Throughout history, societies devised systems to enable water to be brought to population centres.
The oldest accountable daily ritual of bathing can be traced to the ancient Indians. They used elaborate practices for personal hygiene with three daily baths and washing. These are recorded in the works called grihya sutras and are in practice today in some communities.
Ancient Greece utilized small bathtubs, wash basins, and foot baths for personal cleanliness. The earliest findings of baths date from the mid-2nd millennium BC in the palace complex at Knossos, Crete, and the luxurious alabaster bathtubs excavated in Akrotiri, Santorini. A word for bathtub asaminthos ἀσάμινθος occurs eleven times in Homer. As a legitimate Mycenaean word (a-sa-mi-to) for a kind of vessel that could be found in any Mycenaean palace, this Linear B term derives from an Aegean suffix -inth- being appended to an Akkadian loan word with the root namsû ("washbowl, washing tub"). This luxurious item of the Mycenaean palace culture, therefore, was clearly borrowed from the Near East. Later Greeks established public baths and showers within gymnasiums for relaxation and personal hygiene. The word gymnasium(γυμνάσιον) comes from the Greek word gymnos(γυμνός), meaning "naked."
Ancient Rome developed a network of aqueducts to supply water to all large towns and population centres and had indoor plumbing, with pipes that terminated in homes and at public wells and fountains. The Roman public baths were called thermae. The thermae were not simply baths, but important public works that provided facilities for many kinds of physical exercise and ablutions, with cold, warm, and hot baths, rooms for instruction and debate, and usually one Greek and one Latin library. They were provided for the public by a benefactor, usually the Emperor. Other empires of the time didn't show such an affinity for public works, but this Roman practice spread their culture to places where there may have been more resistance to foreign mores. Unusually for the time, the thermae were not class-stratified, being available to all for no charge or a small fee. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the aqueduct system fell into disrepair and disuse. But even before that, during the Christianization of the Empire, changing ideas about public morals led the baths into disfavor.
Before the 7th century, the Japanese likely bathed in the many springs in the open, as there is no evidence of closed rooms. In the 6th to 8th centuries (in the Asuka and Nara periods) the Japanese absorbed the religion of Buddhism from China, which had a strong impact on the culture of the entire country. Buddhist temples traditionally included a bathhouse (yuya) for the monks. Due to the principle of purity espoused by Buddhism these baths were eventually opened to the public. Only the wealthy had private baths.
The first public bathhouse was mentioned in 1266. In Edo (modern Tokyo), the first sentō was established in 1591. The early steam baths were called iwaburo (岩風呂 "rock pools") or kamaburo (釜風呂 "furnace baths"). These were built into natural caves or stone vaults. In iwaburo along the coast, the rocks were heated by burning wood, then sea water was poured over the rocks, producing steam. The entrances to these "bath houses" were very small, possibly to slow the escape of the heat and steam. There were no windows, so it was very dark inside and the user constantly coughed or cleared their throats in order to signal to new entrants which seats were already occupied. The darkness could be also used to cover sexual contact. Because there was no gender distinction, these baths came into disrepute. They were finally abolished in 1870 on hygienic and moral grounds. Author John Gallagher says bathing "was segregated in the 1870s as a concession to outraged Western tourists".
At the beginning of the Edo period (1603–1868) there were two different types of baths. In Edo, hot-water baths ('湯屋 yuya) were common, while in Osaka, steam baths (蒸風呂 mushiburo) were common. At that time shared bathrooms for men and women were the rule. These bathhouses were very popular, especially for men. "Bathing girls" (湯女 yuna) were employed to scrub the guests' backs and wash their hair, etc. In 1841, the employment of yuna was generally prohibited, as well as mixed bathing. The segregation of the sexes, however, was often ignored by operators of bathhouses, or areas for men and women were separated only by a symbolic line. Today, sento baths have separate rooms for men and women.
Spanish chronicles describe the bathing habits of the peoples of Mesoamerica during and after the conquest.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo describes Moctezuma (the Mexica, or Aztec, king at the arrival of Cortés) in his Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España as being "...Very neat and cleanly, bathing every day each afternoon...".
Bathing was not restricted to the elite, but was practised by all people; the chronicler Tomás López Medel wrote after a journey to Central America that "Bathing and the custom of washing oneself is so quotidian (common) amongst the Indians, both of cold and hot lands, as is eating, and this is done in fountains and rivers and other water to which they have access, without anything other than pure water..."
The Mesoamerican bath, known as temazcal in Spanish, from the Nahuatl word temazcalli, a compound of temaz ("steam") and calli ("house"), consists of a room, often in the form of a small dome, with an exterior firebox known as texictle (teʃict͜ɬe) that heats a small portion of the room's wall made of volcanic rocks; after this wall has been heated, water is poured on it to produce steam, an action known as tlasas. As the steam accumulates in the upper part of the room a person in charge uses a bough to direct the steam to the bathers who are lying on the ground, with which he later gives them a massage, then the bathers scrub themselves with a small flat river stone and finally the person in charge introduces buckets with water with soap and grass used to rinse. This bath had also ritual importance, and was vinculated to the goddess Toci; it is also therapeutic when medicinal herbs are used in the water for the tlasas. It is still used in Mexico.
