The square in the “Grosse Bäder” of Baden im Aargau, ca. 1780. On the left is the public outdoor pool; on the right, the legendary St Verenabad.
The square in the “Grosse Bäder” of Baden im Aargau, ca. 1780. On the left is the public outdoor pool; on the right, the legendary St Verenabad. Historisches Museum Baden

Bathing in the open air

Up to the mid-19th century, the mineral hot baths in Baden im Aargau were known for their open-air thermal pools.

Andrea Schaer

Andrea Schaer

Andrea Schaer is a freelance archaeologist, cultural historian and author.

Before the Romans started turning the mineral springs of Baden into the thermal complex of Aquae Helveticae as the Roman era dawned, the thermal springs bubbled and gushed in natural pools under the open sky. Those trying the healing spring waters in search of recovery from illness or relief from a range of ailments, or simply wanting to relax in the warmth of the water, settled into one of these pools or into one of the streamlets that poured out of it, running down towards the Limmat.
The Bagni San Filippo in Tuscany. The water bubbles up from the springs over calcium carbonate terraces, and the thermal pools are freely accessible – the pools in Baden could have looked something like this before the Romans built their thermal bathing complex.
The Bagni San Filippo in Tuscany. The water bubbles up from the springs over calcium carbonate terraces, and the thermal pools are freely accessible – the pools in Baden could have looked something like this before the Romans built their thermal bathing complex. © Andrea Schaer

Public welfare and politics under the Romans

The Romans brought more than just medical and hydrotechnical knowledge and their bathing culture to the area now known as Switzerland. By developing the medicinal springs and constructing and operating mineral spring sanctuaries and public bathing facilities the Roman state, and the Emperor, were able to present themselves as caring benefactors who made this divine gift from the supreme deity accessible to the people. The Roman thermal baths were public buildings and were freely accessible to many people in the Roman social pyramid. It is not known whether the poor and the destitute, and slaves, who had no rights at all, had access to the healing waters and were allowed to bathe in the pools within the spacious bathing halls.
Ruins of the Roman thermal baths complex during excavations by Kantonsarchäologie Aargau, the archaeological authority for the Canton of Aargau, in 2011. On the right is the outdoor pool of the thermal baths, designed by Otto Glaus.
Ruins of the Roman thermal baths complex during excavations by Kantonsarchäologie Aargau, the archaeological authority for the Canton of Aargau, in 2011. On the right is the outdoor pool of the thermal baths, designed by Otto Glaus. © Kantonsarchäologie Aargau/S.Mühleisen

In the Middle Ages: baths for everyone – but separated according to status

In the Middle Ages, thermal water was considered a divine gift. Enabling the poor and the needy to enjoy this gift was an act of Christian charity and pious virtue. Even the most exclusive spa towns had bathing facilities for poor visitors. But now the bathing infrastructure included clear social segregation of the bathers. In Baden im Aargau, the baths for the high-end clientele were located in opulent bathhouses and in the bathing vaults of inns and guesthouses. In these lavish surroundings, the local and visiting elites bathed not only sheltered from the weather, but in private and among their own kind. Poor and destitute bathers, as well as casual visitors and local residents, had to make do with open-air baths.

St Verenabad and open-air pools

The St Verenabad, situated above the spring of the same name in the Grosse Bäder, was the bath for the poor. It was free to use, but only those who had found lodgings in the spa complex were allowed to bathe in the pool. Public-spirited wealthy bathers brought food and drinks to those bathing in the St Verenabad; they placed their donations on the edge of the pool. The bath attendant made sure the gifts were distributed fairly. Since the St Verenabad, and especially the St Verena spring, was said to have a beneficial effect particularly on female fertility, upper-class ladies would also turn up to bathe here, more or less discretely, in the evenings – after the usual bathers had left and the pool had been cleaned, admittedly.
The St Verenabad ca. 1820. Watercolour by Walter Meier based on a drawing by Ludwig Vogel.
The St Verenabad ca. 1820. Watercolour by Walter Meier based on a drawing by Ludwig Vogel. Historisches Museum Baden
The open-air pool on the opposite side of the Bäderplatz was the real public bath, and its use was free of charge. It was open to casual visitors, passers-by and the citizens of the city of Baden. The Schröpfer, or blood-letting and cupping practitioner, also dispensed his services there.
One of the two baths on the Bäderplatz in Baden, in Johannes Stumpf’s chronicle of 1548.
Depiction of the outdoor pool on the square in the Grosse Bäder, in Johannes Stumpf’s chronicle (1548). City Archives, Baden
On the Bäderplatz in the Kleine Bäder, the Small Baths, in Ennetbaden there were two more outdoor pools: the open-air bath and the Schröpfbad, the cupping bath where the Schröpfer plied his trade. Guests of the Ennetbaden inns bathed there, but the baths were also open – upon payment of a fee for bathing – to the more rural clientele from the immediate and wider surroundings. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Jewish guests had their own private bath, enclosed in a small hut.

End of the road for the outdoor baths

In the 19th century, it was found that the open-air baths no longer met the sanitary requirements or accorded with contemporary notions of poor relief and bathing cures. In addition, it was undesirable to have these bathers – people who were obviously sick and poor – visible as part of the streetscape in the public space directly in front of the posh new spa hotels. On the Baden side of the Limmat, the open-air baths were closed down and demolished in the 1840s. In Ennetbaden the outdoor pool remained in operation, with some interruptions, until 1883.
Until 1890, the poor baths on the Limmat Promenade, built in 1838, offered poor and needy bathers treatment in line with the standards of the day.
Until 1890, the poor baths on the Limmat Promenade, built in 1838, offered poor and needy bathers treatment in line with the standards of the day. Historisches Museum Baden, Fotohaus Zipser
The needy and destitute were now catered for by the poor bath built in 1838. Casual users could bathe in the spa areas of the hotels when they were not occupied by the hotels’ guests. It wasn’t until 1963-1964, when the thermal baths designed by architect Otto Glaus were opened, that Baden once again had public baths – although the Glaus baths could only be used for a fee.

The tradition is revived

The “Heisse Brunnen” thermal baths in Baden and Ennetbaden, which opened in November 2021, revive the tradition of open-air baths and thermal waters that are freely accessible to everyone. They have quickly become a gathering place and a local attraction.
In the Heisse Brunnen in Ennetbaden, young and old gather to enjoy the mineral waters in the open air.
In the Heisse Brunnen in Ennetbaden, young and old gather to enjoy the mineral waters in the open air. © Nicolas Petit, Ennetbaden

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