Steam baths are booming — Why? A steam bath is the poor man’s club—An island of naked democracy. Also it’s extremely pleasant

GORDON SINCLAIR December 1 1944


Steam baths are booming — Why? A steam bath is the poor man’s club—An island of naked democracy. Also it’s extremely pleasant

GORDON SINCLAIR December 1 1944


Steam baths are booming — Why? A steam bath is the poor man’s club—An island of naked democracy. Also it’s extremely pleasant


AT 4.10 in the afternoon of one day this summer the temperature in Winnipeg stood at 92 deg., in Montreal 95, Toronto 96, Ottawa 100. At that precise moment I was in a steam bath in central Toronto. Around me were 240 other men in a temperature not less than 120 deg. We’d paid for this and we loved it.

At other bathhouses in Toronto at least 1,200 men were undergoing the surne thing at the same time. The bath I chose was one of 23 in Toronto, of which nine can accommodate 100 or more persons at one time., Four can each handle 300 at once, and on summer week ends they are usually full. Winter week ends see them always crowded. In the other cities I’ve named above there would be at least 1,000 men taking steam baths at any hour of the day or night, and in smaller centres wherever there is a sizeable foreign population, like Timmins and Flin Flon, Thé Pas and Prince Albert, Sudbury and Noranda, there would be more steam bath funs. Beside many a northern Ontario stream windowless bathhouses open on the water, so that winter or

summer, sunshine or snow, bathers can plunge directly from steam to stream.

There is a bull market in steam baths today; a boom in the mystic business of the vapor dip, and you can credit any of these reasons, all of which are partly responsible: there’s more money on the loose with little to spend it on; grimy warworkers find steam baths the most efficient way of getting thoroughly clean; thousands of Canadian homes still have no tub. But the most important reason is that the steam bath is the poor man’s club; an island of democracy, whether it’s deep in the forest or in the crowded city.

The steam bath can be a friendly place to spend an hour or so; a refreshing and invigorating experience, or even a friendly substitute when you can’t find a room at a hotel. Thousands of men, and some women, finding other accommodation a hopeless and tiring pursuit, drift into a steam bath. If there is a 1 »etter half dollar worth of value anywhere yi Canada I don’t know where it is.

On your first visit to a public steam bath you’ll quickly learn that here is democracy in its truest sense. There are no special privileges for anyone. No citizen of a steam bath is allowed to disturb the others. If a client falls asleep and snores he is wakened.

If he objects to being wakened he’s chased out. He is asked not to smoke, but if he does smoke that’s okay until somebody complains. Then he stops or leaves. He dare not bring in liquor, partly because steam baths are public houses, hence illegal as drinking spots. But even if liquor were legal the master of the bath would have none of it—it leads to argument, argument means noise and noise means trouble.

Guests’ conversation must be at a low and even level, almost a whisper. Whoops and shouts are as out of place as in a cathedral. If the cash customer

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Steam Bath

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decides to talk about races, religion, taxes, women or other controversial subjects he gets the heave ho with both speed and dignity.

Poor Men’s Club

For my first visit to one of these poor men’s clubs I swung through brown doors into a stamp-sized foyer, climbed three steps and faced a man, incredibly thin, but wiry. I said I’d been told that visitors who couldn't find room in a hotel for love, money or threat had been coming to his place for shelter, and if this was true, might I have a room?

“Rooms we got plenty. Why not? But a bath you gotta have. No bath no room. You wanna take a bath?”

“Sure. What can I lose? It’s Saturday.”

“So,” he said. “It’s jokes I’m getting. Stale jokes. Here, it’s 50 cents for the bath, 25 cents more for the private room, and pay the man for the plate.”

“What plate?”

“Makes with the leaves and soap and water.”—I learned later that “the plate” was the climax ritual of the hath a unique experience induced by alternate caresses of heat and cold.

