By Photographic Collections Manager James Smith
Pictured here is the relic of the former Portsmouth Bath House in the North End, as identified in this c. 1898 photo album. [Small photograph collection, PS855]
In the summer of 1804, the Portsmouth Bath House began on Cross Street (now Hanover Street) on property formerly owned by the Champney family. The company invested nearly $5,000 for the land, building, furniture and fixtures that included the copper boiler, pipes, and copper faucets. Over 23,000 bricks were used in its new construction including a 20 ft by 50 ft building, which had three bathing rooms on each side with both hot and cold water conveyed by pipes. The water from a nearby spring was forced by a huge pump into the copper boiler. That same spring was later used by the city as a reservoir for the fire department.
The principal organizer for this “body invigorator” was Portsmouth merchant Daniel Austin (1753-1818). He had wrote to similar establishments in Boston, Philadelphia, etc., on the subject, and he had convinced Dr. Lyman Spaulding and Dr. Ammi Cutter as well as several other influential Portsmouth residents (names associated with the creation of the Portsmouth Athenaeum) to invest in this endeavor. The Proprietors of the Portsmouth Bath was incorporated on Nov. 27, 1804, and individuals could purchase a share thus becoming a Proprietor.
The bath house operated in the warmer months, catering to both ladies and gentlemen in separate departments. The cape building on the right was occupied by the keeper of the bath house as the company advertised the position of keeper to include a “house convenient for a small family.” After several years of intermittent caretakers, Thomas Moses (1779-1857), a local tailor, became the keeper, a position he kept for 32 years. His wife, Elizabeth, attended to the female clients, and the entire family would help with the laborious chore of pumping twater into the copper boiler.
For nearly a half a century, the bath house serviced Seacoast residents until the early 1850s when the property went up for sale. In May 1855, the Portsmouth Journal noted the property was still for sale while also mentioning it had possession of the original records of the bath house. The Journal held out hope that whoever purchased the property would continue to operate a bathing establishment, but the new owner should also include what was much needed in the city: a laundry. There was no indication that a sale happened to either continue the bath house and/or a bath house-laundry combination. During this same time period, the seasonal Piscataqua Bath House opened on nearby Nobles Island and advertised the benefits of salt water floating baths. In August of 1858, the Rockingham House on State Street advertised that the hotel now had hot and cold baths stating “a luxury of which citizens have long been deprived.”
By 1878, the outbuildings on the property were gone, and by 1904, both the caretaker’s house and bath house were removed and replaced by a four-unit apartment building. During the Vaughan Street Urban Renewal project, the apartment building was razed, c. 1968-1972. As part of the urban renewal project, Maplewood Avenue was extended through the North End and connected with Middle, Islington and Congress streets. A portion of the bath house property became part of Maplewood Avenue. The remainder of the bath house property was the site of an 1970s office building situated on the corner of Hanover and Maplewood. This office building was recently demolished and replaced with a much larger mixed-use building that now stands.
This article was inspired by the American Antiquarian Society March 2020-social media post that highlighted an original Portsmouth Bath House ticket within its ticket collection.