by Jeff Auer
Bathhouses had existed in large urban areas of the U.S. since the 1800’s at a time before indoor plumbing. They afforded the masses a place to wash and relax in a safe atmosphere. Baths had been very common in ancient times throughout the Roman Empire and were sites of sexual liaisons and prostitution, a tradition which wasn’t entirely lost in the bathhouses of America.
By the 1890’s, certain establishments had become meeting grounds for homosexuals. By World War I, several of these had become institutionalized as gay bathhouses, notably the Lafayette Baths in New York City. More cities had bathhouses that were noted for homosexual clientel during World War II such as the Palace Turkish Baths in Los Angeles
After World War II, most American cities instituted a crackdown on bathhouses known to have a homosexual clientel that lasted for about the next twenty years, an aspect of the overall cultural conservatism that marked this era.
By the 1950's there was the emergence of bathhouses used exclusively by gay men such as Dave's San Francisco. In 1965 what would ultimately become the largest gay bathhouse chain in the United States, The Club Baths opened in Cleveland by Jack Campbell.
By 1968, what with indoor plumbing a universal amenity, most of the old straigh bathhouses disappeared and were replaced by gay-only ones. In New York City that year the bathhouse industry was revolutionized by the opening of the Continental Baths. By the early 1970's the Continental was so successful that it opened two other locations in Manhattan. This tied in with the rise of the big national chains of bathhouses such as:the Club Baths Chain, Dave's Bathhouse Chain (Seattle, San Francisco, Reno, San Diego), Steamworks (Honolulu, Berkeley, Fresno, Sacramento) and Man's Country (New York City, Chicago).
Among the many popular local bathhouses in American cities were:
Seattle: The South End Steam Baths.
Atlanta: The Club South Baths.
San Diego: Club Vulcan.
During the AIDS crisis of the early 1980's many bathhouses were shut down as local authorities looked at them as public health problem areas. However, not all of them were closed at this time. Many bathhouses ended up forming the Independent Gay Health Clubs of America association (IGHC) by 1985 as a way to combat the mounting legal and political pressures being excerted on the bathhouses.
Ultimately it wasn't the AIDS crisis that caused the most lasting demise to the bathhouse industry but the internet. With the appearance of online hookup sites by 1997 bathhouses started to see a dramatic decline in attendance and revenue which hasn't gotten better over time.