Isabella was always interested in new inventions that came her way. When typewriters first came on the market, she began using one to write her stores. She even featured a typewriter in one of her novels (you can read more about that here).
And when her fingers tired from typing, she used dictation equipment and hired a stenographer to transcribe her spoken words into typed pages.
Add to her love of innovation the fact that she was also very social-minded and had a keen interest in bettering people’s lives, and you can understand her interest in a new trend in health and hygiene that began in the late 1890s.
During the majority of Isabella’s life, indoor plumbing was a luxury for most Americans. Only the wealthy could afford to install bathrooms in their homes.
By contrast, poor residents in large cities lived in tenement buildings that often had only a single source of water; that meant residents had to carry water (sometimes up several flights of stairs) to their apartments in order to bathe or even wash their hands.
But in the 1890s that began to change. By that time most great cities of the world had implemented public baths. London, Paris, Vienna, and Rome had spacious and magnificent buildings devoted to the purpose of bathing. Isabella’s home state of New York took notice, and began devoting attention to the matter of making bathing facilities available to all citizens, especially the poor.
The New York Board of Health worked with New York City officials to develop plans for a public bath house to be opened in Manhattan. The design included waiting rooms for men and boys, and a separate waiting room for women.
More importantly, the design featured an entirely new concept: Rain-baths.
Isabella like this new idea so much, she wrote about it in her magazine, The Pansy, and described the concept to her readers:
One who wishes a bath can set the machinery in motion, and stand under a warm rain, rubbing himself as much as he pleases; using plenty of soap, at first, and then showering off without it.
The water thus used flows away through pipes prepared for it, and without having any bath tub to clean, or water to empty, the bather can dress himself and step out into the world fresh and clean, leaving the room in order for the next one. This has all been planned for the benefit of those who have not homes of their own, with bath rooms and all conveniences.
Having seen for herself the tenements and slums in major American cities such as New York, Isabella was well aware that there were few opportunities, if any, for city residents to bathe on a regular basis.
She also knew—having taught homemaking classes at Chautauqua—the health benefits of maintaining a clean body and a clean home. It was natural, then, for her to embrace this new plan for showers in public baths, especially since the facilities would be offered for free to anyone who wanted to use them.
She ended her article in The Pansy by reminding her readers about the blessing the new bath houses would be:
I wonder if any Pansy knows what a luxury a warm bath is, when one is tired and soiled with the wear of the day? I am actually acquainted with some Pansies who weep when they are called upon to come in and have their baths! I venture to say that [the children of New York] are more than willing to wait for their turn in the bath room.
[Credit for the two photos of Boston’s Public Baths: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection.]