Culture  /  Origin Story

Public Baths Were Meant to Uplift the Poor

In Progressive-Era New York, a now-forgotten trend of public bathhouses was introduced in order to cleanse the unwashed masses.
Girls in line to enter a bathhouse.
Library of Congress

With warm weather comes sweat, and with sweat comes…stink. That was a big problem in Progressive-Era New York, writes Andrea Renner—and sparked a long-forgotten trend of public bathhouses designed to cleanse the unwashed masses. “In Gilded Age America, social classes were divided not only by wealth and culture, but also by smell,” writes Renner. It wasn’t just a matter of grueling physical labor or limited bathing facilities, she notes. Rather, the stinking poor uncovered upper-class anxieties about immigration, class, and cities.

Middle-class families had increasing access to bathtubs and water. Meanwhile, 97 percent of tenement dwellers did not. Communal sinks and plumbing problems made bathing a challenge. That was a problem not just for the working poor, but for the upper classes, who considered uncleanliness “a moral failure as well as a threat to public health.” Clean was good, dirty was bad—and bathing became a metaphor for Progressive-Era reform.

Enter the bathhouse. England and Germany were already home to public baths, and American reformers began a social experiment that riffed on the European concept. In 1891, New York opened the People’s Baths, where people bathed in “rain baths,” or early showers. In just a year, over 10,000 people bathed there.

In 1894, writes Renner, bathing became a campaign issue in New York, ushering in “a golden age of bathhouse construction.” Renner chronicles the building of 26 municipal and charity baths between 1901 and 1914—bathhouses that furthered the new art of indoor plumbing while providing efficient bathing opportunities to tenement dwellers on the Lower East Side. These structures were microcosms of Progressivism, shuffling bathers in and out using an organized process that turned the “filthy” poor into uplifted city residents.