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


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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.

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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).  Continue reading

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Keeping it Fizzy for Over a Century: the Crown Cap Closure


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Figure 1.  Dessicated cork from Oxon Hill Manor (18PR175). Photo courtesy MAC Lab.

Baltimore has been home to a number of important inventions over the last several centuries; among them rubber surgical gloves, telephone poles and the Ouija board.  Perhaps few of these innovations have had as widespread of an influence as the crown cap closure.  Invented in 1890 and patented in 1892 by William Painter as a device for capping carbonated beverage bottles, crown caps became one of the world’s first successful disposable products.  In his patent application, Painter stated “… I have devised metallic sealing-caps embodying certain novel characteristics which render them highly effective and so inexpensive as to warrant throwing them away after a single use thereof..” (US Patent Office 1890). Continue reading