The People’s Bath in New York could accommodate 500 bathers daily, but the poor didn’t flock to the bath, in spite of 100,000 promotional flyers promising free Colgate soap. In the first year, just 10,504 people bathed there, about six percent of its capacity, a problem that persisted as other public bathhouses were built for the poor. In 1913, Manhattan’s Superintendent of Public Baths, Mr. Todd, told the American Association for Promoting Hygiene and Public Baths that one of the most difficult problems was “persuading the people to patronize the baths.” The New York–based Cleanliness Institute embarked on a “Cleanliness Crusade,” as did the Association for Improving Conditions of the Poor, with the slogan, “Nothing gives you ‘pep’ like a Daily Bath.” But this didn’t lure the city’s indigent to the dreary bathhouses.
Perhaps the people understood that the baths were meant to “cleanse” more than their bodies. The New York Sun editorialized that public baths would transform “grimy Anarchists, and some of these Poles, Russians, and Italians into good Americans.” Public baths were necessary for elevating the “moral and physical well-being” of the poor, said Dr. August Windolph to the American Association for Promoting Hygiene and Public Baths. Boston’s mayor, Josiah Quincy, asserted that when “physical dirt” was banished, then “moral dirt” would be, too.
The solution to inculcate the habit of bathing in the underclass, wrote Mr. Todd, was to make the baths “attractive and inviting” by including “indoor sanitary swimming pools.” Boston had done this in 1897, the first American city to open an “all-the-year-around” bathing establishment that included a “swimming tank.” Aside from 10 by 24 foot pool, the bathhouse had three tubs and six 4 by 4 foot rain baths. For a nickel, you got a bathing suit, soap, a towel, and a five-minute shower before being allowed to swim for 30 minutes. On two days of the week, the baths were free. When bathhouses offered swimming and recreation instead of just cleansing, the people came.
Often I sit in the hot tub before my laps, waiting for the high school swim team to finish practicing. In contrast to those muscular lithe youths, we tubbers are a sorry-looking bunch, uncomely bodies marked with bruises, varicose veins, discolored patchy skin, age spots that my dermatologist calls lentigos, purplish skin blotches that I learn are petechiae, or broken capillaries. A sign in the locker room says bathers are “required to take a healthy shower” before entering the pool or hot tub. For some people, this is a cursory rinse of the head. Others don’t bother at all; there is no policing. The unwashed then wade into the human soup, shedding skin flakes and mite skeletons. There is enough chlorine in this water to kill any bacteria, I’ve assured myself time and again, but to my dismay I discovered that chlorine actually loses its disinfecting power in warm water, while bacteria thrive. The mycobacteria that cause hot-tub lung are “1,000 times more resistant to chlorine than e. coli.”
One night before my laps, just the large man and I sat in the tub, he in his usual spot at the far corner of the tub where he could pummel his body with two jets. We said hello and then I broke eye contact. I wasn’t in the mood for talking. His arm rested outside the tub and I noticed for the first time a stylized heart tattoo on his shoulder. I was amazed that I’d never noticed the tattoo before. After a few minutes the jets stopped and I stepped out of the tub to reset them. “Is the timer new?” I asked the large man. “Yes,” he said. “They put it in about three weeks ago.” He was friendly, helpful with his knowledge of all-things-new-at-the-Y. “I guess it saves energy,” I said. He smiled, nodded. With the two of us alone in the tub, the large man was less gregarious, wasn’t performing for others, or bragging. He seemed vulnerable, and my stance toward him softened.
At 7:00 pm, the swim team finished practice. An older heavy-set woman walked toward the hot tub and she waved to the large man, and he mouthed “hello.” He’d have a friend to talk to now. I stepped out of the tub and walked to the pool, realizing on my way that I’d forgotten to say goodbye. That’s okay, I thought. I’ll see him again.
A few years ago I took a spa tour of New Mexico with Ellen, my partner at the time. I’d left a five-year relationship to be with Ellen, who I thought would be my last lover. She was, but not in the way I’d hoped. We started at Ten Thousand Waves, a deluxe resort nestled in the Santa Fe hills, where “tub” was a verb. The menu of treatments sounded enticing and torturous—a hot oil scalp massage, or the herbal wrap, during which you were “enveloped in hot, fragrant, herb-soaked linens,” while a therapist “wiped your brow with a cool cloth and fed [you] water through a straw.” This treatment resembled the “wet sheet wrap” used in mental institutions in the early 20th century, in which the patient was wrapped “like a papoose,” a 1930s nursing textbook reads, in wet sheets ranging from 40 to 100 degrees—cold for agitated patients, warm for frail—while a nurse wiped the patient’s brow and fed her liquid through a straw.
