Keeping Clean in Charm City – The Rise of the Public Bathhouse in Baltimore


Figure 1. Perfume bottle molded in the shape of a wicker covered demijohn.  Bottle dates c. 1845-1865.

This tiny and incredibly fragile perfume bottle, discovered in a Baltimore privy during the 1980 excavation at the future site of the Federal Reserve Bank, was made by the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company of Sandwich, Massachusetts (Boston and Sandwich 2017). The company operated between the years 1826 and 1888, producing blown and pressed glass containers (Barlow and Kaiser 1998).  Measuring only three inches tall, this bottle was molded in the shape of a much larger bottle called a carboy or demijohn. These bottles, ranging in size from 5 to 16 gallons and used to transport bulk liquids like vinegar or acid, were covered in woven wicker to prevent breakage. This little cologne bottle, with its wicker molded surface, dates between circa 1845 and 1865.


Figure 2. Bathing before the advent of running water and plumbing involved hauling and heating large quantities of water. 

In Victorian America, personal cleanliness was viewed as a symbol of upstanding character and self-respect.  In America’s crowded cities, it was also an important public health matter.  Wearing perfume or toilet water could certainly help cover body odor, but there was much to be said for bathing as a way to improve personal sanitation and health. Before the days of running water and plumbing, many people kept clean through what we would call today a “sponge bath”, using basins of water or small hip baths.  In 1893, only 7.35% of the families in Baltimore lived in a house with an indoor bathroom. Fortunately for the rest of Baltimore’s citizens, public bathing facilities were soon to be a part of the city’s amenities.

Since at least Roman times, public baths have been a feature of urban life, but the public bath movement in North America did not begin until the mid-19th century and it gathered momentum late in that century. In fact, before the Victorian era, many western cultures actually believed that submersion in water would open the pores up to disease and sickness. Increasing immigration from Europe and crowded living situations in American cities created a critical need for public bathing facilities. North American cities were far behind their European counterparts in providing bath houses. The first year-round public bath opened in Yonkers, New York in 1896 (Piwinski 2011).   Baltimore lagged behind cities like New York and Boston, with its first public bath houses, administered by the city, not appearing until the turn of the 20th century (Williams 1991:28). 

Before the construction of permanent, year-round structures in Baltimore, public bathing beaches were created for warm weather bathing. Reverend Thomas Beadenkopf of the Congregational Church in Canton garnered permission from the Canton Company in 1893 to convert one of its abandoned wharves into a beach (Williams 1991:110). This effort was quickly followed by two additional bathing beaches. The beaches were such a success that the idea of year-round bathing facilities quickly caught on with the public.

walters number 1

Figure 3.  Walters Public Bath House No. 1 on South High Street.  Photograph taken shortly after the facility opened in 1900. 

Baltimore’s public bath system was unique among its North American peers in that it was a public-private partnership (Rasmussen 2006).  In the wake of a report written by the newly-created Bath Commission on the lack of public bathing facilities in the city, railroad magnate and philanthropist Henry Walters made it his mission to improve conditions.  He offered to build three baths at a cost of $15,000 each, with the baths to be known as “The Walters Public Baths”.  The first bath house, Walters Public Bath House No. 1, opened in 1900 on South High Street in what is now the Little Italy section of the city (Rasmussen 2006).  The bath house contained 18 showers for men, five showers and two tubs for women, and a laundry facility in the basement (Williams 1991:117). The Baltimore Sun reported that 5,500 men laundered their own clothing in 1913 at Walters Public Bath House No. 1 (Baltimore Sun photo, 1939)


Figure 4.  Patron doing laundry at one of Baltimore’s bath houses in 1939.

Walters ultimately ended up funding four public baths in Baltimore.  Walters Public Bath House No. 3, located on Argyle Avenue and opened in 1905, served the city’s African-American citizens. Walters’ baths served as a model for cities across the United States.  By the 1920s, Baltimore’s public bathing amenities included five freestanding buildings, portable bathhouses and swimming pools (MSA 2017).   Effective public baths were ones that were constructed in crowded working class neighborhoods, where the need for their amenities was the greatest.  Modest, straightforward architecture was prescribed so as not to be off-putting to the citizens that needed the services offered within (Piwinski 2011).

During its first year, the Walters Public Bath No. 1 served 70,000 customers (Williams 1991).  These baths were heavily used for decades, but the final bath closed in 1959 as part of a set of city-based austerity measures (Rasmussen 2006).  Walters Public Bath House No. 2 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

In the United States today, where bathrooms are a standard home feature, the wearing of perfume has gone from being a way to improve one’s own smell and mask the bad smells of others to serving as a tool of seduction or a means of enhancing one’s overall personal appearance.  The Boston and Sandwich perfume bottle serves to remind us that motivations for behavior can change over time as our culture changes around us.


Barlow, Raymond E. and Joan E. Kaiser. 1998  The Glass Industry in Sandwich.  Volume 5.  Schiffer Publishing, Limited.

Boston and Sandwich.  2017   Boston and Sandwich Glass Company.  Wikipedia. Website, accessed 01 May 2017.

Maryland State Archives (MSA).   2017  William T. Walters.  Maryland State Archives.  Website accessed September 12, 2017.

Rasmussen, Frederick N.   2006  Public Bathhouse Era Ended in 1959.  The Baltimore Sun.  Website accessed July 17, 2017.

Williams, Marilyn Thornton.  1991  Washing `The Great Unwashed:’ Public Baths in Urban America 1840-1920. Ohio State University Press, Columbus.

Piwinski, Bob.  2011  The Public Bath Movement in America and Yonkers’ Place in its History.  Powerpoint presentation shown on website.  Accessed September 12, 2017 at

Photo credits:

Figure 1. Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum.

Figure 2.

Figure 3. Photo available at and owned by Maryland Historical Society.

Figure 4. Photo at



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