The thin man flipped me my equipment: a locker key on a string, a cotton sheet of butcher-apron material big enough for a double bed, three small pieces of soap, a towel and a collection of mahogany - colored oak leaves, which resembled a cross between a sponge, a broom and a Fiji Islander’s noggin.

“This way,” said the thin man.

We moved through a narrow door into a room about the size of your neighborhood movie. This was the room where you relaxed after the bath, and there, on individual brown couches, lay or sat about 110 men, in an atmosphere thick with fragrance and humidity.

The smell was moist and pleasant. It; was the smell of a forest on a damp day in the fall. A warm damp day. Around the walls were lockers and steel containers for ice and soft drinks.

Here and there openings had been cut through the lockers to smaller massage rooms beyond, and in those men were slapping and kneading the bodies of bathers. The masseurs and the manager were the only persons with clothes on.

When I got there some of the relaxed Yogis of the bath took me for an attendant and asked for soda water.

I soon learned that cold soda water, or the juice of an orange or lemon, was the accepted drink to restore perspiration loss, unless your aim is weight reduction. Then you drink nothing. Salt tablets are often sucked too.

Most of the showers were occupied by slim well-built men. One young giant, who looked like Marshal Timoshenko, periodically hammered his abdomen with a wooden club like a rolling pin. Two men with their sons, lads of six or seven, waited for a shower.

I stood about too, probably sheepishly, because I wondered what to do with the bundle of oak leaves. The men in the showers took a leisurely time with their bathing. None seemed to mind the fact that they were using water by the hundreds of gallons.

There was a row of 20 or 30 buckets against a wall and bathers had put their leafy sponges into these pails. A piece of soft lathering soap was also in the pail and from time to time a bather would step out of the shower

and slosh himself with foam from the bucket.

Soon the thin man came back with another pail. I was a stranger who needed guidance. Indeed there was a rumor afoot that the bald-headed guy was that Sinclair who used to write stories about lions, elephants and maneating panthers. The thin man brought a companion up to me.

“This is Jim,” the thin man said. “Jim Matlak. He’s a customer just : like you. Having a bath. Only he j comes often. He’ll look after you.”

Invisible Steam

Jim solemnly shook hands. The formality seemed silly in that hot room filled with naked men. Then Jim commandeered a pail, told one of the youthful giants he’d been in the shower long enough, then pushed me in.

“You know anything about steam?” he asked.

“Sure, it drives trains and boats and circus music.”

“Not the kind we have here. This is real steam. You can’t see real steam. It’s clear as air. The steam you see puffing out of a kettle or a locomotive is vapor. That’s a sort of aftereffect of real steam.

“Now we’ll go to the steam room . . . You should take a deep breath.”

I took one of the deepest and pushed a swinging door, expecting to be engulfed in a writhing mass of vapor equal to a London fog. Instead 1 stood in a huge white room and felt like the embarrassed subject of an I anatomy lecture before indifferent j medical students. Walls, ceilings and steps were a clinical white. There was not a wisp of vapor. Before me were five broad steep steps. On those steps, like medical students examining me. were bathers. Each step, by putting ; you nearer the ceiling, made the air that much hotter and the perspiration j gushed from the body.

“Sit here to get used to it,” Jim advised. I sat on a wooden bench, about a foot from the ground, and as I got the hang of it the sensation was one of relaxation beyond belief. Something like the few breaths before ether puts you under.

One by one the other men sitting on the bench would go over to the first step and climb. After a bit of a wait they’d climb the second and so on until they reached the top, which was about two feet from the ceiling. The bather had to lie flat on the top step.

Up there Frank Socket, 25 years a steam room attendant, was administering bhe sacred rite called “the plate.” He looked like an ogre from a Walt Disney picture. On his head was a peaked hat made of green felt a half inch thick. This felt was filled with j ice water then clapped on the top of j Frank’s bald head. It trickled down ! his face. Across his mouth a sponge i was tied. It too was periodically I soaked in ice water. Every 10 minutes or so Frank would pick up a pail of cold water and toss it over his head.

