Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 28 - The Turkish Bath

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WHEN my maiden aunt, the other morning, insisted upon my wrapping my neck up in a comforter, and putting on double coats, fleecy hosiery, thick woollen gloves and mits; and, moreover, warned me in the most solemn manner not to expose myself to sudden cold; I believed as firmly in her injunctions as I used to believe in the sacred sentences used as copy slips. Scuffling down towards my club, too stiffly wrapped to turn my body with ease, an animated mound of woollen, I happened to meet Tom Glasters — Merry Tom, they call him. "Why, old fellow," he said, giving me a dull pound through my woollen armour, "is that the way you try to keep out the cold? Come with me and have a Turkish bath at W—'s, and then sit in a draught for half-an-hour with only a thin sheet on, — that's the way to harden you to cold, my boy."
    "Stand in a sheet this weather!" I stuttered, with chattering teeth, and goose-skin running down the centre of my back. "No, I thank you."
    " Oh! but you must," he replied, in his quiet, determined way, coupling my arm in his, and marching me oft' in triumph. I knew I was about to deliberately commit an outrage on my aunt's feelings, and fly in the teeth of [-274-] her fleecy hosiery and comforters; but somehow I was under a fascination, and go with Tom I must.
    "Stand in a sheet this weather!" I once more imploringly exclaimed.
    "Stand in a sheet! Yes, and very jolly too."
    In another minute we had reached W—'s mansion, and having dropped my mound of wrappers, Tom introduced me to five or six gentlemen about to undergo the penitential sheet in our company. I was somewhat consoled by the cheerful manner in which they seemed to contemplate the coming trial, and moved on with the company into a black apartment, the footman informing us, at the same time, that his master was already awaiting us in the Frigidarium. The sound certainly was not pleasant, with the thermometer below freezing-point. But I had little time for reflection, as we were all ushered into an apartment which looked out upon the back leads, one of those third back rooms on the ground floor which seem an institution in London. The locality was too familiar for any horrid torture, and following the example of the company, I speedily found myself habited in a light terpsychorean costume, or kilt (cummerbund is, I believe, the correct designation). Thus habited, we followed our leader through a double door, and found ourselves in the Calidarium, or sweating chamber. Imagine a small hot-house surrounded with hot-air flues, and in place of exotics, placed above them on the wooden stages, see the company seated. The thermometer marked 135 degrees, yet I did not feel particularly warm ; strange to say, my face, which is always exposed, felt the heat most. My companions, who were habitués of more or less standing, [-275-] watched me apparently with some interest, and on my remarking that my face felt hot, one of them passed his hand down my arm.
    "Do you call that skin'" he exclaimed, in a tone so deprecating, that I mentally felt the deepest shame at its possession.
    " No," I said, "what is it?"
    "It's horn, sir, it's horn. You are only a shade less horny-hided than an armadillo." This was a rather startling proposition. Had my careful aunt only trained me, with an her care, to arrive at this condition? "We must have this off, sir," he went on, in a tone as indifferent as though he were some wretched old woman about to skin a live cat.
    " Have it off, sir ," I said, getting half-angry; "I should like to see the man that will lay a hand upon my skin."
    " We will see about that," he replied, in a most provokingly cool manner.
    "Goodness gracious!" I inwardly exclaimed, "to be frozen, dried up to a mummy, and then skinned, —and for Tom to call it so very jolly!"
    I must own, however, that, after all, I began to feel particularly light and happy, Had I a hundred pound acceptance coming due that very day, and nothing to meet it at the bankers, I should not have cared a snap of the fingers. "Is it only necessary to get hot to get happy?" I inwardly inquired.
    Happening to rise for a moment, however, from the bench, and to take a fresh seat, I gave a sudden jump up again, as though I had been shot. Had I inadvertently seated myself on the bars of the furnace?
    [-276-] "Not at all; the wood is hotter than you calculated," remarked one of the habitués; "you must keep your seat."
    Some one has quaintly said that if an ordinary-sized man were placed in a press, between a sufficient number of sheets of blotting-paper, before the screw had reduced his anatomy to the flattened condition of a dried botanical specimen, that blotting-paper would have extracted from him no less than eight gallons of water.
    I never could credit this mendacious assertion as I believed, until I had been in the Calidarium about half an hour; then it became clearly apparent that there may be some truth in the statement. The skin did not perspire so much as it streamed with water .
    "Before you have done," said one of my tormentors, .you will have lost three pounds."
