Monday, July 3, 2017

Naked and Steamy: Turkish Baths in Elmira

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator
Public bathing was popular in antiquity, but came to the United States in full force by the 1890s. Larger baths were in cities like New York and Philadelphia, but Elmira had its own, too. There were different types of public baths in this time. One type was for poor people to bathe to help curb the spread of infectious disease in cramped cities. In addition to the germ-cleansing benefits, other people saw bathing and water as a cure for ailments, an idea put into practice at places like the Elmira Water Cure.  Another type were Turkish, Roman, or Russian baths, which were places for wealthier folks to relax and seek the health benefits of the steam. This post will be about the latter.

The Robinson Building where the Palace Bath Rooms were located.

The most impressive bath house in the city was The Palace Bath Rooms in the Robinson Building at the western corner of Lake and Water Streets. The business was originally operated by William Ware, and was then taken over by Peter Flynn in 1896. 
Circa 1912 advertisement for Flynn's Turkish Baths on an embroidered coverlet designed by William Brownlow and embroidered by the Friendly Class of the First Methodist Church on Baldwin Street, Elmira.
There were separate men’s and ladies’ days and hours so that the genders would never mix when folks were in such compromising states of undress (people had to find other places to pick up a member of the opposite sex). The Ladies and Men's days and hours changed over time, but in 1899, the hours were as follows: Tuesday and Friday, 8am-6pm were for ladies only. Monday, Wednesday, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 8am-10pm, and Tuesdays and Fridays, from 6 to 10pm were for men only. Local gentlemen took to the baths after they had spent an evening drinking to “boil it” out of them.

Patrons of the Palace could partake in Turkish, Roman, and Russian baths. These baths involved combinations of steaming in sauna-like rooms and dipping into bathing pools. The set up at the Palace was rather luxurious, as you can see from the images below, taken circa 1891.
The first hot room at the Palace.
The plunge and shower baths.
The roving room.
A trip to the baths ended in the cooling room.
The cooling room
 Baths were really popular and there were several books about how to set one up properly. In fact, Robert Owen Allsop’s 1890 book, The Turkish Bath: Its Design and Construction even included a chapter about how to set up a Turkish bath for a horse. It was primarily for the therapeutic treatment of race horses, but the author helpfully noted that “a bath for a horse will evidently be suitable for a cow, and might not be wholly beneath the dignity of a pig.” 

The Palace stayed open until at least the mid-1930s. Now, the idea of going out and getting platonically naked and steamy with our friends on a Saturday night is not so popular. But, public bathing culture is having a bit of a resurgence. Just last year, the New York Times ran an article, “After 124 Years, the Russian and Turkish Baths Are Still a Hot.” Apparently, the baths are gaining popularity with young people and “hipsters.” No word, however, on if the trend will be making its way back to Elmira anytime soon.

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