The History of the Bathhouse
By Eddie Coronado
Photo: Richard Brezner
The Roman Bathhouse
The bath-house was an essential part of life for the Roman soldier, as well as improving hygiene they also served as a club and somewhere for the men to meet civilians, though the winters were warmer in the 1st century A.D. The baths provided something of luxury and comfort for the soldiers. The first bathhouse recorded to be built in 25-30 A.D was made of wood with clay floors. This presented a problem as the fires used to heat water soon spread into the structures built in the time of Agustus. By the reign of Claudius passed a law that bath-houses must be constructed in stone, obviously this must have involved repeated disasters at Roman settlements. Exeter and Caerleon?s building have Purbeck marble used in decorations, while at Chester a dull geometric mosaic was found, this can be seen at the Grosvenor Museum, and is the only mosaic from a Roman military context in Britain.
These early bath-houses are known as the ?row type? a simple row of rooms leading on from each other, and it seems that civilians could buy use of the baths, and would have been issued lead tokens to gain access. Apparently in the morning before the furnaces reached full temperature, the great heat reached being deemed injurious to women and children. Basically, the bather started the session by entering at the hot rooms and utilized the various rooms with the variations in temperature. The uses of the various rooms are as follows.
A. Furnace Chamber – This provided the extreme heat needed to power the channel type hypocausts, the furnace would have probably been kept burning 24 hours a day, and would have required constant stoking and refilling, large amounts of wood (and possibly coal) would have been required. Situated directly above the furnace was a metal water tank, the boiling water and steam utilized for the hot bath with the humidity element. The furnace channels often blocked due to the continual use and often children (or very small slaves) had to be sent inside to clear away the obstructions.
B. Hot dry room – The hottest room in the bath-house because it was situated directly on the furnace, receiving all the heat via the channels of the hypocausts, the heat was drawn through the building via the hollow box flue tiles which completely lined the walls of rooms. The hollow box section bricks, which were rather like the modern ?breeze block?, and also a design used today in the building of continental hotels, very cheap but also very strong when incorporated with a metal framework, these bricks formed a wall skin which not only distributed the furnace heat, but also allowed the combustion gases to be expelled from the building. Fitting together the bricks were rendered invisible by the fact they where rendered with a heat and damp resistant mortar.
C. Warm damp room – Using water channeled directly from the boiling tank above the furnace, around the walls of the building and into a very high temperature small plunge pool, this room utilized the humidity effect produce by the boiling water. The ceiling was barrel vaulted and moisture was encouraged to form on the walls, the round section of the ceiling allowing water to drain down the walls. This room was still receiving the fairly latent heat from the furnace chamber, the building being 65 feet long at this stage and the fire was still fairly close by, this room provided the sauna type affect.
D. Cold wet rooms – Out of the heat range of the furnace and containing no box flue tiles these were the cold rooms of the bath house and contained a cold plunge pool, the Roman liked the variations in temperature and the effects on the skin, the various temperatures being used in rapid conjunction.
The Turkish Bath
The tradition of the Turkish bath extends far back, to a time before Turks had reached Anatolia. When the Turks arrived in Anatolia, they brought with them one bathing tradition, and were confronted with another, that of Romans and Byzantines, with certain local variants. The traditions merged, and with the addition of the Moslem concern for cleanliness and its concomitant respect for the uses of water, there arose an entirely new concept, that of the Turkish Bath. In time it became an institution, with its system of ineradicable customs.
For the Turkish bath was much more than just a place to cleanse the skin. It was intimately bound up with everyday life, a place where people of every rank and station, young and old, rich and poor, townsman or villager, could come freely. Women as well as men made use of the “hamam”, as the bath is known in Turkish, although of course at separate hours.
The Tradition of the Japanese Bath
Japanese bathhouses have a long tradition starting out with mixed bathing in the many hot springs to be found in Japan and later in public bathhouses.
These public bathhouses were community meeting places where people gathered to gossip and exchange news as well as wash ? although in the 19th century, the sexes were separated.
These days, most Japanese homes have their own bathrooms; however natural Hot Springs (onsen) and bathhouses (ofuroya) are still very popular in Japan.
Gay Bath houses
Gay men have been meeting for sex in bathhouses since the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States. In California, as in other states, all homosexual acts were illegal and considered as “crimes against nature.” As a result, men who were caught engaging in sexual acts with each other were subject to arrest and public humiliation. Numerous court records from the turn of the century contain cases of men who were arrested after neighbors, landlords, policemen and YMCA janitors looked through keyholes, or broke down doors to discover men having sex with each other. In an effort to evade arrest, gay men resorted to finding those little-known “cruise spots” around town where they could meet for sex and not get caught. These meeting places expanded as the rapidly growing cities of the 20th century created more and more public places where men could be anonymous and intimate with each other. The list of meeting places included public parks, alleys, YMCA facilities, public restrooms, train depots, balconies of silent movie theaters, cheap hotel rooms, and bathhouses.
Historical records from the early 1900’s tell the story of how some bathhouse owners tried to prevent their venues from becoming popular homosexual rendezvous by calling the police or hiring private guards. On the other hand, there were some bathhouse owners who enjoyed the increased profits earned from the patronage of gay men, so they allowed men to engage in homosexual activities as long as they were carried out discreetly. In fact, one particular 1933 account pointed to the “fat tips” a bathhouse manager could receive from the “patronage of pansies provided their actions do not result in police proceedings.”