Medieval and early-modern Europe
Christianity has always placed a strong emphasis on hygiene. Despite the denunciation of the mixed bathing style of Roman pools by early Christian clergy, as well as the pagan custom of women bathing naked in front of men, this did not stop the Church from urging its followers to go to public baths for bathing, which contributed to hygiene and good health according to the Church Father, Clement of Alexandria. The Church also built public bathing facilities that were separate for both sexes near monasteries and pilgrimage sites; also, the popes situated baths within church basilicas and monasteries since the early Middle Ages. Pope Gregory the Great urged his followers on value of bathing as a bodily need.
In the Middle Ages, bathing commonly took place in public bathhouses. Public baths were also havens for prostitution, which created some opposition to them. Rich people bathed at home, most likely in their bedroom, as 'bath' rooms were not common. Bathing was done in large, wooden tubs with a linen cloth laid in it to protect the bather from splinters. Additionally, during the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation, the quality and condition of the clothing (as opposed to the actual cleanliness of the body itself) were thought to reflect the soul of an individual. Clean clothing also reflected one's social status; clothes made the man or woman.
Furthermore, from the late Middle Ages through to the end of the 18th century, etiquette and medical manuals advised people to only wash the parts of the body that were visible to the public; for example, the ears, hands, feet, and face and neck. This did away with the public baths and left the cleaning of oneself to the privacy of one's home.
The switch from woolen to linen clothing by the 16th century also accompanied the decline in bathing. Linen clothing is much easier to clean and maintain – and such clothing was becoming commonplace at the time in Western Europe. Clean linen shirts or blouses allowed people who had not bathed to appear clean and well groomed. The possession of a large quantity of clean linen clothing was a sign of social status. Thus, appearance became more important than personal hygiene. Contemporary medical opinion also supported this claim. Physicians of the period believed that odors, or miasma, such as that which would be found in soiled linens, caused disease. A person could therefore change one's shirt every few days, but avoid baths – which might let the "bad air" into the body through the pores. Consequently, in an age in which there were very few personal bathtubs, laundry was an important and weekly chore which was commonly undertaken by laundresses of the time.
Hydropathic applications according to Claridge's Hydropathy book.
Public opinion about bathing began to shift in the middle and late 18th century, when writers argued that frequent bathing might lead to better health. Two English works on the medical uses of water were published in the 18th century that inaugurated the new fashion for therapeutic bathing. One of these was by Sir John Floyer, a physician of Lichfield, who, struck by the remedial use of certain springs by the neighbouring peasantry, investigated the history of cold bathing and published a book on the subject in 1702.
 The book ran through six editions within a few years and the translation of this book into German was largely drawn upon by Dr J. S. Hahn of Silesia as the basis for his book called On the Healing Virtues of Cold Water, Inwardly and Outwardly Applied, as Proved by Experience, published in 1738.
The other work was a 1797 publication by Dr James Currie of Liverpool on the use of hot and cold water in the treatment of fever and other illness, with a fourth edition published not long before his death in 1805. It was also translated into German by Michaelis (1801) and Hegewisch (1807). It was highly popular and first placed the subject on a scientific basis. Hahn's writings had meanwhile created much enthusiasm among his countrymen, societies having been everywhere formed to promote the medicinal and dietetic use of water; and in 1804 Professor E.F.C. Oertel of Anspach republished them and quickened the popular movement by unqualified commendation of water drinking as a remedy for all diseases.
A popular revival followed the application of hydrotherapy around 1829, by Vincenz Priessnitz, a peasant farmer in Gräfenberg, then part of the Austrian Empire.
 This revival was continued by a Bavarian priest, Sebastian Kneipp (1821–1897), "an able and enthusiastic follower" of Priessnitz, "whose work he took up where Priessnitz left it", after he read a treatise on the cold water cure. In Wörishofen (south Germany), Kneipp developed the systematic and controlled application of hydrotherapy for the support of medical treatment that was delivered only by doctors at that time. Kneipp's own book My Water Cure was published in 1886 with many subsequent editions, and translated into many languages.
Captain R. T. Claridge was responsible for introducing and promoting hydropathy in Britain, first in London in 1842, then with lecture tours in Ireland and Scotland in 1843. His 10-week tour in Ireland included Limerick, Cork, Wexford, Dublin and Belfast, over June, July and August 1843, with two subsequent lectures in Glasgow.
Interior of Liverpool
wash house, the first public wash house in England
Large public baths such as those found in the ancient world and the Ottoman Empire were revived during the 19th century. The first modern public baths were opened in Liverpool in 1829. The first known warm fresh-water public wash house was opened in May 1842.
