Torn-Down Tuesday: Buffalo’s public bath houses

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Buffalo’s position as one of America’s largest and most sophisticated cities was strikingly on display with the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. The City of Light. Advanced transportation. The most modern manufacturing ideas put into practice. Many of the wonders of the Industrial Revolution were on display for the world to take in and enjoy in Buffalo.

Sitting around a spittoon, men and boys wait for their turn for a free bath. (Buffalo Stories archives)

But behind that picture of a flourishing city was an undeniable underbelly: Thousands of Buffalonians had no running water in their homes or access to bathing facilities.

It was universally acknowledged as a growing problem, but one without a clear solution.

“A great number of Buffalonians do not feel the need of public baths in the summer months,” wrote the Buffalo Courier in 1895, “because there are many much frequented bathing places along the lake and river fronts and along the numerous creeks in Buffalo.”

Buffalo had two public baths in 1895. They were at the foot of S. Michigan Avenue, along the lakeshore close to the General Mills complex, and at the foot of Porter Avenue, near the Buffalo Yacht Club.
Buffalo had two public baths in 1895. They were at the foot of S. Michigan Avenue, along the lakeshore close to the General Mills complex, and at the foot of Porter Avenue, near the Buffalo Yacht Club.

Buffalo, it was written, didn’t need bathing facilities, because people bathed in lakes, rivers, and creeks.

A day at the beach was more than just a day of sunshine and relaxation—it was a matter of hygiene. Resort beaches south of the city, places like Wanakah, Idlewood and Bennett Beach, were appropriate for women and children, but men and older boys would bathe wherever they could.

The foot of Court and Georgia streets — which once led from the West Side to the banks of Lake Erie — were popular spots, as were Squaw Island and the foot of Ferry Street.

One man was arrested trying to wash up in the Johnson Park fountain. “The Polish Boys,” wrote The Courier, frequented a bathing hole along Buffalo Creek near South Ogden and the railroad bridge of the Jammerthal area— now the northern East Side of Buffalo. One still-open quarrying area is along Amherst Street as it approaches Bailey Avenue coming from Main Street.

In 1895, Buffalo’s two public baths—one at the foot of S. Michigan Avenue, one at the foot of Porter Avenue – were “small box-like arrangements,” more or less “dilapidated, dirty, and disgraceful” sheds.

Street urchins and pickpockets would use the places, it was said, but no respectable boy or man would be seen there—where a nickel would provide use of a locker and a pair of “bathing pants.”

“Buffalo is deplorably, disgracefully deficient in public baths,” wrote the Courier. Especially during winter months, when bathing alternatives were needed, working men couldn’t afford the luxury of the widely available $1 Turkish baths.

City leaders took the health crisis and turned it into one of the nation’s first public welfare programs.

Men and boys wait for their turn in Buffalos public bath, 1901. (Buffalo Stories archives)
Men and boys wait for their turn in Buffalo’s public bath, 1901. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Buffalo Health Commissioner Wende called the bath houses in two of Buffalo’s most crowded tenement areas a long time in coming.

“While the luxury and benefit of public baths have reached their highest stage in Europe, it remained for Buffalo, an American city, in competing for the supremacy in the realization of the conditions desired by a cultured public, to establish a bath where the indigent, the fatigued, and the unclean could find shelter and care without money and without price.”

In 1897, a brick structure was built on the Terrace as a sanitary bathing facility for the men of Buffalo, particularly the mostly Irish immigrants of the First Ward and the Italian immigrants of The Hooks.

Soap and towels were provided to bathers free of charge. The facility was the first free, open bath house anywhere in the country, and put Buffalo on the cutting edge of health and sanitation.

Buffalos Public Bath House Number 1, was located on the southern tip of The Terrace playground. The building was in the approximate area of Channel 7s studios today. (Buffalo Stories archives)
Buffalo’s Public Bath House No. 1 was located on the southern tip of the Terrace playground. The building was in the approximate area of Channel 7’s studios today. (Buffalo Stories archives)

In 1901, a second public bath house was built on Buffalo’s East Side at Woltz Avenue and Stanislaus Street.

Buffalos Public Bath House Number 2 at Woltz Avenue and Stanislaus Street. (Buffalo Stories archives)
Buffalo’s Public Bath House No. 2 at Woltz Avenue and Stanislaus Street. (Buffalo Stories archives)

This larger building had separate bathing facilities and waiting rooms for both men and women. While there were bathtubs for women and infants, men were offered showers. The idea of showering was brand new — so new, in fact, that a 1901 article in The Buffalo Express explained how a shower works.

“The bather stands erect in the shower, and the water falls down upon him. There is a depression in the floor, with perforations which carry away the water that has fallen.”

The interior of the shower area had stalls separated by wrought iron. Water was heated to approximately 100 degrees, and bathers were allowed 20 minutes in the showering and adjoining dressing rooms.

The buildings’ rules were written on the walls in English, Polish, Italian and German. They read:

  1. Smoking prohibited
  2. No swearing or obscene language
  3. No intoxicated person allowed in the building
  4. Walls, furniture, and property must not be defaced or injured
  5. Soiled clothing must be taken away by the bather
  6. Towels must be returned to the keeper or matron
  7. No bather may occupy an apartment longer than 20 minutes

There were also laundry facilities for underclothes to help further improve sanitation.

Dr. Wende said the free services, with more than 394,000 baths taken in the first four years, cost Buffalo taxpayers 3 cents per person per year, with most of that cost going toward the purchase of soap.

Well into the 1950s, these two bath houses, along with two more at Grant and Amherst and 249 William St., remained in demand providing as many as a million baths a year.

One slight modification was made as time went on — a new rule prevented singing in the showers.

“If we let people sing in our 52 showers,” said the keeper of Bath House No. 2 Stanley Molik, “we’d be in trouble for disturbing the peace of the neighborhood.

Buffalo in the 1890s: Polish and Italian freight workers clash

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Today, it’s one of Buffalo’s newest waterfront spaces—RiverFest Park– nestled between Ohio Street and the Buffalo River, just across the water from Buffalo RiverWorks and the Labatt grain silos.

The Buffalo Evening News, May 26, 1899

The Buffalo Evening News, May 26, 1899

At the tail end of the 19th century,  Buffalo’s waterfront was rough and tumble. On this day in particular, it was the place where two immigrant groups clashed and “a race riot looked imminent.”

The unionized mostly Polish freight handlers at the New York Central Freight House on Ohio Street had joined the unionized mostly Irish grain shovelers in striking for better working conditions and in protest of contract abuses.

Cincinnati-Street-from-LOC

When the dock-working Poles came back to work, many were displeased to be working alongside mostly Italian non-union men. Management promised to dismiss the Italians, but when 150 showed up ready for work the next day, “within five minutes, a good sized riot was in progress.”

How the fight started seemed to be in question—The News’ account laid the blame at some of the 200 Poles who began accosting the Italians and calling them scabs. The Courier said the Italians may have started it when one of them threw an old tomato can into the group of Poles.

“Knives and revolvers were flourished,” reported The News, “and fists were freely used.”

Witnesses heard as many as 25 gunshots—one Polish man was shot in the back. An Italian man was slashed in the face. Five were arrested and charged with rioting.