Monday, January 30, 2012

Boston Takes a Bath: Part II

Following last week's entry, the story now changes. Bathing the entire body was not popular in Colonial times, but by the 1840s, and a dramatic increase in immigration, the need for public baths was advocated in major cities like Boston. By 1850, there were at least 12 privately owned public baths in Boston, but they would have been too expensive for the working class and poor. In her book , Washing the great unwashed: public baths in urban America 1840-1920, Marilyn T. Williams reports that in 1866, Boston opened five floating baths (like those of Braman), and one natural beach bathhouse, at L street in South Boston. The Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor, 1904, tells us that in their first month of service, the five floating baths saw 100,000 customers. In the next year, six new baths were opened, with four serving women exclusively.

North End Park (BPL Flickr photo group).

L street bath house beach, South Boston (BPL Flickr photo group).

We skip to 1896, and a new mayor, Josiah Quincy. The existing floating baths and bathing beaches would be improved, and new landside buildings would be erected. The L street facility in South Boston was expanded for girls and women, and now had separate boy's, men's and women's sections. The North End park, the next most popular, opened in 1898. There were again separate facilities for men and women, and upwards of 5,000 bathers attended daily. The facility covered six acres, and contained hundreds of lockers and closets, a playground, and open air gymnasium, floating platforms and shade tents.

Dewey beach, Charlestown, 1901.

East Boston had a beach and bath house at Wood Island park, which would later be lost to Logan Airport. Charlestown had a facility similar to East Boston on the Mystic river known as Dewey beach. Dorchester had two smaller facilities, at Commercial point and Savin hill. Even land-locked West Roxbury had a bath house. The Spring street beach, also called Havey beach, was on the Charles river where the V.F.W. parkway is now. All of these facilities were free. There was a charge of five cents for a men's bathing suit, and one cent for a towel, but bathers could bring their own.

There were twelve floating bridges, open from 6 A.M. to 10 P.M., from May 15 through September 15. Three baths were located in East Boston, four in Charlestown, three in Boston proper, and one in Brighton. Each served its local community, resulting in an ethnic segregation among the facilities. The two at the West Boston bridge served the African American community on the back of Beacon hill. The Craigie bridge bath house served the Jews of the West End, and the Warren bridge facility attracted both Jews and the Italians of the North End. And the Dover street bridge bath house attracted the Irish of the South End and South Boston.

The municipal bath movement had begun as a hygiene measure for the poor and working class crowded into the city. The poor and working class, however, seem to have taken to the facilities more as entertainment - swimming - than simply as bathing establishments. And so the city would shift from bath houses to swimming pools. At the same time, gymnasiums were built, in some cases combining the two facilities in one building. Two outdoor gymnasiums were laid out, at Wood Island park in East Boston and at Charlesbank. Harrison avenue in the South End and Tyler street in today's Chinatown saw gymnasiums fitted out, and ward rooms at Elmwood street in Roxbury were turned into a gym when not in use.

Dover street public baths. Notice the tower of the former Boston Fire Department headquarters at the upper right.

Dover street baths, South End, 1902.

A survey of 72,000 families in apartments in Boston revealed that only 25% had bathrooms, in some districts the number going down to one percent. The Dover street bath house in the South End was erected to serve the many poor and working class residents of the district. This was built for washing, rather than for swimming.

Cabot street bathhouse, Roxbury, 1906 (close-up).

Cabot street bathhouse, 1906.

At Cabot street in Roxbury, a combination gymnasium, bath house and swimming pool was erected. There were classes for schoolgirls, mothers and working girls.

North End Municipal Bath.

North Bennett street gymnasium/bathhouse, North End, 1917.

The North End municipal building was similar to that at Cabot street.

To end the story, I'll add a photo of my own of Jamaica Plain's Curtis Hall. The Curtis Hall municipal building was erected as the town hall of the short-lived town of West Roxbury, just in time for the ephemeral community to be annexed to Boston in 1874. In time a gymnasium and swimming pool would be added to the building. My memories of the 1960s include going to 'tank' to swim during the summer. For five cents, we got access to the pool for what I believe was half an hour. Boys and girls swam separately, the girls using the supplied and required gray bathing suits and the boys...swimming naked.

That's what I said - a room full of pre-adolescent boys gamboling about buck nekkid while lifeguards and facility workers looked on. Can you imagine that happening now? My father told me that it was the same when he swam at Curtis Hall in the 1930s. I can only imagine now that the boys' naked swimming was a hold-over from the time when bathing was favored over swimming. I know that we weren't allowed in without a towel and a bar of soap.

The Jamaica Plain Gazette recently announced that the refurbished Curtis Hall pool has re-opened. Hours and admission fees were discussed, but no mention was made whether boys should bring a bathing suit.

Washing the great unwashed: public baths in urban America 1840-1920, by Marilyn T. Williams