    A remarkably fine man, seated aloft in a still hotter atmosphere, every now and then took a copious draught of water, as a kind of compensatory process, and the effect was indeed remarkable, — it was like pouring a bucket of water into a watering-pot and then witnessing it stream out of the rose. His whole body became in a few minutes one rose, from which the water previously imbibed transuded. The animated watering-pot, whilst in full activity, stepped down from his reclining couch and went out into the Frigidarium (oh! shade of my aunt!). I followed: the windows were open, and there we stood in a thorough draught, two columns of steam rising straight up to the ceiling testifying to the activity with which the cooling process was going on. This alternation of temperature, I was informed, was only another method of accelerating the perspiratory process, for on returning into [-277-] the Calidarium we were river gods once more, every pore an urn to supply a rivulet.
    "Now, sir," said my friend in the bath, "your skin is nearly ready to come off," and with one sweep of the palm of his hand he denuded me of a long pipe of macaroni.
    I shall not inflict a long description upon the reader of' the art of shampooing, but I own I was astonished to see the amount of debris among which I stood after the completion of the process .
   "There goes your armadillo hide," remarked one of my companions. " Now your skin is a living structure, instead of a half-paralysed surface, with little more life in it than your nail."
    The measure of the frequency with which the different bathers present had taken the bath was at once evident to the observer by the condition of his skin: my own on first entering was rough and sallow, whilst the systematic bathers' epidermis was as soft and glossy as satin. I carried with me the accumulated coats of a year's epidermis, which no mere washing could ever get off. The process of shampooing was somewhat like the cleaning of an old master. The flesh tints came out bright and lustrous where all before was brown and lead coloured. And this refuse, it must be remembered, was not upon the surface. No ordinary washing would have removed that; it represented the accumulated refuse of the body. The hot-air bath, it must be explained, acts in the very opposite direction of the vapour or warm water bath, which checks instead' of aids the unloading of the different ducts which have their outlets through the skin. The hot-air bath flushes the external sewers of the body, and the waters of [-278-] exudation carry with them all effete particles lodged within them. We never seem to remember that we can no more exclude the skin from the action of the light and air than we can exclude a living vegetable, or allow its pores to be blocked up. The very neglect of our attention to the skin is the cause of more than half the ailments to which humanity is subjected. When we remember that the skin is one of the great scavengers of the body, and that it is also a vast external lung, we see the necessity of keeping it in an active condition. We may liken the epidermis to a double night-cap thrust in upon itself; the skin, from the lips inwards and downwards, is a mucous surface, lining the lungs and the alimentary canal, and the functions of both of these internal organs are more or less supplemented by the outward skin or external fold of the night-cap. As long as the epidermis of the body is in lively action, there can be no congestion of the internal eliminative organs, such as the liver, intestines, and kidneys. We therefore see of what immense importance it is as a medical region.
    A clergyman who was present with us in the bath stated that, since he had. habitually taken the Turkish bath, he had entirely got rid of the professional sore throat with which he had before been afflicted. The number of diseases for which the Turkish bath is recommended, even by medical men, is so large, that it would seem to be a general specific. There can be no doubt that its virtues are very great in all cases where there is a vitiated condition of the blood, arising from a languid condition of the skin and circulation, or any specific poison lurking within it. We have heard such miraculous tales told respecting its powers [-279-] in curing rheumatism, that we cannot doubt its value. Mr. Erasmus Wilson also states that it is wonderfully efficacious in many skin diseases. It has been objected that in all cases of disease of the heart, the Turkish bath would prove injurious; but Mr. Wilson, in a lecture lately delivered upon the use of the bath, energetically denies this statement. "I believe," he says, "just the contrary, that many diseases of the heart may be cured by a judicious use of the Thermae; and in the very worst cases it would prove to be the very best remedy that could be employed." In some cases, indeed, the heart's action is accelerated by the use of the bath, but a moment's sojourn in the Frigidarium, with its plentiful supply of pure oxygen, instantly calms any perturbation. Those who have not accustomed themselves to the bath, sometimes complain of feeling a fulness in the head, but this objection can be met by simply wrapping a towel round the head. That the Turkish bath will before long be esteemed a necessary part of every gentleman's house, is exceedingly probable. Indeed, its curative effects can scarcely be realised without it. When we are overcome with influenza, sore throat, or rheumatism, we are generally too ill to visit a public bath; in these cases the Calidarium will prove the true medicine chest.
    Whilst we speak thus unreservedly respecting the value of the Turkish bath, we by no means believe it to be the specific for all diseases the bath proprietors would make the public believe. There is quackery in this matter, as in all others. Only lately one of these proprietors favoured us with an inspection of what he termed his "Case Book," in which the maladies of his patients were set forth with great gravity. Of course, he met with nothing but cures.  [-280-] One of these days, a patient will drop down dead in the Tepidarium, and then a. coroner's jury will duly descant upon the necessity of consulting a medical man previously to employing such a powerful remedial agent as the Turkish bath.
