When I first read about electric bathing at Coney Island, a light flipped on in my head. It was an image of Victorian era men and women swimming in the Atlantic at night, beneath the bright lights of electricity. Some people call this sea bathing. In fact, Coney Island was full of utilitarian bathhouses from 1860 through the 1980s — Stauchs, Washington Baths, Wards, Balmers Pavilion — but this one image I’d seen was a trigger. It made a cultural bridge in my mind between this phenomenon on the East Coast — where I spent my childhood in Manhattan’s Upper West Side — and the West Coast’s infamous Sutro Baths, here in San Francisco.
At the turn of the 20th century both Coney Island and Sutro Baths attracted people en masse to escape the doldrums, play, and experience the world beyond their tenement flats and their office jobs. They drew thousands towards the water and each allowed guests to step into a place of miraculous inventions and showmanship for the common man. Coney Island had carnival rides and elaborate pavilions and the feeling of wonder was everywhere. Sutro Baths too had imported curiosities from around the world, tons of taxidermy, and family amusements. They were bathhouses as much as they were playlands and they provided a well-known service for the era: entertainment.
There were other bathhouses in the late 1800s and early 20th century that had nothing to do with hospitality and amusement parks. Instead, they were civic mandates. In 1895 cities with a population exceeding 50,000 in the state of New York were required by law to provide bathhouses for everyone. We all know the story. Plumbing was not yet widely deployed in homes and apartment buildings.
In one of my fact finding missions on bathhouses in New York City specifically, I discovered that just blocks from where I went to elementary school on 96th street near Riverside Park there existed the Hudson River Floating Pools. I know, gross. But in 1890 the water was still safe. These Floating Pools (which shut down when the river’s contamination became a health hazard) may be the OG pop-up materializing along the Hudson and East Rivers between 1870 and 1920, but they also derived from public health advocates demanding that the city have more municipally owned public baths.
On the West Side they ran from 80th street all the way through Harlem and into Washington Heights. As a child of the 1970s I can’t imagine swimming in the Hudson. But I’m no less in awe. Pontoons in the Hudson!
Whether the early 20th century urbanite headed to the bathhouse for recreation, or for weekly ablutions, is a data point. But all these establishments shared something in common. They all had an informal code of social engagement. Ladies! Come for the water, stay for the gossip. Gents! Come for the athleticism, stay for the ladies.
Bathhouses are the prototypical third spaces. Neither work nor home (neither saloon nor third-wave coffee shop), they provided connection, conversation, and community. And they became that for Gay Culture as well, before Gay Culture had anything to call its own. Minus the Beaux Arts decor and the pools, Gay Bathhouses, at least in San Francisco, provided what bathhouses from the beginning of time have offered: Community. And not unlike the Floating Pools of 1920s, they too were mandated to shut down for public health concerns, this time around the AIDS epidemic.
With their closure came a significant change in language and our reaction to the famed establishments. The bathhouse went from being a thing of wonder, to being a thing of necessity, to being a thing that was reviled. All within 100 years. But I see a future for the legacy of bathing that is new.
Today the baths are the last bastion of contemporary culture where we can get respite from screens that go blink and bleep. In Japan, they go to onsens. In all of Scandinavia it’s the sauna, often pronounced Sow-nuh. Turkey has their hammams, and Rome of course made history. But there’s more to it than ancient ritual. It’s ground zero for digital detox. Not even the bedroom — nor the bathroom — can make this claim. If the day spa — its suburban cousin— promises to make us look young and feel rejuvenated through a plan of vigorous scrubbing treatments (amongst other menu options), the bathhouse of today couldn’t care less about the fountain of youth. Its currency is creative potential. Get some!
Clearing our head is essential to creative production. So it’s possible that communal bathing is not just about the heat, nor the connection, nor the age-old cultural practice but the chance to be Archimedes. To have our own Eureka! moment.
And the chance act of finding ourselves, and our ideas, new again.
I went to Europe a few years ago on a ‘field trip expedition’ to research bathhouses. Every place from Berlin to Amsterdam was interesting, and incredible. When I came home, I purchased the url for urbanbathhouse.com. Seriously. I wanted to re-imagine the American bathhouse. Curious if old school opulence could be more ecological was a driving force, but so was my belief that wellness had been hijacked by new age dogma and fluffy spas. In hindsight, I really just wanted to build what was missing from my experience. Easy.
We need to soak and sweat and thrive. To unplug, detox and reset. In fact, our culture has never before needed this so much. And in a city that defines the 21st century, that has become the vanguard for cultural shifts in behavior — that gave us Sutro Baths, Fleishacker Pool, and even Lurline Baths — we owe it to future history books to start here.