It’s difficult to overstate the malodorous condition of St. Louis in the late 19th century. If you lived in this city 125 years ago, you probably reeked. The people around you reeked. Even the air you breathed and the water you drank reeked. Being one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the country, St. Louis was congested, filthy, and fetid. The air was filled with soot, streets were filled with horse manure, and noxious fumes wafted from inadequate methods of waste disposal.
For the common citizen, the process of getting clean in that environment was difficult and it happened rarely. To use a washtub such as the one visitors can see on display at the Campbell House Museum, several trips to a water source were needed to get it filled. Water was lukewarm at best, especially if the bather wasn’t first in line. On bath days, families shared the same tub and the same water.
Grime was especially noticeable in the slums and tenements of urban American cities. In St. Louis, a survey taken in 1908 showed that in the poorest neighborhoods, only one bathtub existed for every 200 residents. In the densely populated tenements where more than a quarter of the population lived, one bathtub existed for every 2,479 residents. To make matters worse, bathtubs were not always used for their intended purpose. Due to the limited space in small living quarters, bathtubs often held coal or firewood. Even as late as 1950, only 1/3 of the homes in the poorest neighborhoods of St. Louis had private bath facilities.
Toward the end of the 19th century, social reformers led a movement to improve the quality life of all Americans, not just the wealthy. At the center of this movement was a push to improve the living and working conditions for poor people living in urban slums. Since being dirty and being poor were seen as going hand in hand, promoting cleanliness became a part of that movement.
At the same time, scientists and doctors were figuring out that good personal hygiene could help prevent the spread of disease. This sentiment can be seen in a statement made by the New York Tenement House Committee in 1894:
“Cleanliness is the watchword of sanitary science and the keynote of the modern advice aseptic surgery. If it apply to the street, the yard, the cellar, the house and the environment of men it most certainly should apply to the individual.”
Already popular in Europe, the movement prompted a few American cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore to build public bath houses in the early 1890′s. Encouraged by the initial success and high attendance rates, the public bath movement quickly spread to other American cities. In St. Louis, the progressive mayor Rolla Wells campaigned for several bath houses to be built throughout the city. Despite his support, it would be several years before St. Louis joined the movement. Forty American cities had operational public baths before St. Louis opened its first.
That day came in August 1907, when Public Bath House No. 1 opened near the intersection of Carr and 10th in north St. Louis city. Over the next thirty years, St. Louis would build five more. Public Bath House No. 1 contained forty-one showers and one tub bath for men. Strictly divided by separate entrances, the women’s side of the bathhouse had fifteen showers and two tubs. Using the baths were free, but soap and a towel could be rented for one cent if a visitor did not bring their own. Modest bathers could even rent a bathing suit if they so desired.
Inside the bathhouse, an attendant sat behind a booth and issued numbered tickets to people as they entered and waited in line. When their number was called, the visitor would walk down a corridor to a cubicle that was divided in two. One side contained a dressing area with clothing storage. The other side contained the shower. Although a time limit existed only during high volume hours, the attendant on duty had full control off water usage and water temperature.
Public Bath House No. 1 was an immediate success. Sixty-nine thousand people visited in the first year alone. By 1915, that number rose to nearly 500,000. Two years later in 1909, Public Bath House No. 2 opened in the Soulard neighborhood. In No.2′s first year of operation, an astounding 238,000 patrons visited the south city bath. Over the next few years, that number would triple.
Unexpectedly, the bath houses became social centers. While queued to get clean, St. Louisans used the locations as a place to socialize with friends and neighbors. The bath houses were considered safe, clean, and pleasant to use. Due to the cavernous echoes created by ceramic tile, local newspapers reported prolific singing and choir boys practicing hymns. However, not everyone considered the constant melodies to be music to their ears. In 1951, bath house attendants bitterly complained that the endless renditions of The Weavers’ popular hit, Goodnight Irene, were driving them crazy.
Saturdays were the busiest days, but the early hours of Sunday is when the bath house lines were longest. Following the sentiment that “Cleanliness was next to Godliness”, many St. Louisans made sure get clean before heading off to church.
Additional bath houses continued to be constructed in densely populated neighborhoods. In 1910, Public Bath House No. 3 opened just twelve blocks west of bath house Bath House No. 1. That same year, Public Bath House No 4 opened at 3600 Lucas. When St. Louis passed a segregation ordinance in 1916, Bath No. 4 had the distinction of becoming the first segregated bath house in St. Louis. In 1932, a second segregated bath, Public Bath House No. 5, opened at the intersection of Jefferson and Adams.
In 1937, the final public bathing facility was built at 1120 St. Louis Avenue in north city. It serviced 170,000 patrons in the first full year of operation. It would be the last public bath house constructed in St. Louis and the last one to remain open. It’s also the only one of the original bath house buildings that still stands today.
As the 20th century progressed, technology continued to make the process of bathing simpler. In the 1920′s, the cast iron bathtub coated with porcelain began to be mass-produced. The end of World War II brought in the housing boom and the mass flight to the suburbs. It became standard for homes to be built and refitted with private bath facilities. By the 1960′s, the need for public bath houses had all been eliminated. The final facility to remain open in St. Louis, Bath House #6, ceased operations in 1965.
Municipal Bath House #6 still stands today at 1120 St. Louis Avenue in north city. It likely goes unnoticed by the vast majority people who drive near it in order to visit a St. Louis landmark just up the street, the famous Crown Candy Kitchen.
NOTES: A big boost to my research for this post was provided by two sources. First, the Central Library in downtown St. Louis finally reopened. After two years, I was finally able to walk back into that wonderful building. The new “St. Louis Room” simply blew my mind. Writing this blog just got much easier.
Second, the fine people at Landmarks Association of St. Louis again went above and beyond. I called Landmarks for some help, and when I showed up, they had a stack of articles, clippings, and books ready for me to look through. My initial goal was just to find where the original six bath houses were located, but they provided much more. Notably, Landmarks set me up with an article from the Fall 1989 issue of Gateway Heritage magazine titled “The Politics of Public Bathing”. It became the main source of much of the information in this post. If you read this blog regularly, please consider becoming a member of Landmarks or donating to them. They are a wonderful organization that strives for historic preservation in St. Louis.
This post first appeared on the excellent Distilled History blog, where Cameron Collins explores the history of St. Louis and its modern cocktails. Check out his post to find out where he found a watering hole on this trip.