In mid-19th-century England, trendy “Hydropathic Establishments” similar to Ten Thousand Waves offered variations on a theme: Dripping Sheet Bath, Hot Wet Flannel Pad, Wet Socks, Wet Head Cap, Wet Dress Bath, Wet Girdle, Wet Bandage, Mud Bath, Nose Bath, Gargling Bath, Sulphur Bath, Slime Bath. There was no Slime Bath at Ten Thousand Waves, but their Japanese Nightingale facial is, basically, bird shit on your face. TTW uses processed nightingale droppings, the “process” involving drying, pulverizing, and sanitizing it with ultraviolet light.“For centuries across cultures and geography, natural thermal waters have been considered sacred. The springs at Las Vegas had that consecrated sense, numinous, as if you shouldn’t speak there.”
In the communal tub at TTW—co-ed, bathing suit optional, and large enough for 16—Ellen and I joined two heterosexual couples and two women, one nested between the other’s legs, everyone having opted out of bathing suits. It was delicious sitting in 106 degree water under the big New Mexican sky, the air scented with Juniper and piñon, until one woman began stroking her partner’s breasts and another couple began making out. There was an erotic current that I suspected could spark a full-fledged orgy. Ellen and I fled to the Kojiro Women’s tub, also “bathing suit optional,” though we were alone there. We plunged into the ice bath, then raced back to the hot tub, like a physical mood swing, said to stimulate the immune system. After an hour we were languid liked noodles, with just enough energy to peruse the gift shop, where you could buy “lucky” cat figurines, Zen sand gardens, and Buddha-shaped soaps. If you meet the Buddha in a spa, bathe him?
Our second destination was Ojo Caliente in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In the 1500s, Spaniards searching for the Fountain of Youth discovered these natural springs, where 100,000 gallons of hot mineral water gush from the earth daily. Ojo Caliente had a mud pool and several mineral pools, and like Ten Thousand Waves, a menu of treatments—blue cornmeal or red clay facials, hot herbal sheet wraps—but the place was modest; you brought your own robe and towels. The store’s offerings were odd: one tampon for 25 cents, a hair elastic for a dime, along with the usual bathrobes and soaps. We sampled the iron pool, nearly enclosed like a cave, then the arsenic tub. Arsenic, in small quantities, is supposed to ease pain from arthritis, rheumatism, ulcers, eczema, and excess gas. Ojo Caliente’s brochure suggested “drinking any of the waters while bathing,” but who wants to drink water in which people with eczema and excess gas are sitting?
Lastly we soaked in the soda pool, which contained lithium, a natural salt used to treat depression and bipolar disorder. At a separate lithium fountain we sipped cups of water, reading about lithium’s ability to lift one’s spirits. Until the middle of the 20th century, lithium was sold in beverages like 7-Up, originally called “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda,” touted as a hangover cure: “Take the ‘ouch’ out of grouch.” 7-Up with lithium was banned in 1948 after high doses of lithium were shown to cause serious side effects. A year later, John Cade, an Australian physician, published the first paper on lithium’s psychological benefits—“Lithium Salts in the Treatment of Psychotic Excitement”—which eventually lead to the wide-scale successful use of lithium carbonate to treat depression.
Even trace amounts of lithium have proven to be mood-elevating. A 1990 study across 27 counties in Texas found that places with the lowest levels of lithium in the drinking water had “significantly greater levels of suicide, homicide, and rape.” A study in Japan tracked a million people over five years and found the same results: lower lithium rates correlated with higher rates of suicide and “all-cause mortality.” A meta-analysis of eleven lithium studies conducted in several countries concluded that nine of the studies found an association between higher lithium levels in drinking water and “beneficial clinical, behavioral, legal, and medical outcomes.”
I have tried a half-dozen antidepressants over two decades (imipramine, Wellbutrin, Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Effexor), though not lithium. I abandoned them all, and instead learned to self-medicate with hydrotherapy. In summer I dip into the salty sea or swim at a spring-fed swimming hole near my house. In winter I take baths until my fingers raisin, and a couple times a week I swim at the Y and languish in the hot tub.
The final stop on the New Mexico spa tour with Ellen was the thermal springs in Las Vegas, a tiny town over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from Taos. Ellen and I parked on a rural road and trudged through a snowy field to a stream, where we immersed ourselves in hot sulfuric-smelling water. The air was crisp and clean, the night wonderfully still and quiet, vapors rising into a glittered sky. There was no store with tchotchkes, no fancy robes, no Buddha soaps, no brochure. You could only find this place through word of mouth, which added to its charm. For centuries across cultures and geography, natural thermal waters have been considered sacred. The springs at Las Vegas had that consecrated sense, numinous, as if you shouldn’t speak there. Years ago when I lived in Lansing, Michigan, an old woman I saw often at the YWCA said to the five or six people soaking in the hot tub, “We’re blessed, ain’t we?”
