Ah, New York in February. It’s cold, grey, windy, slushy and shitty, and if that’s not enough to bring on the hate, well smack in the middle is Valentine’s Day to kick you when you’re down. Coincidence that this second month is also the shortest? We doubt it. But back to that unfortunate V-word. We weren’t going to let the pink and flowery ruin our own loveless Valentine’s. We knew of a party happening — a Balkan dance party, held by Gemini and Scorpio
in the legendary East Village Russian Bathhouse. Open Vodka bar. Free pierogies. Live music by the incomparable Luminescent Orchestrii
. Dance floor maintained by the ridiculous DJ Shotnez
of Balkan Beat Box. And, in case one were to miss the environmental aspects of the party as implied by the name, let’s reiterate: a Russian Bathhouse
. It was on. But before we spill the secrets of this particular shindig, of course first we’re going to edify and enlighten all you Lost in Historians on the importance of the Public Baths in NYC, circa 19th century.
The importance of bathing wasn’t acknowledged here in America until late in the game, in the mid-1800s, and even then it was mostly considered a luxury for the wealthy. Microscopic germs had yet to be discovered, and the linking of health with cleanliness was almost unheard of. Prior to the Croton Aqueduct’s opening in 1842, there wasn’t even enough water to clean with. In 1849, there began a nation-wide movement towards cleaning the (not yet multitudes but enough to take notice of) immigrant poor who were living in tenements throughout the city. That was the year that the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor built the People’s Bathing and Washing Establishment at 141 Mott Street, the first public bathhouse in the country. It was a huge success, though the five to ten cent prices were still not yet affordable to the destitute.
After the Civil War and the huge waves of immigrants started, ahem, washing up on shore, the city realized that more adequate facilities were needed in the slums of Lower Manhattan to combat dirt and disease. In 1870 the Department of Public Works developed Floating Baths — enormous wooden structures installed in the Hudson and East rivers that essentially utilized the free — though not very clean — waters of the tide to clean all participants. Use was free and fifteen such pools in the city attracted approximately 2.5 million men and 1.5 million women a year (per the Encyclopedia of New York City). Advances in science lent credence to a new germ theory, and something had to be done, more than public floating baths in the already filthy rivers surrounding the city.
Finally, the physician Simon Baruch convinced the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor to build a spiffy new public bathhouse on the Lower East Side, which was done with donations from various civic organizations, as well as eighty pounds of soap from Colgate. Opened in the early 1890s, this was the first Public Bathhouse in America, and the new model for scores of other public bathing arenas across the country. Utilizing showerheads instead of tubs and built out of concrete and iron as opposed to wood, some of the bathhouses that still exist, like the Asser Levy Public Bathhouse on East Houston Street, are remarkable architectural accomplishments.
As the immigration population doubled, then tripled, then quintupled, more bathhouses were built to accommodate the masses. Attendants controlled the temperature and timing of the water, and each customer had 20 minutes to clean him- or herself. After the Tenement Housing Law of 1901 required that every building have running water to each story, this helped the decline of the bathhouses’ popularity; the last one was built in 1914. Still, some private bathhouses, run by the ethnic immigrant communities of each neighborhood, survived the tenement laws, the modernization of plumbing, the nail salons and the facialization of our beautiful society.
So we come full circle to the Russian Bathhouse
: 268 East Tenth Street, Opened in 1892, they specialize in Russian and Turkish Saunas — your choice of steam room, dry sauna, wet sauna, and super-hot sauna. The vodka flowed. The Orchestrii wailed. The Pierogies were scrumptious, if a bit soggy. The DJ was killer. The rooms were hot, the women and men in their hipster skivvies were hotter. As to your glorious Historian? He rocked the casbah in nothing but a Speedo and flip-flops. There was sweat involved, but it wasn’t coming from the steam rooms.