Public bathhouse era ended in 1959

A reader recently directed my attention to a copy of Washing 'The Great Unwashed:' Public Baths in Urban America 1840-1920, by Marilyn Thornton Williams, a college professor, whose 1991 book chronicles the almost-forgotten public bath movement that blossomed during the 19th century.

Urban social reformers pushed the many benefits that could be derived by regular bathing in addition to personal cleanliness and freedom from infectious diseases.


Regular bathing also gave one a certain middle-class respectability, whether one was middle class or not. Having a relationship with hot water, a bar of soap and a clean towel was a necessary and good thing.

"This cultural norm developed gradually during the 19th century at the same time that city growth, immigration, and developing urban slums prevented the urban poor from conforming to the accepted standards of cleanliness," Williams wrote.


She observed that the demand for public baths was created by the urban poor, who suffered greatly as a result of the Panic of 1837, and from the immigration of 1.2 million Irish citizens who fled famine and jammed into East Coast cities between 1845 and 1854.

"To Americans these burgeoning slums with their poverty, vice, crime, disorder, drunkenness, and apparently unassimilable immigrants were a threat to the social fabric of American society," she wrote.

However, for wealthier Americans, the coming of municipal water and sewer systems made the home bathtub possible.

But for most folks, it was off to the public baths, and cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Chicago embraced wholeheartedly the notion of the year-round bathhouse for those who didn't have access to a bathtub.

The movement in Baltimore began in the 1890s when a public bathing beach was established in Canton by the Rev. Thomas M. Beadenkopf, pastor of the Canton Congregational Church.

All went well until the autumn winds began to blow, and the chilled air and water rendered the bathing beach only a warm-weather solution for personal hygiene.

Beadenkopf's notion of the value of baths caught the attention of Mayor Ferdinand Latrobe, who established the Bath Commission -- later renamed the Free Public Bath Commission -- to look into the matter.

Henry Walters, railroad mogul and patron of the arts, responded to the city's Bath Commission's report and said he was willing "to erect three baths in Baltimore at a cost of $15,000 each, the baths to be known as the 'Walters Public Baths.'" However, he stipulated, they were to be managed by the city.


After returning from a trip to Egypt where he was made aware of the relationship between bathing and good health, Walters wrote, "On returning home I made some investigation, which disclosed the fact that in the poorer sections of Baltimore, especially in the neighborhoods where foreign peoples dwelt, there was room for great improvement in sanitary conditions."

He concluded: "When you consider that in some houses from 100 to 150 people are congregated without means for keeping clean you can realize, as I did, what a boon a public bathhouse would be."

Walters Bathhouse No. 1, on South High Street, opened for business in 1900, with 18 showers for men, and five showers and two tubs for women. The tubs were for laundering.

"Baltimore soon became known as the city where you could step off a freight train or a ship and take a bath. In those days you could even get a bar of soap for an extra nickel and wash your shirt, socks and underclothes, then sit around with other wanderers and gossip while your garments were hung up for drying," said an article in The Sun in 1959.

While being operated by the Free Public Bath Commission, users were charged in the beginning three cents for soap and a towel, and 2 1/2 cents an hour to wash laundry in one of the tubs.

Users were restricted to a 20-minute shower, and there were plenty of signs on the tiled walls governing conduct: "Anyone caught taking towels belonging to the bath commission will be prosecuted by law;" Unnecessary noise prohibited;" "No smoking;" and "No shaving."


Walters Bathhouse No. 2, on Washington Boulevard, which opened in 1902, was followed by Walters Bathhouse No. 3 for black city residents, on Argyle Avenue.

By 1915, Walters' largess grew to include two more public bathing facilities: one at Greenmount Avenue and Monument Street, and the other in the 1500 block of Eastern Ave.

Patronage peaked at 753,899 in 1914, and thereafter leveled off, according to Williams, at 600,000 during the 1920s.

"Baltimore's public bath movement was unique, however, in its combined private-public character and like Philadelphia's in the sustained interest of its bath reformers in the bath system. Although Henry Walters donated all the baths except one, the municipal government operated them," Williams wrote.

With declining patronage, the baths became the target of an austerity move. Finally, the Board of Estimates threw in the towel and ordered them closed by the end of 1959.

An anonymous elderly gentleman was the last person to take a bath in a Baltimore bathhouse when he stepped onto the tiled floor of Walters No. 2 on Dec. 29, 1959.


It was 4:45 p.m., and he was reveling in the steamy shower as a wall clock ticked toward 5 p.m., when the Walters would bring to a close the city's public bathing facilities.

By this time, a man in his 70s emerged from a shower stall, wearing a woolen shirt and dungarees and carrying a cloth bag containing his used underwear.

Asked by an Evening Sun reporter how he felt about the demise of his favorite public bath, he replied, "Eh?"

"I say nothing doing," he said. "Let them cut down on the bigshots who have chauffeurs if they want to save money. Why hurt the poor people who have nowhere else to get a bath? It's the handiest thing that ever was."