by Ryan Gilliam
In 1901, New York City opened its first public bath, the Rivington Bath House, at 326 Delancey Street. The bath house, which was free, featured indoor and outdoor bathing pools, 45 ‘spray baths’ (showers) for men and 22 for women, and became such a success that long lines nearly caused a riot. At the time of its construction, a survey found there was only one bathtub for every 79 families living in the LES.
For decades, Lower East Side residents had made use of ‘river baths’ – swimming pools sunk into the rivers, through which river water flowed. The pools were generally 85′ x 65′, surrounded by more than 60 dressing rooms, provided with gas-lighting for night bathing, and extremely popular, especially on hot summer nights.
The river baths were seen as a safer option than swimming in the currents — in 1868, drownings averaged about one a day. Pollution was always an issue, however. The rivers suffered as they were dumping grounds for sewage, industrial waste, and even blood from slaughterhouses.
By the 1880’s, most New Yorkers believed that access to clean water promoted health and kept epidemics from spreading. So the purpose of public baths wasn’t only to benefit the poor, but also for the wealthier classes who interacted with them in daily life.
“The days of the river bath are numbered on account of the increasing volume of sewage…. It is the duty of the city to assume the municipal activity of providing for the cleanliness of its tenement dwellers. This is not merely to cultivate habits of cleanliness, although a bath is the beginning of self-respect, but as a preventive of disease…..
Personal cleanliness is the first condition of immunity from disease, and in the tenements there are no facilities for bathing. There are no tubs, in the cold water tenements there is no hot water, and above all, there is the maddening lack of privacy, which renders it almost impossible to take a bath.”
— Frank Tucker, to the New York Times, 1901
The city ultimately built 20 municipal baths, but as most landlords began to include bath and toilet facilities in new apartments due to the Tenement House Law of 1901, the bathhouse movement ended by 1915.
The Rivington Bath House (later renamed the Baruch Bathhouse) was boarded up by New York City in 1975. Currently there are trees growing inside the building and it is expected that after decades of extreme neglect the building will be demolished in the near future.
Scenes from NY’s Public Baths from The Bowery Boys