Steam Rooms - A quick history lesson...

History of steam rooms

Steam Rooms

The story behind steam rooms is a little bit - well, foggy. Good news for anyone who likes a bit of historical controversy, but bad news for anyone hoping to hear a stack of dirty revelations.

You may think it was Madonna who began the process of making sexy things boring, when she turned her dancing into an aerobics routine and her body into a toned machine. But you'd be very wrong. The history of quite literally putting a damper on things began centuries before the first Madonna was born in Nazareth.

Which is where the historical controversy comes in. Nobody knows exactly where, or when, the steam room was invented. Finland claims to have invented it, perhaps as far back as the Stone Age, but several other countries hotly contest this. It is true that the word 'sauna' is Finnish, coming from their word for "smoky", but this doesn't mean that they invented the thing itself. The Russians - with whom the Finns have a rather troubled history - have long had something very similar, while Turkish baths are legendary. And it isn't just a European thing. When the Spanish conquistadors reached the Americas they found that the Aztecs had their own version of a steam room, called a temazcal.

The ancient Romans, too, were quick to realize the benefits of a little water therapy. Combining the well-known Roman aptitude for technology with the equally well-known Roman love of luxury, they designed places to rival modern spas, with under-floor heating and several different rooms. One of these is very well-preserved in Bath , south-west England . The thermae (baths) contained the frigidarium (cold baths), tepidarium (warm baths) and the caldarium (steam bath). People would chat as they shared the baths, while slaves oiled their backs and scraped off the dirt with strigils.

So far, so social. But anyone expecting to hear a few steamy stories will be disappointed. Considering how global the appeal of the sauna was, the pure-mindedness of our ancestors is astonishing. The Romans saw the baths as a chance to talk business, chat and relax, while the Aztecs went further, seeing the temazcal as a cleansing, healing place. And if you're expecting any funny stuff from the Finns - forget it. Until fairly recently, the Finnish sauna has been a place with quasi-religious, quasi-medical significance. Now, it is seen as a wholesome, fun place, and many families go to a sauna in the Christmas season, to catch up and spend some quality time together.

However, saunas were sinful enough to get the early Church hot under the collar - not because of people getting up to no good, but because they believed that associating with the elements (fire and water) was a pagan activity.

Later, though, spas in the United Kingdom were an invaluable prop for the nineteenth-century hobby of pretending to be ill. "Rest cures" in England 's fashionable spa towns were an excellent chance to work on one's invalidity, as well as to see and be seen. The oh-so-English bodice-troubling plots of both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, two of Jane Austen's most famous novels, are set in Bath. Could the passions bubbling beneath the buttoned-up exteriors be related to the bubbling springs beneath that town's stately Georgian architecture? - Probably not. As I said, the history of steam rooms isn't really very sexy at all.

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