The first Turkish baths in the United States:
New York: Brooklyn: 63, Columbia Street

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

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Dr Charles H Shepard & America's first Turkish bath

Following a fortnight of cryptic advertisements in the local newspaper consisting only of the words:


the first Victorian Turkish bath in the USA was opened by the hydropathist Dr Charles H Shepard at No.63 Columbia Street, Brooklyn Heights, New York, most probably on 3 October 1863.

There is, however, some doubt about this. Many modern popular reference works suggest that the bath did not actually open until Tuesday 6 October. It seems likely that this information was taken from advertisements in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle celebrating the 21st and 35th anniversaries of the opening of the baths, both of which refer to the later date. (Another advertisement commemorating the 30th anniversary merely refers to the month of October without mentioning a specific date.)

At first sight, the newspaper announcement made at the time of the opening seems likely to be more accurate, and the earlier date is, therefore, to be preferred.

On the other hand, there are (at least) two possible explanations for the discrepancy: the opening announcement may have been inserted in good faith and the facility was not ready in time; alternatively, Dr Shepard may have forgotten exactly which day the baths opened.

It is not as though he started in business on either of these dates. In fact, he was adding a Turkish bath facility to an existing water cure establishment in the same building—Dr Shepard's Sanitorium, which he had already opened two years earlier, in 1861. After twenty-one years it would be easy to forget the exact day on which the Turkish bath became available.

In any event, the building's original use as a hydropathic establishment was soon overshadowed by the almost immediate success of the newly installed Turkish baths.

'As long as men delight in health and cleanliness, the names of Urquhart, Barter, and Shepard will be held in grateful remembrance,' wrote R E Van Giesen nine years later. He should, of course, have written 'men and women' because, from the start, the baths were open in the morning for women, as well as in the afternoon and evening for men.

Shepard first became interested in Turkish baths in 1859 after reading about their recent successful introduction to the British Isles, especially in England and (what is now the Republic of) Ireland.

Although many of the early Victorian Turkish baths in the United Kingdom were purpose built, Shepard’s was accommodated in an ordinary three storey house on the corner of Columbia Street and Cranberry Street.

Even before the baths had been open for three months, they were reported in the Brooklyn Standard Union to be 'doing a prosperous business' helped, no doubt, by the six page pamphlet written by Shepard to publicise them.

Shepard took pains to ensure that his innovative facility had the backing of important people in the locality. At the top of the second page is to be found the following statement:

We, the undersigned, having experienced the benefits of the TURKISH BATHS, as given in the well-ordered establishment of Dr Shepard, concur in recommending them to the public as at once a luxury and a restorative.

The thirteen signatories included four ministers of religion, two professors, three doctors and Miss Catherine E Beecher (co-author with Harriet Beecher Stowe of The New American housekeeper's manual).

The baths comprised a suite of four rooms: the Frigidarium, with curtained recesses ('dressing rooms') leading off; the Tepidarium, maintained at around 100°F; the Calidarium, with its 'marble couches', where the 'average' temperature was 180°F; and the Lavatorium, where the bather is 'completely lathered with perfumed soap, and rubbed with a brush or sponge' before a final wash down.

Soon after the baths opened they were visited by a reporter from the Eagle who fulsomely described how, draped in a large sheet, he took his first Turkish bath. The separate shampooing process was completed before the bather entered the lavatorium, the reporter describing how, after 20 minutes or so in the calidarium, an attendant came in and 'manipulated our person in a manner that promptly developed the locality of all the sore spots on our body'. 

He concluded, 'Already does the Doctor find himself overwhelmed with visitors, and ere long we have no doubt he will have to enlarge his bath.'

A shrewd comment—barely ten months after opening, the baths were closed for alterations and extensions. A letter to the Editor of the Eagle from 'D.H.J' shortly after they reopened shows that these were quite significant.

The main changes seemed to be improvements to the frigidarium where each curtained changing recess was now large enough to take a couch for reclining on. Similar couches were also to be found in the communal tepidarium. And after washing down in the lavatorium, the bather returned to the frigidarium clad not only in a dry sheet, but also a turban.

The baths were closed again at the end of 1866, this time for a major expansion. A new set of baths for men, including plunge and swimming pools, was opened next door at no.65, while the original baths at no.63 were converted for use by women bathers.

Prior to this latest development, Shepard had made a grand tour of Turkish baths in England, Ireland, and as far afield as Constantinople. This may be why, during his speech at the opening ceremony on 3 April 1867, he referred to the new baths as his Hammam. But with one or two exceptions, advertisements in the local paper continued to refer only to Shepard's Turkish baths.

Towards the end of 1879, these first Turkish baths to be opened in the United States were sixteen years old. One solitary bather patronised his baths on opening day; five years later he was averaging over 40 per day over a twelvemonth period.

Since 1865, seven Turkish baths had opened in other boroughs of New York, and at least two in Brooklyn, but Shepard had no real rival in Brooklyn. His only inconvenience had been a new address—81 and 85 Columbia Heights—when Columbia Street was renamed.

Yet he may gradually have lost some business to those who worked in Manhattan and bathed with their friends after work before returning home to Brooklyn. In any event, for whatever reason, at the beginning of 1871, a new leaflet indicates that he had reduced the price of a Turkish bath to $1 (or $5 for six visits).

Shepard did not seem to have any real competition until 17 April 1880 when a large new Turkish bath opened at 32 Clinton Street. This was owned by the Brooklyn Turkish Bath Company whose President was Dr A L Wood who, with Dr Eli P Miller, had opened the first Turkish bath in Manhattan at Laight Street in 1865.

Shepard responded by enhancing his own establishment even further. After a short closure he was ready to meet the competition soon after it opened. Amongst the new features added during the first part of 1880 were a reading room, several dressing rooms and, for the women, a new swimming pool

It is not possible to compare Shepard's facilities directly with the new baths as not enough information is to hand. Unlike Turkish baths in the UK, Shepard did not start including prices in his advertisements until some time round 1896. At that time a single bath cost 75 cents, while ten tickets cost $5.00.

Three years earlier, in 1893, the new company's Turkish, Russian, Electric and Sulphur Baths were charging $1.00 for their Turkish and Russian baths, six tickets for $5.00, and fourteen tickets for $10.00 so it seems that they had chosen to go up market. They also offered 'medically applied' galvano-magnetic electricity and the removal of 'abnormal growths and blemishes' by electrolysis.

Competition being what it is, by 1908 Shepard was also offering Electric baths, though it is not known which of several available types of electric bath was being provided.

Dr Shepard is known to have been the author of at least two pamphlets: Rheumatism and its treatment by Turkish baths, published in 1892, and Hydrophobia (read in the section on state medicine, at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association held at Philadelphia, June 1-4, 1897) and published by the association later that year.

Shepard was indeed a pioneer and dedicated promoter of Turkish baths in the States, and his reputation was such that when Brooklyn decided to build five public baths, he felt confident enough to campaign for one of them to be a publicly funded Turkish bath.

No image of Dr Shepard has so far come to light. Although he died on 29 October 1910, his baths remained open until 1913.

This page revised and reformatted 02 January 2023

Thank you icon

Elizabeth Ihrig, Librarian, The Bakken Library and Museum

Michelle Montalbano, Reference Librarian, Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library

The original page includes one or more enlargeable thumbnail images.
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63 & 65 Columbia Street

Dr Shepard's Sanitorium

Cover of Rheumatism and its treatment by Turkish baths

Leaflet with a special offer of lower prices

Advertisement from 1908 directory

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