“A Beautiful book” — a Review of Malcolm Shifrin’s “Victorian Turkish Baths”*

*by Susan Guralnik, writing for The Victorian Web. Image above from victorianturkishbath.org, used by kind permission: “Nevill’s Turkish Baths, Ltd., London: view of a cooling-room (Benn & Cronin, c.1910)”.

Shifrin, Malcolm. Victorian Turkish Baths. Swindon: Historic England, 2015. Hardback. xviii + 366 pp. ISBN 978-1-84802-230-0.

“This is a beautiful book. Responding to the title and glancing at the abundance of sumptuous illustrations, the modern reader, accustomed to indoor plumbing as a standard feature in every house, may be tempted to think that this is an exploration of a sybaritic (though immaculate) luxury. It is much, much more. The physical beauty of this book is not to be minimized: it is large and dense with illustrations, charts, and diagrams, all of which serve the text well. The author’s style is straightforward, clear and enhanced by the use of terms as they were used then. The curious are well served by extensive notes, references, indices, and the associate website victorianturkishbath.org .

The first Victorian Turkish bath was built in 1856, the last in 1981. Since about 75 per cent of them were built during the reign of Queen Victoria, it is fair to consider them a Victorian phenomenon. The baths had wide geographic distribution, but never widespread use. For those who could afford both the time and the cost, they offered hygiene and relief from pain, a feature not to be taken for granted. The first was built near Cork in Ireland, followed by baths in the industrial north of England, then Scotland, then the Midlands, and London…

…While not the major focus of the book, there are gems throughout. Agatha Christie, the famed mystery writer, generated her own mystery when she disappeared for ten days. It was later claimed** that she was at the Harrogate Hydropathic. Conan Doyle’s story The Adventure of the Illustrious Client describes the Turkish bath as the place where Sherlock Holmes was “less reticent and more human than anywhere else.” While this may seem like a frivolous comment, it does speak to the genuine sense of relief and comfort the baths provided. Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in the U.S. but gave gifts of gratitude to his hometown, Dunfermline in Scotland. These were public Turkish baths and a gymnasium…

As hot and cold running water became standard in almost all homes, the need (though not the appeal) for public baths of all sorts disappeared. Reliable pain killing drugs replaced the role of the baths as solace. Still, some Turkish baths remain. The author provides a succinct summary of the various factors affecting the modern status of baths, both their decline and their lingering appeal.”

**see http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/york/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8393000/8393552.stm

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