The first Turkish baths in the USA:
New York: Manhattan: Laight Street

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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline

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The first Turkish bath in Manhattan, New York

The addition of a Turkish bath, in 1863, to Dr Shepard's existing two-year old Sanitorium in Brooklyn, resulted in the opening of the first Turkish baths establishment in the United States.

Two years later, in March 1865, the opening of the first such establishment in Manhattan came about in the same manner. Dr Martin L Holbrook's New York Hygienic Institute at 13 Laight Street had already been in existence for fifteen years when Holbrook, with Drs Eli P Miller and A L Wood, decided to open a Turkish bath on the premises. It already boasted a 'boarding department', while its 'cure department' provided electric and vapour baths, the 'Swedish movement cure', the water cure, the lifting cure, and magnetism.

As with many such establishments, the Turkish bath soon became its main facility. It was said to be ‘the most complete baths that have yet been opened in this country’, and was the first in the States to introduce the processes of body wash and massage which, taken together, were called by the Victorians ‘shampooing’.

Men and women used the facilities on different days, Mrs Eli P Miller MD supervising the "Ladies’ days". A woman who took her first Turkish bath on a "Ladies’ day" at Laight Street shortly after it opened, described her visit like this:

‘We go down a flight of stairs, open a door to the right, and enter the Frigidarium which, to translate to your unaccustomed ears, means a nice, comfortable room, filled with easy chairs, and lined around with little curtained apartments, which are dressing-rooms, ten in number.

‘You enter one of these apartments, disrobe yourself of your attire, and take upon you the bath garment, which is a single garment of rectangular shape and Turkey-red hue, known as a "Cummerbund". This is tied artistically over the right shoulder, passing under the left one, and descends about to the knee; thence you proceed to the next room—the Tepidarium.—As you open the door the air within seems hot as an oven; but don’t shrink back; you have not reached the hottest place yet; and in a moment or two the sensation is very pleasant.

‘You seat yourself on a softly cushioned lounge; an attendant wets your head in cold water, and wraps your forehead in a wet towel, places a tub of warm water at your feet, and having immersed your feet therein, you lay your head back, fold your hands, and begin to feel at peace with all the world, and with the soft light from the stained-glass windows upon your eyes feel as if it would be the easiest thing in the world to go to sleep.

‘Soon the perspiration begins to start, and we are conducted by our attendant from luxurious warmth to luxurious hotness, into what you learn to be the Sudatorium, meaning, in a free translation, the hot place. You are stretched upon a couch, a sheet thrown over you, and the air envelops you like a liquid element, warm, delicious; and there you lie till bathed in a profuse perspiration, and you are wet with tears of sweat. Then you are laid upon the shampooing bench in the middle of the room, and your limbs and body rubbed and kneaded till all the old skin is gone, and every joint is limbered, while pains and aches flee to parts unknown.

‘A sponge bath of soap-suds and a shower-bath, the temperature gradually lessening from warm to cool; a brisk rubbing with a cotton sheet, and you go back to the Tepidarium, cool a little, and then to the Frigidarium, where for the first time you feel that it deserves its name, from its contrast to the hot air you have been in.

‘But a good, motherly, soft, woollen blanket keeps you warm, and you sit in one of the easy chairs till you feel ready to go back to the every-day world once more, fresh with vigor and life.’

In 1867, Miller, Wood & Co published a shortened version of Erasmus Wilson's The Eastern, or Turkish bath… which had been edited by Dr Holbrook.

Less is known about the later history of the baths. We do know, from an advertising booklet published in 1870, that the Institute claimed to have given 'over One Hundred Thousand Baths' during its first five years. By this time, Dr Miller and his wife had left the company, and a year later they opened a similar establishment, Dr Miller's Turkish Baths, at 41 West Twenty-sixth Street, New York.

It is not known how long this establishment remained open, but by 1881 it was known as the Hygienic Hotel and Turkish Bath Institute, was advertised as a temperance establishment, and was now solely owned by Dr Holbrook, who died in 1902. The baths may well have remained open for several years to come.

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Inside the Turkish baths at 13 Laight Street, New York

Letterhead of the Hygienic Hotel and Turkish Bath Institute


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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline

 
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