Posts Tagged ‘Municipal Baths’

A 1904 municipal bath hiding on 38th Street

June 15, 2020

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]