needed, the pipe between the otter and the main pool was unplugged, allowing the qualified, living water from the otter to come into contact with the water in the main pool, rendering it fit for immersions."


Eastern Cultures



Roman-type baths were established in Islamic countries through the medieval and Renaissance periods and bathing was endorsed by Islamic writers.  The hammam, referred to in modern times as the 'Turkish Bath,' was a major feature of Islamic culture, and preserved the Roman traditions of cleaning the body first, then soaking and socializing. Due to the Islamic religious requirements for frequent washing (when water was unavailable, dust or dirt could be used for ritual ablutions), baths and washing equipment remained popular. Some historians believe that the habit of the baths return to Western Europe from the Middle East with the Crusaders, but documentary evidence suggests that the resurgence of public baths in Western Europe may have been more a function of political and economic stability.


Types of Bath


Vapor baths, Saunas & Steam Baths




The preferred method in Eastern and Central Europe was the sauna or steam bath.  One common method of creating steam was to heat rock and then pour water over the hot rock which then creates steam.  The rocks can be heated on a stove or in a fire.


A steam bath could be followed by a plunge in cold water.


A steam bath might also offer food or entertainment as a part of its service.


Modern Bathing



Indoor plumbing and an abundance of personal care products are a given in the Western world.  Personal cleanliness and hygiene are widely practiced throughout most of the world.  So-called third world countries may lack the facilities and the products to practice daily personal hygiene, but the standard for personal cleanliness is well defined and well accepted the world over.


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