Bathing on the streets


January 18, 1994|By GILBERT SANDLER

BALTIMORE GLIMPSES deals in anniversaries, not all of which shake the world. One that doesn't, but which is nevertheless interesting: 1994 marks the 35th anniversary of the closing of the last of the city's public bathhouses.

That knowledge may not mean much to you because you probably grew up in a house that had a shower or bathtub or both. But in earlier days, of course, thousands of Baltimoreans did not. And those thousands took millions of showers and baths, many of them for free, in the city's public baths.

Although there are records of public baths in Baltimore in the 19th and 18th centuries, the first baths in this century were established in part to counter public health crises.

Among the first was Walters No. 1. Why Walters, why No. 1? In 1916, tuberculosis was rampant in the city, and two years later thousands fell to a flu epidemic that killed 20 million people worldwide. Unclean people spread disease, it was thought -- don't forget indoor plumbing was rare -- so millionaire railroader, banker and art collector William Walters made what he thought was a one-man attack on the city's health problems by creating a system of public bathhouses. Hence, Walters No. 1 up through No. 18.

In some densely populated Baltimore neighborhoods, the baths were in constant use. Some of them were quite luxurious; others were portable, nothing but tents or makeshift shacks.

Much has been written about the baths. Walters No. 1, at 131 S. High St., was the most popular. Historian William Manchester, then an Evening Sun reporter, visited it in June 1951. He paid 5 cents to get in, which included a towel and a bar of soap.

"Each shower," he wrote, "has its own dressing room, four hooks for clothes, a slate seat and a slatted door which locks for privacy. For your nickel, you are sovereign.

"I came out like the name on the soap wafer they gave me when I came in -- beauty white. At 5 cents, the city's public bath is the best buy in town."

An entry in the guest book at Walters No. 1 read, "It's a Godsend." And it must have been to the millions (more than 8 million visited Walters No. 1 over the years) who luxuriated.

In 1959, the city passed a law requiring every house to have indoor plumbing. Demand for the public bathhouses dropped precipitously, and the public baths were closed.

From then on, everything was up to date in Baltimore City.

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