New York City Turkish bath attendants in 1882


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

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The working life of a New York City Turkish bath attendant

On 12 November 1882, an unsigned article in the New York Times described, in not too serious vein, the daily life of a male Turkish bath attendant in New York City. It also suggests how many Turkish baths there were in the city at that time, and how much an attendant was paid—though no mention is made of any gratuities.

The article is called Some odd ways of living: queer features of  Metropolitan existence.

Another strange mode of life is that of the Turkish bath attendants. There are at least 50 Turkish baths in this City, with an average of five attendants each. That makes 250 men living day in and day out in an atmosphere a little hotter than anything to be found on the equator, and a great deal closer: living generally half-underground, for most such bathing-rooms are in basements; living where full dress consists of a towel dangling from the waist; living where the floors are so hot they burn the bare feet; where the chairs are so hot you dare hardly sit down in them; where an egg would cook in a few minutes: and living here all day and every day, from early morning till late in the evening, the events of the day being the arrival of the customers and the necessity of rubbing and scrubbing them, telling them how they are improving in appearance, and inducing them to take as many as possible of the little 'extras' for the benefit of the proprietors. This is one of the queerest of the queer ways of spending a lifetime. The bath-man comes in in the morning, exchanges his clothes for a towel about his waist, and goes into the bath-rooms, where the temperature is almost unbearable. He is constantly assisting people in taking cold shower baths and cold plunges, and the intense heat naturally drives him into the water. But he does not catch cold. He whisks himself through life in a shower of soap-suds, bakes himself into a mummy long before his time, shuts himself up in a furnace day after day, and all for what?—about $15 a week for the best operators.

It should be noted that the use of the word 'queer' in the title, and in the article itself, does not indicate that New York Turkish baths in the 1880s were hotbeds of homosexual activity. While some of the patrons at this time may have been gay—just as some members of almost any group may be gay—the scope for any sexual activity was extremely limited and, with only isolated exceptions, any encounters would almost certainly have been restricted to making arrangements to meet elsewhere on another occasion.

It is pertinent that George Chauncey gives to his important book Gay New York the chronologically specific subtitle The making of the gay male world, 1890-1940. And he writes that one of the first wholly gay Turkish baths, the Ariston, opened as late as 1902.

The issue is an important one because a number of claims have been made which suggest that such sexual activity occurred also in Turkish baths in the British Isles well before the 1880s. Such suggestions—sometimes made by academics with widely respected knowledge of queer theory but with, perhaps, rather less knowledge of the Victorian Turkish bath—seem often to be based not on any actual evidence, but rather on a general impression that such activity must surely have taken place in what they have understood to have been the environment of such baths at that time.

However, the excerpt above is taken from an article which describes as queer the work not only of all Turkish bath attendants, but of all locomotive engineers, all firemen, and all policemen in New York in the 1880s.

A more rigorous and detailed article on shampooers' wages and conditions in three 19th century London Turkish baths, based on Charles Booth's Survey into London life and labour, appears elsewhere on this site.

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