Boston Bathhouses

Hot Water and Harmonicas
By R.D. ROSEN  |  July 20, 2009

The Bennett Street Bath House in the North End

This article originally appeared in the July 9, 1974 issue of the Boston Phoenix

For most of us, cleanliness is still next to godliness; for many of Boston's North Enders, however, cleanliness is also next to Columbus High School on North Bennett St. There stand the public baths, owned and operated by the city's Department of Parks and Recreation. The public bathhouse, one of the two remaining in the city, is a three-story brick building that contains 32 men's and 32 women's showers on the first floor, a weight room and boxing ring on the second where North End youths work out, and a cozy little gymnasium on the third.

The modesty of this small edifice and its unassuming facilities do not reflect its importance to the community. Elsewhere in the commonwealth, saunas, steam baths, shvitzes, health clubs, and massage parlors abound as testimony to man's need for specific bodily attentions, but in the North End, where it is estimated as many as one-third of the apartments are still without baths or showers (despite renovations), the requirements are more basic. A large percentage of the North End population depends on the public baths just to keep clean.

The men's and women's showers are open to the public and cost nothing, but bathers must bring their own soap and towels. Until about 10 years ago, soap and towels were provided by the city at a penny a piece, but the city was losing towels at such a prodigious rate that the service was discontinued.

Tony Sullivan, who works at the baths, reminisces about the days when someone would throw down 15 cents for 13 towels and two miniscule bars of Ivory. The towels were so small, remembers Sullivan, that they were soaked through as soon as you applied them to your body, and it took at least a dozen to dry off. But some bathers would throw about eight of the towels in the bin when they were through and take the other five home. The trucks would unload 1500 new towels and two days later pick up only 900 dirty ones. People all over Boston were shining their shoes and cleaning their cars with towels stitched "City of Boston."

Super Water Pressure

On a particularly steamy day, the North Bennett Street baths serve between four and five hundred people. On any day, there is at the least a slow and steady stream of bathers, mostly older people, and laborers stopping by to rinse off on their way home from work. They come, drop a nod in the direction of Tony or Frank "Harmonica Man" Masucci, who has been at the baths for 10 years, and head for the showers, emerging later with their paper bags and wet hair. Though most of the regular customers don't know the privilege of a private bath at home, there are some who do and still use the baths, out of either convenience or a sense of devotion to this community tradition, or maybe just out of preference for the city baths' superior water pressure.

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