From the vault: Baltimore’s public baths
In the days before people had running water in their homes, average Baltimoreans got clean by scrubbing down at one of the city’s municipal baths.
But if that phrase conjures images of men soaking luxuriously, chatting about the affairs of the day a la the ancient Romans, let these photos dispel any such romantic notions from your mind. Baltimore’s public baths were a functional affair, something like the showers at the YMCA gym.
The history of these baths is covered in a book by Marilyn Thornton Williams called “Washing `The Great Unwashed:’ Public Baths in Urban America 1840-1920,” which The Sun’s Fred Rasmussen reviewed in 2006.
According to Williams, the movement to create public baths came from urban social reformers during the 19th century as a response to an increase in urbanization, immigration, and the development of urban slums. Regular bathing was seen as a means of preventing disease, and also providing personal cleanliness and “a certain middle-class respectability” to even the very poor.