How did bath houses become popular?

Figure 1. The Great Bath in Mohenjo-daro, one of the earliest public baths known.

Bathing and concepts of cleanliness are not universal across societies. Cleanliness, for some, meant multiple times during a day bathing, while for others it may simply have a religious or spiritual significance, even while little bathing took place on a day-to-day schedule. For most of human history, private bath facilities were a rare commodity. Thus, it is the history of bath houses that is associated with social concepts of cleanliness and this was spread by factors that included empires, new religious/spiritual ideas, and other cultural influence.

Early Bath Houses

Perhaps among the earliest societies with bath houses (or bathhouses) included Indus region societies in the 3rd millennium BC, who built forms of bath houses and established rituals for bathing. In fact, one the earliest large bathing, and likely public, complexes is found in Mohenjo-daro, where the so-called "Great Bath" is often considered the earliest public bath with the main pool measuring 11.88 × 7.01 meters. Later Indian works, such as the grihya sutras, discuss the importance of bathing and hygiene that emphasized bathing three times a day as a way to keep the body clean. It was also seen as a way to stay spiritually clean, demonstrating that religious concepts of cleanliness sometimes were associated with physical cleanliness. It is possible that the origins and importance of bathing as a public ritual could have developed in the Indus region.[1]

Both ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt have evidence for bathing in private spaces, such as homes and palaces, but public bathhouses are largely absent. In second millennium BC, Akrotiri in Santorini and Knossos in Crete show evidence there were bathing facilities, although these, similar to Mesopotamia and Egypt, may have been for more wealthier individuals or classes. In fact, daily washing in a bathroom may have meant you were wealthy enough to have these facilities in your own private space. In Greece from the first millennium BCE, bathing had a more public aspect, perhaps similar to ancient Indian/Indus cultures. As the Greeks emphasized sports that meant participants were generally naked, where our modern term gymnasium comes from, communal baths for the competitors were required. Even some of the earliest public showers may have developed in baths used for athletes between 500-300 BC.[2]

Later Bath Houses

Figure 2. The Baths of Diocletian were Rome's largest, and perhaps the wold's at that time, baths.

As aqueducts and water supply technologies, such as qanats, became more elaborate, public baths developed in more places. The Romans were well known for creating large and elaborate bath houses that sometimes took advantage of natural springs, including hot springs or geothermal springs, as well as supplying water to specific sites using water transport technologies. The Romans probably built the most elaborate bath houses, where bathing was seen as an important aspect of religious worship as well as cleanliness. Bathing was so important to the Romans that there were social expectations that all classes participate in bathing. This led to the practice of the Roman government often commissioning large public baths, which were found in most Roman towns and cities. Rome, itself, had 952 baths of varying size, with the largest public bath from the ancient world being the Baths of Diocletian built in 306 AD (Figure 2). Sometimes baths were associated with temples and religious practice, such as the Roman Baths in modern Bath, UK, where the main temple was dedicated to Minerva/Sulis which was adjoined to a large bath. With this emphasis, baths became not only public but also spaces used to socialize, from meeting potential business partners, to buy and sell products, but also demonstrate one's status in society. In other cases, baths were also sometimes associated with prostitution or just casual sex between different sexes. For the Romans, this was not often seen as a negative social aspect, thus laws did not discourage the use of baths in this way. Baths, therefore, were often used for relaxation and hedonistic pleasure.[3]

Romans often built baths as one of the first things in a town they conquered or built. People would also exercise, often to help built a sweat so that it is easier to remove skin and dirt, while they would also be massaged. Oil treatments, often of varying quality, would be made available to people. There were also two main types of baths, one hot (calidarium) and the other cold (frigidarium). The hot baths were also used to make saunas as water was thrown into the heated rooms, where underground heated bricks would heat the floors and walls. Effectively, Roman baths began to become similar to our concept of spas, where people go to receive massages, skin treatments, relax, and bathe. Roman baths have most likely shaped our concepts of spa treatments and other cultures' baths that followed in the Medieval period. Bath houses continue to spread in many regions, including in Central Asia and China, by at least 200 BC, where these regions began having public bath houses. The spread of public baths could have happened through travelers and merchants that began to connect Eurasia during the Old World. Probably by around 1 AD, bath houses could be found anywhere between Britain and Japan.[4]