In this way he could stand for five hours what few strong men can face for 20 minutes. Frank said the ; temperature up there ran between 160 I and 170 deg.

When the 120 deg. of floor level seemed tolerable I moved up to the first step with the faithful Jim. The bundle of oak leaves was now essential equipment. As the perspiration gushes from the body you rub youiself briskly with these leaves and the massage is said to have a beneficial effect.

Slowly, like a diver coming from great depths, I reached the top step. My breathing was short and the gush of perspiration made it a bit difficult

' to see, but there was no feeling of , collapse.

The top step had a covering of wood and beneath it there were taps of water tlmt. were cold, colder and coldest. I lay flat on that wood and Jim went to work at “the plate.” This is zi sponge I bath, using oak leaves instead of zi j sponge, done at a temperature which ; equals a man’s ability to take it. Ten : degrees hotter and the man would begin to cook. T'en degrees cooler and the maximum effect is missed.

So I lay there, imitziting a lobster, ! and Jim gave me the business. Just zis I’d reach the spot where I thought i the next breath of hot but invisible i steam would force me to dive for lower levels, a pail of icy water would be sloshed on my head. That would revive me for a half minute then another pail would slosh on my feet. Only the feet and head got these cold pails.

In northern Canada it’s a common practice, winter or summer, for Finns and Swedes to take a steam bath at 120 deg., bask in that heat for an hour j and then, without rest, plunge through j the door into a stream. Often the men ! will first cut a hole through ice two I feet thick. The practice is gaining in ; popularity among home-grown Canadians too. It has never killed anybody yet.

Sweat Or Die

The explanation, probably, is that man is the only living being on earth, past or present, that can stand a temperature range of 200 deg. Fie can face 50 below zero if he’s properly clothed, zind 150 above zero so long zis he sweats. At both temperatures his own body will remain within 98 and 105 deg.—but if he doesn’t sweat he dies, and dies fast. Perspiration is the safety valve through which the adjustment is made.

The only period of discomfort to come to me in my first stezun bath was when Jim stopped his ministrations, turned me over to fzice the ceiling, which was zi bare two feet above, and gzive a shout for Frank, the professional.

The heat wzis beaming downward in a powerful surge, and while this was tolerable on the bzick it was scalding on the face. F1rank quickly grabbed one of those peaked felt hats, soaked it in icy wziter zind put it over my face and eyes. Then with know-how hands he began to thump a muscle here, twist zi bit of flesh somewhere else, and by some magic learned through the years touched me here and there with icy water in such a way that every touch was like an injection of vitality. Sheer sorcery.

1 dropped down to floor level, breathing rich deep breaths, then walked, a trifle unsteadily, toward the bench for a sleepy cool-out. This was interrupted by the professional’s call of “All down; everybody down. Fresh stezim.”

All the men came down from all the stone steps and backed up against the wall. About half left the room. Then Frank opened the oven door, which wzis roughly the size and shape of a kitchen door. Inside, glowing like a sunset, were about 100 round granite boulders. These were ordinary Ontario field stones heated to some unbelievable figure by a wood fire. As we watched, Frank picked up a single pail of water zuid tossed it on the stones,

I slammed the door shut, took a quick glzince around to make sure no one was on the steps then opened a valve.

There was a bump something like the sound of a distant explosion, a puft’ of burning air, then a stillness as I the new flood of invisible steam hit I the ceiling zind clung there. If zi man ! is on the top step when that new i gush of stezim is admitted he will be

very seriously scalded, perhaps fatally.

There are no thermometers in the room and no measuring pails but when Frank feels that the temperature has fallen below where it ought to be a pail of water goes on the rocks. In six months this reduces zi rock the size of three lozives of bread to a sand finer thzin szilt.

