A New Luxury

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.

Black and white illustration of a man wearing a business suit seated in a chair in front of a small table. On the table is a dictation machine, which has a speaking tube the man is holding up to his mouth. Near the feet of the table is a treadle, which the man operates with one foot.
An early wax cylinder phonograph for dictation, 1897 (from Wikicommons).

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.

Design for an 1888 bathroom. Credit: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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.

Color illustration of a woman seated in a wicker chair and wearing the dress and hairstyle of about 1910. Across her lap is a large towel and she is holding a baby over a wash tub on the floor in front of her. The baby kicks water onto a little girl seated on the floor near the wash tub. Another little girl standing behind the tub holds the baby's hand. A small dog scurries away from the water being splashed in his direction.
“Baby’s Bath” by Arthur J. Elsely

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.

An 1897 design illustration for a New York public bath house. The stone building is two stories tall with a colonnade on the first floor and a balcony on the second. Both floors have several floor-to-ceiling windows.

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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.

Black and white photograph of rows of shower stalls with doors.
Shower stalls in a Boston Public Bath House 1898.

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.

1908 black and white photo of about thirty women and girls standing in line to enter a New York City bath house.
Women and girls in line at a New York City bath house, 1908.

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.

Old photograph of about thirty young boys waiting in a room. Some are seated on benches along the wall, while others are standing in a line taking direction from a porter who is pointing at them, while five boys leaving the waiting room climb a staircase to the the baths.

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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.]