The oldest baths yet discovered, built between 1700 and 1400 BC, are in the royal palaces of Knossos, in Crete. Over 3000 years ago a complete bathtub and drainage system was part of the construction of King Nestor’s palace near Pylos, Greece. In ancient Greece public baths were attached to the gymnasia, and bathing was cold and invigorating, resorted to more for the sake of bodily health than for cleanliness.
The Stavian baths at Pompeii were built before 100 BC and are the oldest Roman baths yet discovered; they were more complex than the Greek baths. Men and women at first bathed separately but, in time, public baths became social centers and during the latter half of the Roman Empire there was mixed bathing. The Romans built baths throughout Europe but after their withdrawal the art of bathing was lost and Europe went unwashed for 1000 years.
The early Christian Church did not condemn bathing as is often stated; they were in favor of it for cleansing purposes but objected to public baths, which they believed were ‘hotbeds of vice’. Returning crusaders introduced the Turkish steam and water bath, or public ‘stew’, into Europe; part of the process, steam produced by water on hot stones, then a massage followed by cold water, survives as the Swedish sauna.
By the sixteenth century the ‘stews’ had become brothels and sources of infection from the plague, and bathing went out of fashion. Elizabeth I of England had a bath every 3 months, but Henry IV of France would not take a bath unless a doctor was present. Louis XVI was sometimes washed by his servants and, during this process, perfume was burned on a red-hot shovel to keep the air sweet. By the time of Charles II there were separate public baths for men and women; Samuel Pepys in his diary complained that his wife forced him to attend them!
It was not until ‘Beau’ Brummel became an influential dandy that personal cleanliness began to be considered fashionable but even when Queen Victoria was crowned in 1837 Buckingham Palace did not have a bathroom. Factors that influenced the acceptance of bathing as a means of personal hygiene were medical discoveries that dirt was a breeding place for germs and the fashion among wealthy people of visiting spas and mineral springs for their health-giving qualities.
In 1846 an Act of Parliament was passed in England to ensure that public baths and wash-houses were built; later in the nineteenth century developments in plumbing and the provision of a water supply to most houses increased the popularity of bathing.
However, it was not until 1900 that bathrooms and hot water systems were included in the design of most middle class homes. Poorer people had to wait until the 1920s, when cast-iron baths lined with porcelain enamel were cheaply produced, making it possible for most families to possess one.