Baths for Medicinal Purposes in the 1800s

Public baths were established in England during the Roman supremacy, but they eventually fell to ruins. It was not until the spread of leprosy occurred during the Norman Conquest that bathing came back into style. That lasted for a few hundred years until the sixteenth century when people switched from linen to woolen clothing, and it became more important to look clean than be clean. People would change a smelly, dirty shirt rather than bathe because physicians claimed miasma — unhealthy smells or odors — caused disease and bathing encouraged “bad air” to enter a person’s pores. However, by the end of the eighteenth century, opinions on bathing shifted once again.


Baths at Caracalla. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

People knew bathing was good for hygienic and health reasons by the early 1800s, and many of the old public baths were restored. However, because there was not enough plumbing for household consumption, baths in private homes were still not possible. It would not be until the mid-1800s that people began to have bathrooms in their homes, and, even then, they were a luxury. By the late 1800s, after much investigation, public water systems began and were built in response to diseases such as cholera. That allowed bathrooms to start being installed inside homes.

Water! Water! Everywhere: and not a drop to drink. Author’s collection.

In line with this new belief in bathing was the 1850 compilation of remedies and cures, edited by Thomas Harrison Yeoman, M.D., and titled The People’s Medical Journal and Family Physician. Yeoman, devoted a section in his book to baths for medicinal purposes and noted the benefits of bathing because doing so he claimed, “preserves health … lightens and invigorates the body.”[1] John Bell, M.D., was more impressed by bathing than Yeoman. He wrote an entire book about it in 1859 titled, Water, as a Preservative of Health, and a Remedy in Disease: A Treatise on Baths. Bell claimed the reason for his book was “to be more in harmony with [the] physiological phenomena, and with the curative effects of the different kinds of baths; and to furnish a safe guide for the use of these agents, in the preservation of health and the cure of disease.”[2]

Yeoman claimed there were four types of baths for medicinal purposes: cold, tepid, warm, and hot. Bell stated there were six:

  • Cold bath 33° to 63° Fahrenheit
  • Cool bath 60° to 70° Fahrenheit
  • Temperate bath 75° to 85° Fahrenheit
  • Tepid Bath 85° to 92° Fahrenheit
  • Warm Bath 92° to 98° Fahrenheit
  • Hot Bath 98° to 112° Fahrenheit

Yeoman believed cold baths invigorated and harden a constitution. Bell agreed but went a bit further, stating:

“We find that the sanguine and robust … are they who can use it with the most comfort and advantage … But the thin, delicate, and feeble infant, whose temperature is already too low, and whose functions react imperfectly under any depressing agency, will be permanently and prejudicially affected by cold immersion.”[3]

Bell stated that beside hygienic reasons for cold baths, they helped “various febrile diseases,” inflammation of the joints, injuries from sprains and fractures, “fevers, inflammations, hemorrhages, convulsive affections … and irritative disorders.”[4] In fact, Bell even claimed two patients — three and five years old with scarlet fever — were cured by taking a cold bath and many other physicians experienced the same miraculous cure with cold baths and scarlet fever.

Cool, temperate, and tepid baths were sometimes used in different combinations or in combinations with cold, warm, or hot baths. In general, however, these baths was often used as preparatory baths for a cold or hot one. Of these three baths, the tepid bath, seemed to have been the one most thought of as possessing medicinal properties because it reportedly helped with illness. For the most part, according to Bell, tepid baths were “found generally most congenial to children and delicate females, and to all of both sexes who are constitutionally feeble.”[5] It was suggested these baths for medicinal purposes be used when a person was worn down and for all types of fever and “nervous excitement” in which cold bathing was allowed. Supposedly, febrile diseases benefited the most from tepid baths, with patients suffering from typhoid fever particularly benefiting.

Sanitary Bathing, Author’s collection.

Warm bathing was considered to be more than medicinal and had been practiced since the time of Home, who described warm bathing “as a means of refreshing the wearied traveler, and of preparing him for the repast and the enjoyment of other rites of hospitality.”[6] Both Bell and Yeoman claimed warm baths were rejuvenating and slowed the aging process, because the practice relaxed and softened “the rigid and indurated fibres of the old person.”[7] Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, also recommended warm baths be taken twice a week to retard aging and he practiced this until he died. Charles Darwin agreed that warm baths were beneficial and stated::

“[T]hose who are past the meridian of life, and have dry skin, and begin to be emaciated, the warm bath, for half an hour twice a-week, I believe to be eminently serviceable in retarding the advances of age.”[8]

Yeoman found that hot baths helped those who had a “retention of urine [as hot baths] … afford great relief, and will frequently excite the bladder to expel its contents.”[9] Napoleon Bonaparte loved hot baths, which is probably why Bell claimed such baths “required the lymphatic constitution of Napoleon … [as they were] decidedly stimulating … [because they] strongly excite the circulation, and prove to be both a nervous and vascular irritant.”[10] Hot baths supposedly offered benefits to people with “spasm of the stomach, and tumefactions … also edema of the inferior extremities,”[11] and they reputedly helped with croup, cholera infantum, gout, or rheumatism. However, they were not suggested for “rickety children.”

Soap Advertisement, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Soap advertisement. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By the late 1800s, the baths for medicinal purposes were beginning to be viewed as being more for sanitary reason than medically beneficial. A two-volume compilation for women was published in 1896 titled The House and Home. It covered everything from occupations and hat making to personal hygiene. In it J. West Roosevelt, M.D., published an article titled “Hygiene in the Home,” and mentioned bathing.

“Clean clothes do not make a clean skin, although dirty inner garments do make a clean body impossible … [Cold bathing] I think … is a most excellent habit for persons who are strong enough to bear it; but it should be regarded as a stimulating luxury more than as a method of cleansing the body … But to succeed in getting really clean, soap is absolutely, and hot water almost, indispensable … The rule for determining whether cold or warm baths are best suited to any particular individual is very simple: If a bath either hot or cold, is followed by a sense of comfort, that bath is beneficial.”[12]


  • [1] Yeoman, Thomas Harrison, M.D., The People’s Medical Journal and Family Physician, Vol. 1-4, 1850, p. 85.
  • [2] Bell, John, M.D., Water, as a Preservative of Health, and a Remedy in Diseases, 1859, p. 6.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 336.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 349.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 155.
  • [6] Bell, John and Samuel Murphey, A Treatise on Baths, 1859, p. 456.
  • [7] Bell, John, M.D., p. 457.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Yeoman, Thomas Harrison, M.D., p. 172.
  • [10] Bell, John and Samuel Murphey, p. 504-505.
  • [11] Bell, John, M.D., p. 503. 
  • [12] Abbott, Lyman, The House and Home, 1896, p. 279.

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Leave a Comment