A Short History Of Bathing

Although today we bathe to clean ourselves and relax, this was not always the case. Bathing has been a necessary part of everyday life in some cultures, a social event in others, and a dangerous sin by still others.

When talking about the history of baths, many people immediately think of the ancient Roman bathhouses. At its peak,13 aqueducts supplied ancient Rome with 300 gallons of water per person per day. Hundreds of people congregated daily at the public baths. The huge bathhouses usually consisted of sports fields or courts; a tepidarium or warm room; a calidarium or hot room; a frigidarium for cold baths; a sudatorium for hot baths; and plenty of space to walk, sit, or talk with friends.

The waters from the famous Roman baths in Bath, England, (a natural hot spring) were believed to have healing powers. The ultimate in bathing cultures, Romans may have bathed even more often than we do today: Some of the emperors are said to have bathed seven or eight times a day.

But Rome isn't the only culture that bathed or made water central to its lifestyle. Christians believed, and still believe to this day, that a soul cannot gain entrance into heaven without being cleansed by holy water. The Christian baptism involves different levels of bathing, depending on which sect is performing the rites. The water is said to wash away all sin and grant entrance into heaven when the time arrives.

The ancient Greeks had shrines containing bathing pools filled by spring water. These waters were supposedly blessed by the god of healing, Asklepios, and could cure the sick. These shrines were considered sanctuaries and holy places. Greece also gave rise to the secret society, the Eleusian Mysteries. Although we know little of their practices, we do know water had an important role in the initiation of new members. Initiates would enter the ocean and rise with a new name and a new spirit.

Ancient Egyptiansat least the wealthy onesenjoyed bathing for hygiene. There have been a number of simple shower baths discovered in Egyptian ruins. And, around 1500 B.C., the pharaoh is reputed to have bathed daily in the Nile daily.

The Cherokee, Iroquois, Scandinavian and Japanese cultures all have myths of a universe of infinite water and consider bathing in water a spiritual act separate from washing. Many Native American tribes have a purification tradition involving steam baths and sweat lodges where water is poured over hot stones. Water was also central to the lives of the Vikings, who believed they could cleanse their spirits by sweating in saunas then dipping in icy water.

In ancient Japan, the newborn children of the emperors were given the "Rights of the First Bath." This ritual was similar to the Christian baptism and cleansed the child's spirit. In contemporary Japan, daily baths are still a time for relaxation, rejuvenation, and family bonding as members of families bath together.

In Medieval England, ladies of high rank bathed monthly in baths lined with canvas. The baths were set before the fireplaces and screened by painted canopies. In some households the family and guests shared a communal tub to make the most of the water while it was hot.

Around the 16th century, bathing fell out of popularity in Europe. Even royalty rarely bathed the whole body. Instead, the rich perfumed themselves heavily, strapping bags of herbs under their arms and carrying scented sachets to hold to their noses.

By the beginning of the Victorian era (in the mid-19th century), bathing regained popularitysort of. Baths were prescribed as treatments for anything from a sprained wrist to a cold. But taking a bath for any reason other than healing a medical condition was still considered eccentric.