A 1904 municipal bath hiding on 38th Street

Today, East 38th Street between First and Second Avenues is a scrubbed-clean kind of block.

Quiet and with little foot traffic, it’s overshadowed by a 57-story apartment tower on the south side and a beige office building on the north.

But next to the office building is a relic of the Manhattan that existed more than a century ago—when this far East Side block was crowded with life and people living in tenements and working in local factories, breweries, and abattoirs through the first half of the 20th century.

The building that today houses the Permanent Mission of Indonesia was once a public bath, known as the Milbank Memorial Bath—or the People’s Bath.

This modest bathhouse was one of the many free bathhouses constructed and funded by the city to give “the great unwashed” a place to get clean in an era when only a fraction of tenement dwellers had bathtubs.

It’s been altered and enlarged in the years since it opened in 1904. But the entrances and decorative motifs are visible, remnants of an era when even local bathhouses were designed to uplift and inspire.

This bathhouse has a tragic backstory. It was funded by Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, heiress of the Borden Condensed Milk Company, a philanthropist who gave millions to help disadvantaged New Yorkers.

“Anderson, who lost her only son to diphtheria in 1886, was convinced that health was at the foundation of human happiness,” wrote Julie Scelfo in The Women Who Made New York.

“While most affluent philanthropists funded projects that would display their largesse—a museum or a monument—Anderson instead donated funds to build a public bath. Her gift would become a model for the city, as it established the groundwork for hygiene being practiced as the very foundation of public health.”

In its early years, the Milbank baths didn’t attract huge crowds. (But as the photo above shows, kids seemed to like congregating around it.)

So the city launchd a public service campaign, putting up signs and sending around mailers to residents encouraging them to bathe at least once a week for sanitary reasons.

“Every voter in the district has received a postal card informing him that ‘to keep the body healthy requires at least one bath a week; more if possible,” wrote the Sun in 1913.

The campaign apparently worked, and attendance—which was always high in the summer, when people just wanted to cool off—shot up. “As a result of this campaign personal cleanliness is coming into fashion in the district,” added the Sun.

The 93 showers and nine tubs at Milbank only lasted until 1919, when the bathhouse was converted into a “public wet wash laundry, to meet the growing demand for this service,” according to Columbia University Libraries.

The building still stands, a totem of a very different East 38th Street.

[Second image: Columbia University Libraries; third image: MCNY 93.1.1.1995; fifth image: MCNY 93.1.1.18096; sixth image: wikipedia; seventh image: LOC]

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19 Responses to “A 1904 municipal bath hiding on 38th Street”

  1. petlover1948 Says:

    Fascinating! Thanks

  2. countrypaul Says:

    We forget past inconveniences that we now take for granted. Thank you for this insight.

  3. Warren Barlowe Says:

    Just ten blocks downtown from there, between 2nd and 3rd Ave,, is a YMCA (I believe) with a pool on its ground floor. I was a high school student at The Adams School/SAGE Academy at 248 East 31st Street, between 1967 and ’70, and that was where I went, for phys ed one period a day,, twice a week. I don’t know if it’s still there. The School closed in the mid ’70’s, and is now a condo building.

  4. ytfnyc Says:

    That is some dirty snow in the second photo . . . .

  5. Tom B Says:

    I find it ironic that NYC leadership is more concerned about the size of your soft drink than basic hygiene. What a blessing to have people like Elizabeth Milbank Anderson back then.

    • aspicco Says:

      Basic hygiene is available in every apartment now. People weren’t drinking soda black them like they do now, and the overwhelming surge of diabetes wasn’t such a strain on the healthcare system. Tom, you do know it is 2020, right?

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        I think Tom’s point is that 120 years ago, the city undertook something of a mission to open up access to basic services around health, education, and the arts—partnering with philanthropists to help fund these endeavors. In the Bloomberg era of the last decade, public health had evolved into trying to ban large-size sodas in restaurants. One could certainly argue that enabling access had more of a direct benefit than blaming soda for diabetes, obesity, etc. Public health missions evolve…who would have thought in 2020 it meant encouraging people to wear face masks when they leave their house?

  6. Benjamin P. Feldman Says:

    My essay about the building and Elizabeth Milbank is here: http://newyorkwanderer.com/the-great-unwashed/

  7. pontifikator Says:

    How many public amenities have we lost? Besides public baths and public phones?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      We still have public libraries, so many from this same era, when a truly progressive city decided to make education and the arts accessible to all.

  8. jeffreybernard1234verizonnet Says:

    Misplaced modifier alert. Lasted only.

  9. Amedeo Says:

    Just brings back fond memories when my father brought me to the bath house on 2nd st. just east of Ave. B in the early 30’s.

  10. aspicco Says:

    The NY Rec Center/Gym on 60th Street on the West Side still says PUBLIC BATHS

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      This is a sign I have to go see! I used to go to this rec center in the early 00s because it had the city’s only public rock climbing gym.

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