A Shower of Memories Bathhouses: Baltimoreans who grew up around Little Italy in the '30s get together to reminisce about the public baths that were central to those good old days.

September 30, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Everybody looked very, very clean yesterday at the reunion of the folks who used to shower and bath at the Walters Public Bathhouse No. 1 in Little Italy. Just like when they were kids in the 1930s and took their weekly shower on Friday and Saturday.

They looked very clean, very happy and amazingly youthful. There must have been something in the bath water.

Back then, people didn't take indoor plumbing for granted. Thousands of homes in Baltimore didn't have indoor toilets let alone showers or bathtubs.

Instead, the city ran a system of six public bathhouses, where you could pay a nickel, get soap and a towel and about five minutes to take a hot shower.

In 1954, when Walters No.1 was torn down to make way for the Flag House Court housing project, bathhouses and neighborhood schools still provided Baltimoreans with 2 million baths and showers a year.

The Walters Bathhouse at 131-133 S. High St. was the first bathhouse to open, and it was always the most popular.

People at the reunion at the Sons of Italy Lodge on Pratt Street remembered their trips to the bathhouse vividly and fondly. Even though the '30s were Depression days of poverty and hardship, they were, after all, the days of their childhood and adolescence.

"That was the best bathhouse there was," declared Louise Gulieri Snyder, a snappy 73. "It was spotlessly clean. The water was hot. And I never had athlete's feet when I was there."

Clara Rizzi Ferretti, a vivacious woman of 70 with carefully coiffed white hair, said the bathhouse was "a luxury."

She was born and lived in a third-floor, cold-water flat at 1028 E. Lombard St. Her father, Nunziato, sold fruit from a pushcart out front.

"We had the toilet in the backyard," she said. "And we had one that had a seat. You pressed down and it flushed the toilet. I jumped off so my rear end wouldn't get wet."

"Going to the bathhouse," she said. "I thought I was in Hollywood."

Mary Pellegrini Shanahan had the idea for the reunion. She lived at 911 Granby St., which was just behind the bathhouse.

Ten Pellegrini children grew up there. Her father, Salvatore, was a contractor who built St. Leo's Elementary School. Her mother, Giovanni Ninette, could only dry her wash at night because of the steam from the bathhouse.

Old bathhouse boys and girls loved the idea of a reunion. Shanahan, 73, sold 226 tickets almost instantly.

"We often talk about it when we're down in the neighborhood," says Shanahan, who used the shower from the time she was 9 until she was about 11.

"We had a bathtub but no shower," she says. "A lot of the houses down there didn't have plumbing. Or they didn't have hot water, or they just had a bathtub like we had.

"We used to go in and pay a nickel to the man in the window, and I got a towel and a small bar of soap and a cardboard comb. If three of us went we got in free.

"And then we sat on a bench and we waited for the lady to call our turn," Shanahan says. "We'd sit there and talk. And she'd holler: "Next!" And we'd slide up for our turn. They had wonderful hot water there. It was like having a bathroom in your house."

Henry Walters, that remarkable Baltimore philanthropist who also gave the city the Walters Art Gallery and most of its collections, put up the money for the Little Italy bathhouse.

He was on hand when they turned on the first faucet in May 1900.

But the real champion of Baltimore's public baths was the Rev. Thomas M. Beadenkoff, an 1880 Johns Hopkins University graduate who received his doctorate from Yale Divinity School.

When he became pastor of a Congregational church in Canton he soon realized his parishioners needed a place to take a bath. In the summertime he led them to the harbor for a cleansing, but he soon realized something had to be done year-round.

The Bathing Commission

The persevering Rev. Beadenkoff was appointed to the Bathing Commission in 1893 and about five years later persuaded Walters to finance the building of two bathhouses for $50,000.

Walters eventually paid for four.

The High Street bathhouse was the first and an instant success; it always led the city in the number of baths and showers taken. During its 54 years, Walters Public Bathhouse No. 1 served an astounding 8.7 million customers.

"For five cents, a city bath is the best buy in town," wrote William Manchester, who took his shower in 1951 and chronicled it for The Evening Sun.

Only about one bather in five ever paid the nickel, by the way. If you told the attendant you couldn't afford it, he took you at your word and gave you a towel, soap and a few minutes in the shower anyway.

Dozens of bathhouse veterans and their spouses and friends came out to Sons of Italy hall to tell stories about the good old days, eat pasta and Italian chicken and dance to the easy sax sound of the ever-popular Al "Madman" Baitch.

Teresa Gabriele, 68, and Maria Sansone, 82, who both still live in Little Italy, danced the tarantella. Paul Wartzman and Phil Baron, who grew up on Lombard Street, led a circle of dancers doing Hava Negilah.


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