The popularity of wash-houses was spurred by the newspaper interest in Kitty Wilkinson, an Irish immigrant "wife of a labourer" who became known as the Saint of the Slums. In 1832, during a cholera epidemic, Wilkinson took the initiative to offer the use of her house and yard to neighbours to wash their clothes, at a charge of a penny per week, and showed them how to use a chloride of lime (bleach) to get them clean. She was supported by the District Provident Society and William Rathbone. In 1842 Wilkinson was appointed baths superintendent.
In Birmingham, around ten private baths were available in the 1830s. Whilst the dimensions of the baths were small, they provided a range of services. A major proprietor of bath houses in Birmingham was a Mr. Monro who had had premises in Lady Well and Snow Hill. Private baths were advertised as having healing qualities and being able to cure people of diabetes, gout and all skin diseases, amongst others. On 19 November 1844, it was decided that the working class members of society should have the opportunity to access baths, in an attempt to address the health problems of the public. On 22 April and 23 April 1845, two lectures were delivered in the town hall urging the provision of public baths in Birmingham and other towns and cities.
After a period of campaigning by many committees, the Public Baths and Wash-houses Act received royal assent on 26 August 1846. The Act empowered local authorities across the country to incur expenditure in constructing public swimming baths out of its own funds.
The first London public baths was opened at Goulston Square, Whitechapel, in 1847 with the Prince consort laying the foundation stone.
Hot public baths
Traditional Turkish baths (a variant of the Roman bath) were introduced to Britain by David Urquhart, diplomat and sometime Member of Parliament for Stafford, who for political and personal reasons wished to popularize Turkish culture. In 1850 he wrote The Pillars of Hercules, a book about his travels in 1848 through Spain and Morocco. He described the system of dry hot-air baths used there and in the Ottoman Empire which had changed little since Roman times. In 1856 Richard Barter read Urquhart's book and worked with him to construct a bath. They opened the first modern hot water bath at St Ann's Hydropathic Establishment near Blarney, County Cork, Ireland.
The following year, the first public bath of its type to be built in mainland Britain since Roman times was opened in Manchester, and the idea spread rapidly. It reached London in July 1860, when Roger Evans, a member of one of Urquhart's Foreign Affairs Committees, opened a Turkish bath at 5 Bell Street, near Marble Arch. During the following 150 years, over 600 Turkish baths opened in Britain, including those built by municipal authorities as part of swimming pool complexes, taking advantage of the fact that water-heating boilers were already on site.
Similar baths opened in other parts of the British Empire. Dr. John Le Gay Brereton opened a Turkish bath in Sydney, Australia in 1859, Canada had one by 1869, and the first in New Zealand was opened in 1874. Urquhart's influence was also felt outside the Empire when in 1861, Dr Charles H Shepard opened the first Turkish baths in the United States at 63 Columbia Street, Brooklyn Heights, New York, most probably on 3 October 1863.
Soap promoted for personal cleanliness
"The order of the bath"; Pears soap
advertisement. Soap reached a mass market as the middle class adopted a greater interest in cleanliness.
By the mid-19th century, the English urbanised middle classes had formed an ideology of cleanliness that ranked alongside typical Victorian concepts, such as Christianity, respectability and social progress. The cleanliness of the individual became associated with his or her moral and social standing within the community and domestic life became increasingly regulated by concerns regarding the presentation of domestic sobriety and cleanliness.
The industry of soapmaking began on a small scale in the 1780s, with the establishment of a soap manufactory at Tipton by James Keir and the marketing of high-quality, transparent soap in 1789 by Andrew Pears of London. It was in the mid-19th century, though, that the large-scale consumption of soap by the middle classes, anxious to prove their social standing, drove forward the mass production and marketing of soap.
William Gossage produced low-priced, good-quality soap from the 1850s. William Hesketh Lever and his brother, James, bought a small soap works in Warrington in 1886 and founded what is still one of the largest soap businesses, formerly called Lever Brothers and now called Unilever. These soap businesses were among the first to employ large-scale advertising campaigns.
Before the late 19th century, water to individual places of residence was rare. Many countries in Europe developed a water collection and distribution network. London water supply infrastructure developed through major 19th-century treatment works built in response to cholera threats, to modern large-scale reservoirs. By the end of the century, private baths with running hot water were increasingly common in affluent homes in America and Britain.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a weekly Saturday night bath had become common custom for most of the population. A half day's work on Saturday for factory workers allowed them some leisure to prepare for the Sunday day of rest. The half day off allowed time for the considerable labor of drawing, carrying, and heating water, filling the bath and then afterward emptying it. To economize, bath water was shared by all family members. Indoor plumbing became more common in the 20th century and commercial advertising campaigns pushing new bath products began to influence public ideas about cleanliness, promoting the idea of a daily shower or bath.
In the twenty-first century challenges to the need for soap to effect such everyday cleanliness and whether soap is needed to avoid body odor, appeared in media.