When it comes to bathing, I’m above-average. According to a Colgate-Palmolive survey, Americans spend on average 20 minutes in the bathtub. On winter nights in Maine, I wallow in my bathtub for an hour or longer, reading, adding more hot when the water cools, poaching myself. I haven’t changed the bathroom décor since I bought my fixer-upper, so the tub-surround is still a 1970s mustard-yellow. On the tub’s edge is a burn mark from the previous owner, who must have fallen asleep in the tub, her lit cigarette scarring the vinyl. “Just took a lovely bath,” she wrote in her diary, which I found among the heaps of trash in the house, unoccupied for three years before I bought it.
There are shower people and there are bath people. My fellow bathers include Somerset Maugham, who dreamed up sentences as he soaked in the tub each morning, and Winston Churchill, who bathed twice daily, rehearsing speeches and calculating budgets in the tub. “Hot baths,” Churchill said, were one of the four essentials of life, along with “cold champagne, new peas, and old brandy.” JFK bathed twice daily, the second following his afternoon nap. Fashion designer Tom Ford takes four baths a day: one when he wakes at 4:30 am (“Often I lie in the tub for a half hour and just let my mind wander”); a second after working out; a third at the end of the day; and a final bath around 10:30 pm. (“Richard and I walk the dogs around Grosvenor Square and then head up to bed. Believe it or not, I usually take another hot bath.”) Gwyneth Paltrow says she takes an Epsom salt bath every night, “to wind down,” and Oprah Winfrey’s “favorite indulgence” is a bath. “I love creating bathing experiences,” she told Bazaar magazine, “gels, bubbles, crystals, salts, lavender milks.” For Oprah, bathing is practically “a hobby.”
On the most bitterly cold January nights in Maine, the hot tub at the Y feels exquisite. One such night I sat in the tub with two men in their early forties, one craggily handsome, the other small and wiry, all of us silent in the bubbling water until the large man appeared. As he stepped into the tub, the craggy man slid over, ceding his place. “You don’t have to move,” the large man said, but the craggy man smiled. “That’s your spot.” Vacating the spot was a sign of respect, as if the large man were an elder or, if this were ancient Rome, an esteemed philosopher.
Someone mentioned the news story that day about a woman in southern Maine who died in her home, but her body was not discovered for two and a half years. The article said the woman, who had “distinctive red hair,” had never married, nor had children. “I wonder how long it would take someone to find me,” the craggy man said. “Probably weeks.” He laughed. The large man said, “I wonder, if I fell on the ice, or in a snowstorm, if nobody heard me yell, how long I would last in the weather.” Nobody responded to his comment, and though the conversation had begun in a light-hearted tone, we fell silent. I understood the large man’s concerns all too well. I carry my cell phone with me when I’m shoveling, or raking the snow off my roof, or in the summer when I’m on a ladder painting trim. We have that in common, fear of dying alone.
Iceland is frequently listed among the top three countries with the happiest people, and they have the highest life expectancy in the world. Valdimar Hafstein, a University of Iceland folklorist, attributes this to Iceland’s culture of communal baths, heated naturally year-round with geothermal energy. “We know our neighbors because we meet them in the pools,” he says. “It creates a good vibe, and you feel at home there.” Aside from beneficial minerals in the natural thermal springs, and the delicious soothing warm water, there was something both primal and sublime about floating with other people under a slate sky in early June, part of the “Hot Golden Circle” tour I took after a conference in Iceland—massive waterfalls, spouting geysers, and thermal pools. I was only in Iceland for a week, but contrary to my usual urgent desire to get home after a few days away, I wished I could stay longer. I felt happy in Iceland, where there’s a heated pool or natural thermal spring in every neighborhood.
Japan, too, has a long tradition of communal bathing. Since the 17th century, public baths in Japan have been gathering places for philosophical debates and gossip, a custom deeply engrained in Japanese culture. Even up to the mid-1960s, only 60 percent of Japanese households had bathtubs. As of 2013, Japan still had about 5,200 public bathhouses—sento—though each year a couple hundred sento close as more Japanese install private baths. To appeal to a younger generation, bathhouse proprietors have opened 24-hour “super sentos” offering specialized baths—perfumed, mud, and clay baths, or baths with electrical currents, hoping to preserve the bathhouse tradition, and to save an important social ritual.
I still see the large man now and then, though he isn’t that large anymore. His hair is still long, and his glasses still don’t fog. His face is more handsome in his new weight class, his long straight nose, Brando-like mouth. One night I heard someone greet him—“Hi, Dan”—so now, after years of seeing him in the tub, I know his name. He no longer speaks of his Russian friend, and his weight loss campaign seems stalled. He hasn’t gained weight, but the pounds aren’t slipping off like they had when he was preparing to meet his fiancée. Over time I’ve developed empathy for him, even a begrudging admiration. He’d made a bid for love. It failed, but at least he’d tried. In sorting through my father’s papers after he died at 80, I found printouts of women’s profiles from online dating sites. At 78, before the onset of serious health problems, my twice-divorced father was still looking for companionship. The large man in the hot tub, my father—they didn’t give up on love, as I fear I have.
From the most recent issue of New England Review. Used with permission of New England Review. Copyright © 2018 by Maureen Stanton.