The Wild West of Yester-Year

Bath Houses
By Rachel Kovaciny

If you’ve watched western movies or TV shows, you’ve undoubtedly run into a variation on the Bathtub Scene. You know how it goes… the hero finally makes it to town after a long, hot ride across the dusty countryside. First place he goes is the saloon or the sheriff’s office. But the next place? The local bathhouse. Next thing you know, he’s soaking in a huge wooden tub, his boots and his gun beside it, and his hat still on his head. Maybe it’s not a wooden tub, it’s a watering trough someone dragged inside, like in The Rare Breed. Or possibly a real bathtub in a hotel, like in Cowboy. But no matter what the water-holding receptacle looks like, you’ve got a lot of water, a little soap, and a chance for the hero to relax. Plus, if he looks pretty good shirtless, well, that water doesn’t have to fill the tub all the way to the brim, does it?

Of course, there are plenty of westerns where characters bathe in a handy pond or river instead, though that attracts female characters more. Women don’t get to frequent bath houses in western movies much, for obvious and logical reasons—movie bath houses don’t have a lot of walls, just a lot of bathtubs. And even if you find a private room for a bath, some bad guy will barge in on you, so if you’re smart like one character in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, you’ll keep your six-shooter with you even while you scrub off all that sand and dust and who-knows-what-else.

Were bath houses a real thing in the Old West? Did people pay money to sit in a tub of hot, soapy water when they could have just jumped in a creek? Turns out, they did. In reality, bath houses abounded on the American frontier. They were connected to some other establishment, like a barbershop, a hotel, a laundry, or maybe a women’s hairdresser, if your town was getting real civilized. There were even “Turkish baths” that offered steam rooms, medicated baths, and massages. While families on the frontier might bathe in the family washtub on a Saturday night, anyone who’s ever seen a typical washtub knows by the time you’re a preteen, you can’t sit in it anymore, so you’re not getting a real bath that way. Most farming and ranching families couldn’t afford a big bathtub, much less have somewhere to keep it. So, the sensible thing to do would be to pay an establishment to take a bath in their bathtub whenever you were in town and felt the need for a little cleanliness.

Surviving signs from Old West bathhouses tell us cold baths were on offer, as well as hot baths. The cold kind were cheaper since heating enough water for a bath took a long time and a lot of fuel. You could bring soap or pay for it. Most bath houses charged you for your towel, though you could bring your own if you lived in town or not far away. A cold bath might cost as little as a nickel, but was more like a quarter in most places. A hot bath usually ran between fifty cents and a dollar. Some places charged more if you were the first person to use the water, and less if you were willing to wash in water someone had already bathed in. Soap and a towel might cost you another dime each. One establishment offered “three baths for a dollar,” but I don’t know if you had to take them one after another, or if that was the family rate.

If those baths sound cheap, keep in mind that $1 in the late 1880s was worth about $25 today. While I know many people pay more than that for a haircut or a trip to the spa, would you really pay that for a single bath with towel and soap? Now you know how valuable getting clean was, and also how expensive. No wonder a lot of frontier people opted for a quick scrub in a pond or a creek when those options were available.

The next time you take a shower or a bath, take a minute to appreciate how blessed you are to wash up in the privacy of your home, with your own towel and soap, without having to wonder if someone else used that bathwater first. But I must warn you that, no matter how cool it looks in the movies, it is not a good idea to wear a hat while bathing, or keep a six-gun near the tub. Many hats are made of wool and will shrink when wet, and most guns won’t work properly when they get waterlogged. Sorry.