Window on the Collections: The Public Baths Association of Philadelphia and the "Great Unwashed"

by Melissa M. Mandell of Historical Society of Pennsylvania

In 1895, there was no place in the city of Philadelphia where working people could obtain a hot shower with soap and clean towels or launder their clothing. Indoor plumbing in the "slum" districts was almost unheard of until World War I; an 1893 Bureau of Labor report found that only 16.9 percent of families in Philadelphia's most crowded working-class and immigrant wards lived in housing with bathrooms. The right to basic health and hygiene was denied to Philadelphia's 19th-century working poor—African Americans, European immigrants, and native-born Americans—who crowded into the row-house alleys and courtyards of neighborhoods like Southwark. Settlement houses, missions, and day nurseries offered swimming pools or bathing facilities, but even these were usually available only to women and children and only in the summer months. By 1899, the city had built eight enclosed public swimming pools in immigrant-dense neighborhoods. Though these pools provided refreshment and clean water for those looking for relief from the sweltering heat of Philadelphia summers, year-round bathing was still mostly inaccessible; fewer than 1 in 20 families had access to any kind of bath at all.

Among the middle and upper classes of the 19th century, it was widely assumed that the uncleanliness of the poor was a character trait—a choice, not a condition. By century's end, the American obsession with cleanliness became linked to a fear of the large numbers of southern and eastern European immigrants who settled in the cramped, dilapidated tenement districts in the urban northeast. In Philadelphia, the notoriously "corrupt and contented" political machine rarely concerned itself with improving the conditions of the poor and working classes unless an election was imminent. The civic slack had historically been picked up by a select group of socially concerned and socially prominent wealthy Philadelphians. Despite what we might regard today as prejudiced or paternalistic attitudes toward the "great unwashed" of city slums, these elite Philadelphians often stepped in to do what the municipal government would not or could not. The Historical Society holds many collections that document the work of middle- and upper-class philanthropic organizations dedicated to improving conditions for the poor and working classes of late 19th- and early 20th-century Philadelphia, from the Lighthouse and the Northern Soup Society in Kensington and Northern Liberties, to several organizations that worked specifically in Southwark and South Philadelphia, including the Southwark Soup Society, the Octavia Hill Housing Association, the Bedford Street Mission, and the Public Baths Association of Philadelphia.

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An undated typewritten history in the Public Baths Association's records reveals the divide in both economics and understanding between the city's classes. The narrative reports that the idea for the baths was born during an unusually hot spring day within the stifling confines of a classroom full of immigrant children in "the densest, most wretched of the city's slums"—by all indications, Southwark, circa 1894. A young female sewing teacher presiding over a Saturday class of immigrant girls was incredulous when one of her pupils, a young Jewish girl, declared summer to be her favorite time of year. "Oh, Teacher, summer is 'way nicer than winter. You can get a bath in the summer." The rest of the class of African American and immigrant girls concurred; summer baths were "lovely." Baffled and not a little repulsed by the "sticky dirt" covering these students, the teacher asked the Jewish student why, then, her mother did not bathe her all winter? Equally baffled by the teacher's naïve question, the girl almost laughed and replied, "there ain't no way."

At that moment, the well-intentioned but sheltered teacher realized that the limitations of poverty, and not the character of the poor, determined these children's circumstances. The teacher was Sarah Dickson Lowrie, a prominent upper-class Philadelphian involved in several social and civic movements. Lowrie cofounded the Philadelphia Junior League and the Lighthouse settlement in Kensington, was a champion of female suffrage, an ardent preservationist who led the restoration of Pennsbury Manor, and a columnist for the Ladies Home Journal and the Philadelphia Evening Ledger. At a dinner party hosted by Philadelphia retail mogul John Wanamaker, Lowrie proposed establishing public baths. Also attending that dinner was Barclay H. Warburton, editor and publisher of the Philadelphia Daily Evening Telegraph, who helped raise funds by publicizing the effort in his newspaper. The Public Baths Association of Philadelphia (PBA) was incorporated in March 1895, governed by a board of 12 trustees, and funded by donations and subscriptions. The PBA's first annual report lists donations of soap from the Fels-Naptha Company and washboards and mirrors from Lit Brothers Department Stores.

When the PBA opened its first bathhouse and laundry facility in April 1898 at 413–15 Gaskill Street in Southwark, it was wildly successful and patronized by "all nationalities, Hebrews [sic], Italians, Germans, Irish, English, Japanese, Hungarians, as well as Americans, black and white," although most Southwark patrons were Jewish. The bathhouse could serve 900 bathers in one day. For a small fee of 10 to 15 cents—the fee was thought to remove the stigma of charity and protect the dignity of the "self-respecting poor"—a man, woman, or child could take a relatively private hot bath or shower with soap and clean towels and launder his or her clothes year-round, seven days a week. The PBA also distributed free tickets, which were only good for women and girls. Several thousand of these tickets were printed in Italian and distributed door to door. By 1928, the PBA opened six more bathhouses in the immigrant neighborhoods of Northern Liberties, South Philadelphia, and Kensington. In its first year, the PBA provided baths for 21,656 people; by 1934, PBA bathhouses served over 360,000.

The PBA collection contains its charter, minute books, and records regarding bathhouse management, real estate, and personnel issues. Perhaps most interesting to researchers are the detailed scrapbooks that speak to the PBA's extensive (and successful) public outreach efforts. The scrapbooks contain informational leaflets, colorful posters and flyers, and news clippings about the PBA's bathhouses—Warburton's Evening Telegraph publicized the baths by running free advertisements and periodic feature articles. Simple and tasteful advertising cards, like that seen here, which detailed all of the pertinent information about the bathhouse (hours, cost, locations) were instrumental in the PBA's outreach campaigns. PBA workers distributed these cards widely, along with calendars and batches of free tickets, in immigrant neighborhoods among individuals in the street and in public places like barbershops and saloons, in private homes, and at other charitable organizations.

The overwhelming popularity of the bathhouses would ultimately cause their demise. By 1907, the bathhouses had become almost completely self-sustaining from collected usage fees and sometimes even turned a small profit, which was invested back into operations. But the Great Depression brought increased demand and increasingly penniless patrons, straining the PBA's facilities and finances. The PBA was compelled to forego essential repairs throughout most of the 1930s just to keep bathhouse doors open. After the Depression, donations and attendance lagged, indoor plumbing became more common, and the PBA facilities never recovered from the backlog of needed maintenance. The trustees were forced to gradually shut down bathhouses throughout the 1940s, ceasing operations entirely by 1950.


  • This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Pennsylvania Legacies, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's illustrated public history magazine.
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