After zi while I left the steam room and stepped under a cold shower. If you’ve just come out of a hot tub bath and step under zi cold shower the effect is shattering. But now the tap water seemed lukewarm. After five minutes of this I felt ready for the street, and some men do leave the place zít once.

Jim said I should wait for the reaction. This sounded profound and mysterious. We went out to the resting room zimong the other somnolent figures and I got a mild tick off. Having been in the nude from the moment I entered the room, through the assorted ablutions, I saw no reason to dress now and stood talking as I was.

An attendant came by with dignity to advise, “You will please to cover your loins.” I was wrapped, like a Roman senator, in a white toga and handed a glass of soda water.

A handsome chap with an abundance of dark hair which had been twisted into tight curls by the steam put down the war map he hzid been studying and asked, “This your first time here?”

“Yes, first time here, but I’ve been to the baths in Japan.”

“Men and women bathe together there, eh?”

“Sure . . . kids too.”

“These are the oldest kind in the world. Healthiest too. Good specimens of Romzin baths from 1700 B.C., are on view in Pompeii, if there’s anything left of Pompeii. I got a brother there. He’s zi priest. Got two brothers. Both priests in Italy.” He told me how rich Romans had steam baths in their own homes and always anointed themselves with pine oil before taking the heat. Then he got out a sort of currycomb ziffair and offered to rub my back.

Creeping Fever

However, by that time the reaction or secondary sweat had set in and I wanted to lie quiet. I was engulfed by a creeping, mounting fever from the inside out. This is nature’s way of adjusting the fine mechanism of the human body back to normal. I couldn’t believe that water could actually pour from the human hide but it did. Not a slow drip or even an ooze but a definite gush of perspiration. This phase of the show was uncomfortable.

On either side of me now were jockeys. One said he’d been there two days in an effort to shed 13 pounds and he’d just about made it, but had to leave that night because the next day was ladies’ day.

Around us the talk went quietly on. Two men got into a heated discussion and were told to pipe down. A drunk wove his way into the room and got the heave.

The attendant now came to say I could have the private room for which I’d paid an extra quarter. “You won’t like it,” he warned. He was right.

The room was windowless and tiny; like a monk’s cell in a monastic retreat. For a man with no place to lay his head it might do, but you’d certainly be getting a room the hard way.

I drifted back into the main room which was now busier. FYom time to time fans came over to ask if I liked the experience, and we drifted into talk about other types of baths.

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There is the fume bath in which you get a steam treatment at about 120 deg. while sitting up. Chemicals or medications are added to the steam. I visited one and had a fume bath and a dose of the philosophy of the dynamic life while the masseur slapped me.

The bills are not nearly as high as you might expect, and the use of soap and towels is lavish. For two dollars you get a steam and chemical bath of about 20 minutes, a rest on hospital type beds of spotless cleanliness, and a chance to talk about your symptoms, if any.

The old style Turkish bath, so slandered in cartoon and gag book, has largely vanished, but its cousins and nephews abound. After the Turkish bath patient had been semibroiled in a steel box, he is, or was, expected to take a plunge into a pool. The need to change that pool water so often made the operation too costly.

Monday is generally ladies’ day in most Canadian bathhouses. Naturally

I had no chance to observe with my own eyes, but I did talk with the attendants, who assured me that feminine behavior in the steam bath was in no way different than masculine carryings on, although a woman may take three baths for her half dollar while a man would seldom take more than two. Economics, not morals.

Steam baths are largely in the hands of Finns, Swedes or Russians, and before the Russo-Finnish war they mingled but now they are in rival camps. There are few taunts and wisecracks; just grim nationalistic silence when they meet.

The current boom in baths is no quickie if you can believe the bath operators. Every man among them told me that he himself plans an expansion the moment the war gives the green light. As far as I’m concerned I’ve joined the democratic brotherhood of steam bathers and intend to keep up the membership where all men are equal—if they can pay 50 cents.