    Our sporting friends, also, are beginning to perceive the value of the bath for training purposes. At present a fighting man, or running man, is obliged to conform to weight. He must reduce himself to a certain point before he can even enter the lists, to say nothing of the disqualification superfluous flesh and fat entail upon him. Of old, the sweating process was brought about by encasing the pet of the fancy in half a dozen top-coats, and, thus clothed, placing him under violent exercise, with peculiar diet, and a very moderate amount of drink. This barbarous method of getting a. man into condition will, if our sporting contemporary, the "Field," speaks truly, be superseded, and we may expect to meet our athletes and public gladiators in the public sweating baths, as they did in the antique times. Even our race-horses are now given a hot-air bath in place of a gallop-sweating in the training ground, and cattle suffering under pleuro-pneumonia are said to feel great benefit from its medical virtues.
    But whilst I have thus been descanting upon the physiological action of the hot-air bath, I have forgotten that the final process of cooling is not yet completed. Leaving the Calidarium for good, we now returned to the Frigidarium. Here, clothed in long sheets, like a party of ghosts, we gradually cooled before the open window, with the biting air marking below freezing-point. How was it that I, who shivered beneath my mound of wrappers, felt [-281-] the frozen air quite exhilarating, and the draught quite delicious? It often used to be a puzzle to me to understand how it was that the stoker of the penny steamer could one moment stand before his furnace door, exposed to a temperature of 200 degrees, whilst the next moment he would be seen airing himself at the top of his stokehole ladder, apparently in comfort. Again, how could it be consistent with my respected aunt's theory of the necessity of avoiding sudden changes of temperature to see the glass-blowers and iron-pudlers one moment roasting before the white heat of a furnace, and the next cooling their reeking bodies in the open air. Here was the true secret — the body once exalted into energetic action by the combined effect of a high temperature and a thorough action of its pores, is able to withstand with impunity any change of temperature, however sudden. It is a matter of common observation that a thorough warm at the fire is the best preparation for a long walk in the cold. Nevertheless, there are some persons who condemn this proceeding as a pampering of the body; people who will actually sit at the other end of the room lest they should get any adventitious heat from the fire. Do not believe, good reader, in such ascetic nonsense any longer — in this instance, the pleasant is the true thing to do.
    We have given our experience above of a private bath, improvised in the third room back of a private mansion. In the public establishments which are now spreading throughout the three kingdoms, but especially in Ireland, the plan of the old Roman bath is more strictly followed. There is the Tepidarium, the Suditarium (heated to a temperature of 120), and the Calidarium, in which the [-282-] heat is exalted to 160 degrees. Next to this is the Lavitarium, in which the washing and shampooing process is carried on. There are such institutions already established in the Edgware Road; in Charlotte Street, Pimlico ; in Golden Square, and other parts of town; and such is the growing rage for these baths, that a company has been started, with a capital of £100,000, for the erection of a series of public Roman baths worthy of this great metropolis. There is nothing new under the sun. The Turkish bath, which Mr. Urquhart has introduced to the West, is a reminiscence of the old Roman bath of the lower empire.
    The barbarian Turk has been the medium of keeping alive one of the most healthful practices of the ancients. There is scarcely a spot throughout the United Kingdom in which the remains of these very baths have not been disinterred and gazed at by the curious during the last half-century. We turn up the flues, still blackened with the soot of fourteen centuries ago; we find, as at Uriconium, the very furnaces, with the coal fuel close at hand; and we know that the hot bath was not only used by the legionaries who held Britain, but by the civilized Britons themselves; yet we must go all the way to the barbarian Turk for instruction upon one of the simplest and most effective methods of maintaining the public health. What medicine we might have extracted from these old classic ruins, if we had chosen to view them in their right light! What feeble sudorifics are Dover's powders, or antimony, or ipecacuanha, compared with the action of the hot-air bath!
    Thus moralizing I reached home. My first impulse was [-283-] to pitch my comforter to the end of the room; my next to astonish my respected aunt.
    "Well, my dear boy, what have you been about to-day?"
    "Standing before the open window with only a sheet on me."
    "Now, James, don't make fun of an old woman."
    " True, upon my honour; and intend to do so twice a week, and to leave off all this toggery," kicking my wrappers.
    " Why, what's come to the poor boy?" (I am fifty-five next month!)
    "First I was baked for an hour in an oven, and when at the hottest, I cooled myself in a thorough draught," I malignantly remarked.
    "You've been drinking, James," was the only response I could get to this monstrous statement. That I was either drunk or mad my venerable relative did not doubt. Indeed, how often do we find that the madness of to-day is the prime wisdom of to-morrow, that our presumed afflictions are our most serviceable friends!