It wasn’t until the 1950’s that exclusively gay bathhouses started to crop up in America. These places were still subject to vice raids, but the police generally allowed them to operate because they were discreet “outlets for the vast homosexual life in the city.” Some accounts describe these early gay bathhouses as oases of homosexual camaraderie and as “places where it was safe to be gay.” Generally, in gay bathhouses, patrons felt that they were more protected from blackmail and harm than in the “straight” baths, plus the gay baths offered a much safer alternative to sex in public parks. In May 1954 the earliest-known guide to San Francisco’s gay bars and baths was printed and handed out at a meeting of the Mattachine Society, the Bay area’s first homosexual organization. With the warning that it contained “Confidential and Unofficial” information, the mimeographed sheet listed Jack’s Baths, the Club Baths on Turk, the Palace Baths on 3rd Street, and the San Francisco Baths on Ellis. In Los Angeles, the gay community had similar venues to patronize. In the late 1960’s Steve Ostrow opened the famous Continental Baths in the basement of the landmark 1903 Ansonia Hotel, which was home to such greats as Caruso, Stravinsky and Toscanini. Famous for its lavish accommodations, the Continental Baths was advertised as being reminiscent of “the glory of ancient Rome.” The impressive features of this bathhouse included a disco dance floor, a cabaret lounge, sauna rooms, an “Olympia blue” swimming pool, and clean, spacious facilities that could serve nearly 1,000 men, 24 hours a day. One gay guide from the 1970’s described the Continental Baths as a place that “revolutionized the bath scene in New York.” An added attraction at the club was the first class entertainment provided by performers such as Melba Moore, Peter Allen, Cab Calloway, The Manhattan Transfer, John Davidson, Wayland Flowers and Bette Midler, who began her career by performing there with Barry Manilow in 1972. Despite Midler’s constant complaints about “that goddam waterfall,” her poolside performances were so successful that she soon gained national attention, beginning with repeat performances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Many of those who were fortunate enough to see Bette’s early bathhouse shows attest to the fact that her greatest achievement in show business took place the night she convinced the otherwise shy Barry Manilow to accompany her on the piano while wearing only a white towel, which was considered “proper bathhouse attire.” As the popularity of the cabaret shows increased, a wide variety of entertainers were invited to “give it up” at the Continental Baths, including the soprano Eleanor Steber, who gave a “black towel” concert there in 1973. The list of visitors to the Continental Baths read like a “who’s who” of the entertainment world, from actors, singers, artists, producers, to the mafia and even the Metropolitan Opera, which both paid a visit. But for those unfortunate souls who never descended into that legendary basement bathhouse, the Continental came to them in the form of the highly popular Continental Baths towel, which was sold by Bloomingdale’s department store at the height of the club’s fame. It was during this period that The Pat Collins Show broadcast live from the club. In one segment, Pat sat by the pool and interviewed proprietor Steve Ostrow while nude men, apparently indifferent to the television cameras, went splashing by. By the end of the day, WCBS-TV received only one complaint about the program. Unfortunately, the Continental Baths had lost much of its gay clientele by 1974, or “almost overnight,” as many remember it. The reason for the decline in patronage was, as one gay New Yorker put it, “We finally got fed up with those silly-assed, campy shows. All those straight people in our bathhouse made us feel like we were part of the decor, and that we were there for their amusement. So we ended up going to other bathhouses where sex was taken more seriously.” Although the cabaret performances were highly popular among the straight couples who went there “dressed in tuxedos and Norma Kamali gowns,” a large number of the men who patronized the Continental were interested primarily in the sexual side of the bathhouse. The gay writer, Edmund White, always seemed to be “exasperated” by the concerts because they distracted the regular patrons from the more important task of cruising for sex. “I was so sex-obsessed that I found it irritating when she (Midler) was there,” said White, “because everybody stopped their sexual activities to listen to her. I was the person fuming away in the background, hoping everybody would hurry up and get back to work!”
By the time 1974 had ended, patronage was so low that Steve Ostrow had decided discontinue the lounge acts. He focused, instead, on resurrecting his business by making the baths coed. He even advertised on WBLS, but to no avail. In the end, Ostrow closed the Continental Baths for good. The facility, however, was reopened as a heterosexual swingers’ club called Plato’s Retreat, but it was shut down by the City of New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Today as in the past, the bath goers have their own bag or pouch of accessories. This bag may contain one or all of the following; poppers, condoms, tit clamps, pinkie rings a watch, rubber band, assorted butt plugs, handkerchiefs, hand cuffs hair products select line of facial care products, a blow drier, styling utensils spare change, hip flask, pill caddy and perhaps their BOI card
***A memorable feature of the Continental Bathhouse was the secret light warning system that tipped off the patrons when the police were there. There was also a VD clinic, a supply of A-200 in the showers, and KY jel in the candy dispensing machine. Interestingly enough, other bathhouses of the day soon jumped on the Continental bandwagon by featuring entertainment for their patrons. In San Francisco, one bathhouse opened a “Starlight Cabaret” which featured local singers and bands. Country-western performers also began playing on “Western Night” at some baths.
“Today, it is old and faded, but if you look hard, you can feel and see the lost elegance which somehow remains.?
Who would have thought that the bathhouse would have evolved to this? But then again who would have thought that someday bean-bag chairs would someday be antiques? It just goes to show you there can be history in anything if you look for it.