Modern Concepts of Cleanliness and Bath Houses

In Europe during the Medieval period, many public bath houses faded away as norms and infrastructure used to sustain bath houses receded after the fall of the Roman Empire. In other regions, such as the Middle East and Asia, bath houses continued to be used as public spaces even after religious change. In fact, in Islamic regions, ritual purity was strongly associated with bathing, requiring public baths to be built in many regions. Similar to the Romans, this extended to the concept of hot springs having a healing element to them. Thus, it was not only cleanliness that was desired but also healing from various physical ailments. During the Medieval period in Europe, we see contrasts in concepts of public bathing. At times, there were possible prohibitions against public bath houses since they could be places for what was seen as illicit sexual behavior. In other cases, bathing was encouraged not only for cleanliness but it was also seen as a way to improve health, including hot and cold baths helping with stomach and heart problems.[5]

In the 19th century, municipal governments realized the benefits of public bath houses. While rich classes increasingly utilized private baths in their own accommodations or even wealthy public baths, the masses, particularly for public health reasons, needed access to baths. Governments in Europe and North America began to build public baths in major cities, with Liverpool and London being some of the earliest cities to sponsor major public baths. Also, contacts with Ottoman Turkey, which had inherited the concept of public baths from centuries before, influenced different cities in Europe, where many Turkish baths were built and became popular. In the UK, public baths became law under the Baths and Wash-houses Act of 1846. This helped to spread the utilization of baths, once again, to the masses, who still generally lacked any piped water to their accommodations. The building of baths also included bathing pools. This then began the era of public swimming pools that often accommodated public baths.[6]

For wealthier classes, baths were not seen of worth for the cleanliness they provided but treatment such as through steam treatment, ointments, massages, and even exercise. Special hotels and dedicated facilities began to open and focus on wealthy clients. This began the development of the modern spas in many regions. It was only after World War I that more typical homes began to have access to indoor plumbing. This began then the trend of bathing more regularly at home rather than in public baths. Soon, many people began to frequent public baths less often, while in other places baths became solely known for various sexual acts. Overall, major public baths once again faded in many parts of Europe and North America or receded into an association with prostitution. However, public baths have never entirely disappeared. In Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Japan, and other Asian cultures, public baths are still important as a social part of life. In Western States, spas have become more common rather than public baths, but larger cities still often retain public swimming pools or even bathing facilities.[7]


The function of public baths has always been focused on cleanliness; however, there were many other aspects to public baths as well. For some cultures, baths were important religious places, while in other cultures baths also served as places to socialize. Baths were sometimes frowned upon, particularly as baths were also sometimes known for various sexual acts or prostitution, but their utility was often even seen during periods when they were not frequently built. In more recent periods, baths began to fade as indoor plumbing began to make bathing more of a private act, although social aspects of baths have not entirely disappeared in many cultures.


  1. For more on bathing in Mohenjo-daro, the Indus and Indian culture, see: Allchin, B., & Allchin, F. R. (1982). The rise of civilization in India and Pakistan. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, pg. 180.
  2. For more on the development of bathing and bath houses in ancient Greek and east Mediterranean cultures, see: Lucore, S. K., & Trümper, M. (Eds.). (2013). Greek baths and bathing culture: new discoveries and approaches. Leuven ; Walpole, MA: Peeters.
  3. For more on the history and social development in relation to public baths in the Roman period, see: Fagan, G. G. (1999). Bathing in public in the Roman world. Ann Arbor [Great Britain]: University of Michigan Press.
  4. For more on the development of bath houses in the Old World and their structure, see: Yegül, F. K. (1995). Baths and bathing in classical antiquity (Paperback ed). New York: The Architectural History Foundation [u.a.].
  5. For more on Medieval baths, see: Sherrow, V. (2001). For appearance’ sake: the historical encyclopedia of good looks, beauty, and grooming. Phoenix, Ariz: Oryx Press.
  6. For more on modern baths that developed in the 19th century, see: Watson, S. (2006). City publics: the (dis)enchantments of urban encounters. London ; New York: Routledge, pg. 83.
  7. For more on modern baths, including spas, see: Davis, G. (2009). Bath as spa and Bath as slum: the social history of a Victorian city. Lewiston, N.Y: Edwin Mellen Press.


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