“All a woman needs is a good bath, clean clothes and her hair combed. These things she can do herself.” — Hedy Lamarr
The reviving qualities of a hot bath have been celebrated from Homer onwards. In Book XXII of the Iliad, Hector’s wife heats a cauldron of water over a fire to for him to soak in after his epic battle with Achilles. Unfortunately, Hector ends up “beyond the reach of baths”. The oldest bathtub yet discovered is in the Queen’s bathroom in the palace of Knossos on Crete, dating from 1500BC. It was made from fired clay, and sat alongside one of the earliest water-flushed lavatories.
Bathing has always meant more than hygiene – most religions use water, literally and metaphorically, to clean away sin and purify the body. The Ancient Egyptians washed twice a day to honour Isis, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and the Odyssey’s sorceress Circe washed her head to entice dreams. Bathing was also used after “spiritual defilements” such as menstruation and sex.
By the fifth century AD, Rome had around 900 public baths. The Romans initially built these communal places for the poor (the rich had private ones at home) but when emperors and aristocrats began to patronise them they became social hubs where wine flowed, friends met and the wealthy visited five or six times a day, even taking meals while immersed. The baths of Caracalla, built in 212AD, held 1,600 bathers and covered 33 acres. As well as hot, warm and cold baths, they contained a steam room, shops and two libraries. They were still in use long after the end of the Roman Empire.
Medieval Europe wasn’t quite as filthy as it is now portrayed. Returning Crusaders brought back the tradition of the hamam, or Turkish bath. By the end of the 11th century most European towns had bathhouses and were part of everyday life. By the early 1300s, London had 18 bathhouses or “stews”; Paris had 26. Unlike the hamam, European baths were often mixed. A Florentine traveller called Gian-Francesco Poggio visited the outdoor baths in Baden near Zurich in 1414, where he was amazed to find naked men and women cavorting together. “Every day they go to bathe three or four times, spending the greater part of the day singing, drinking and dancing.”
The Black Death changed all that. In 1348, medical scholars at the University of Paris published their opinion about the plague’s cause: noxious air entering the body through the nose and mouth or the pores of the skin. Suddenly, soaking in a bath was tantamount to suicide. Water became something to be avoided, the bathhouses were closed, and for the next 300 years almost no one in Europe washed at all.
One theory for what causes wrinkly skin after a bath is that the outermost layer of skin, the stratum corneum, (literally “horned layer”) contains dead keratin cells which absorb water. This makes the surface of the skin swell but not the lower layers, so the surface is forced to pucker as a result.
Bath or shower?
Conventional wisdom says a shower saves more water than a bath but with more powerful, longer-lasting showers this is not always true. An average bath uses 80 litres of water; an eight-minute power shower 136 litres.
According to RoSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) only one in 17 fatal drownings in the UK in 2005 took place in the bath. On the other hand, domestic baths accounted for four times as many deaths as garden ponds and 12 times as many as swimming pools. The nation with the most dangerous baths in the world is Japan, where in 2004, 3,429 people were reported as having died in the bathtub. Even when adjusted for population, this is still 68 times higher than in the UK.
Smegma was the Ancient Greek word for soap. According to John Jamieson’s Etymological Scottish Dictionary of 1808, curglaff was the shock of suddenly entering a cold bath.