Paris’ bains-douches

Feature, Hot tips on hot showers, October 1992

According to La Vie Parisienne à Travers les Ages, Henri IV’s mistress once felt obliged to tell him, “Sire, it’s a good thing that you’re King, because in all honesty, you smell like carrion rot.”

Not in the least offended, Henri retorted, “Indeed my dear, that stink, as you call it, is a royal emission of my royal eminence.”

Although the French disposition toward hygiene has made marked progress since the Renaissance, it is this royal reticence in tandem with some intriguing historical circumstances that is responsible for the continuing importance of the public showers, the bains-douches municipaux, in contemporary Paris.

To the American accustomed to at least one well-equipped bathroom per home, the idea of public showers raises the grimy specter of down-and-out living, violated modesty and communal germs. Nonetheless, in 1990 more than one million Parisians paid the reasonable 4.70 franc fee for a douche chaude.

The bains-douches at 42, rue du Rocher, near Gare Saint Lazare, are typical of the 20 municipal showers that can be found across Paris. A large white waiting room lined with wooden slat benches is warmed by steam from the 19 showers along the two corridors: one side is for men, the other for women.

Sunday mornings are the busiest here, when the showers are a crossroad for people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, many of them immigrant workers, and women who often bring their children. They sit patiently, waiting for the guardian to signal them that a stall is free. He washes out the stall with a hose and squeegee, rips their ticket, then closes the wooden door be¬hind them.

Inside the spacious white-tiled rectangular stall, there is a vestibule with a small bench and three clothes hooks. Contained by a half-wall that separates the vestibule from the shower space, hot water shoots down from the nozzle in the wall with surprising force. Although 20 minutes is the official limit at peak times, people have been known to reappear from their stalls 45 minutes later, satisfied looks on their reddened faces.

Ironically, in a city whose plumbing is suspect, public bathing centers go back to the very roots of its history. Les Thermes de Cluny in the Latin Quarter are ruins of public baths that date from Roman times. An important part of daily hygiene, they were frequented by all classes of society up until the early Middle Ages, and played a key role as a meeting place in the social and political life of the era.

Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but the early Christians held the baths in contempt as an unholy pagan luxury and banned them until the Crusaders returned from the East with a reacquired taste for bathing. By 1292, as many as 26 hot-bath establishments, called éstuves, were again in common use across the city. However, the éstuves, where one could dine with friends, get a haircut and indulge in other assorted activities, gradually gained a reputation as places of debauchery, where prostitutes and political subversives reveled in decadence and propagated nasty epidemics. By the end of the 16th century, all but two had been closed.

The following “grand siècle” of Louis XIII and Louis XIV came to be known also as the “smelly century.” Bathing was condemned as both morally and medically hazardous to your health. Doctors claimed that, “with perfume and the modern habit of laundry, bathing isn’t necessary.”

By the time that modern medicine began to get the mes¬sage in the mid-1800s, the major¬ity of Parisian buildings had been constructed without plumbing. Catching up on bathroom amenities was not encouraged by a well-ingrained tolerance for infrequent bathing (Henri’s legacy), space constraints and the high cost of water and renovation. While re-gentrification has been making its way across Paris, in 1964 only one out of five Parisian apartments had bathing facilities. The practical solution was public baths.

Growing in popularity simultaneously with the interest in the swimming pools to which they were often joined, several private bathhouses were built in the 1800s, most notably the elegant Bains Chinois which catered to a bourgeois clientele. But these baths were still more for luxury than hygiene, and too expensive for the working classes whose principle means of hygiene re¬mained the bathing barges, “les bains à 4 sous (20 centimes)” that parked along the banks of the Seine. It wasn’t until 1851 that the government voted to subsidize the construction of affordable public baths with this portion of the population in mind. The majority of the currently existing bains-douches were built after the French discovered the hygienic benefits of the individual showers that they used in the trenches during WWI.

Despite this long history, the public showers are still stigmatized by many who have never visited. However, a careful investigation of today’s showers will reveal that the most common fears, such as safety and cleanliness, are based on false preconceptions. And George, the bearded cashier at the rue du Rocher showers, addresses doubts concerning problems of “morality:”

“In my five years here, not once have we had a serious problem. The municipal pools are where you’ll find that kind of trouble, if that’s what you’re looking for. At all the public showers, the stalls are private, and men and women are separated into two different rooms. And there’s always a guardian to make sure the stalls are clean and that there’s no funny stuff.”

Frank Herzog, a painter from Boston, explains that he prefers the public showers to those of his friends. “I used to go to friend’s houses a lot. But after a while, it got to be a little humiliating, especially when they started introducing me to their friends as ‘Frank, who uses our shower Tuesdays and Fridays.’ I guess you could say that coming to the public showers has saved my dignity…Anyhow, these showers are as good if not better than most I’ve seen in Paris. I’ve never suffered a cold shower here, the water pressure’s great, and it’s always clean. And how many friends do you have that hose down and squeegee out their tub after every shower?”


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