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Public Baths and Health

Although at first I found Matt Bramble drinking the dirty public bath water at Bath in order to cure his ailing body slightly humorous, one of his letters to Doctor Lewis opened my eyes to how disgusting and unsanitary that actually was. He mentions that he intended to soak in the bath in order to “clear some strainer of the skin”, but notices a boy being carried into the water with open sores marring his skin. Bramble is wary enough to realize the health hazards of such public baths and spas (albeit not until after he’s consumed how much of the water?).

            This got me wondering about public baths in general. I know they were fairly common, especially in ancient Rome. I’d even go so far as to say public baths were a precursor to the modern concept of Spas. However, the difference is, modern spas have an emphasis on cleanliness and sterilization, where as public baths existed in a time when the spreading of disease and infection was not as well understood, and precautions to prevent them were not yet in place. Public baths could also be related to public pools, where people meet for recreation and socialization, much like at the baths. However, modern pools have an arsenal of chemicals to kill bacteria, and people with infection skin conditions or open sores are generally not allowed in public pools. As shown in the exchange of letters, Bath was not only a place where the character sought healing and relaxation, but they also looked for human interaction and socialization, much like spas and pools of today. However, the unsanitary conditions and the characters interaction with them (their belief that drinking and soaking in the water will cure sickness) does provide a substantial amount of humor for the story line. 

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3 thoughts on “Public Baths and Health

  1. I was equally disgusted with this section and my question is one that many people probably had: It took him this long to figure out that the water was unsanitary to drink? I feel like the fact that multiple people bath in this same area would be enough for me to say no thank you. I was personally shocked that it took a child with open sores to open Matt’s eyes. I fully understand that things were generally dirtier during this time, but I find Matt, among the others staying at Bath to be blinded by the “promises” of getting better from drinking the water. I believe that he is so convinced that this is going to cure him, that the idea of how gross this water is was just supressed. It is kinda like seeing only what you want to see. We see a disgusting cess pool where Bramble sees the cure to his medical issues.

  2. Great post! This part was so gross it confused me. If you think about the time period, how many times a month did people even bathe themselves? SO gross. I also liked your comparison to the reading from last week. I picked up on the fact that the opposite sex was considered to always be beautiful/clean/etc. when in reality, it’s obviously not. Matt- I your point of how we see what we want to see. We also think what we want to think, and look what is happening to our youth. This part was so funny and ‘eye-opening’.

  3. Lauren G– you’re completely spot on to wonder how frequently people bathed in this time period. The answer, as you might assume, is NOT MUCH! In fact, upper class individuals often would only water wash with a towel and a basin (something we might imagine Celia doing in her chamber, perhaps!). It was considered unseemly and lower class to actually submerge the body in water.

    THEN CAME BATH, the city! Here’s a little background information from wikipedia:

    “Several areas of the city underwent development during the Stuart period, and this increased during Georgian times in response to the increasing number of visitors to the spa and resort town who required accommodation.[44] The architects John Wood the elder and his son John Wood the younger laid out the new quarters in streets and squares, the identical façades of which gave an impression of palatial scale and classical decorum.[45] Much of the creamy gold Bath Stone used for construction throughout the city was obtained from the limestone Combe Down and Bathampton Down Mines, which were owned by Ralph Allen (1694–1764).[46] Allen, in order to advertise the quality of his quarried limestone, commissioned the elder John Wood to build him a country house on his Prior Park estate between the city and the mines.[46] He was also responsible for improving and expanding the postal service in western England, for which he held the contract for over forty years.[46] Though not fond of politics, Allen was a civic-minded man, and served as a member of the Bath Corporation for many years. He was elected Mayor of the city for a single term, in 1742, at age 50.[46]

    The early 18th century saw Bath acquire its first purpose-built theatre, the Old Orchard Street Theatre, which was rebuilt as the Theatre Royal, the along with the Grand Pump Room attached to the Roman Baths and assembly rooms. Master of Ceremonies Beau Nash, who presided over the city’s social life from 1705 until his death in 1761, drew up a code of behaviour for public entertainments.[47]” (citation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bath,_Somerset)

    By 1801 it was one of the largest cities in the Kingdom, and Baths were considered leisured sites for the wealthy and privileged!

    more to come tomorrow!

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