Healthcare Legacies: The Harrison Public Baths

The Harrison Public Baths

A black and white image of a two story brick building. There is a fence in front of the building. The building has a sloped roof and chimneys on either side.
Harrison Public Baths, Stephanie Street, May 23, 1957. Image by James Salmon. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Harrison Public Baths, Stephanie Street, May 23, 1957. Image by James Salmon. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

A black-and-white image of a group of women and children in bathing suits. The back row of women are standing beside a large pool. The front row is kneeling on one knee in front of the pool. In front of them are five children sitting with their feet in the pool.
Toronto Ladies Swimming Club, Harrison Baths, April 18, 1925. Image courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

Toronto Ladies Swimming Club, Harrison Baths, April 18, 1925. Image courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

A black-and-white image of a wooden house. The house is in poor condition. Outside is a woman holding a baby. She is looking at the baby and smiling. She is sitting in front of a large ditch in front of the home.
Installation of a drainage system, 94 Elizabeth Street, June 1912. Image courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

Installation of a drainage system, 94 Elizabeth Street, June 1912. Image courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

A black-and-white image of 14 children in a line. Each has a basin located on a raised path and are washing their hands. At the end of the line is a woman looking at the childre. Three children are on the right of the image looking down at the others and are holding towels. One student stands, looking at the camera, behind the line of other children. The image appears to be taken at a building next to a park.
Children washing, Toronto, July 29, 1913. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

Children washing, Toronto, July 29, 1913. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

Early public health

By the 1900s, public health was a major concern for Torontonians. This was especially true in the area of St. John’s Ward, which was located approximately between Yonge Street and University Avenue.

The Ward, as it was commonly known, was home to Black, Polish, Jewish, Italian and many other newcomer communities. In the 19th and early 20th century, the Ward had developed a reputation for cramped and unsanitary living environments. A 1911 report found that only 160 out of the area’s 1,653 homes had indoor plumbing. Many residents relied on outdoor water spigots or communal wells to wash. Many Ward residents used Lake Ontario to wash, but bathers had to find alternatives in the winter when the lake would often freeze.

Bathing in the Ward

Many of the city’s public health reformers viewed the Ward as a breeding ground for disease. Improving public health in the neighborhood was seen as one answer to the Ward’s problems, which suffered from frequent outbreaks of typhoid and diphtheria. 

In the early 20th century, Alderman W.S. Harrison proposed the construction of a public bathhouse near the Ward. Harrison argued that a clean body meant a clean and healthy mind, reflecting Edwardian concepts of health and self-care. This also reflected the popular prejudices of the time, where dirtiness was often linked to laziness or weakness. Such prejudices were often used against newcomer community groups, such as those living in the Ward.  

 

 

 

 

 

Building the Baths

Other public bath houses were in operation in Toronto in the early 20th century. The Wiman Baths, located on the Toronto Islands, had been open since the 1890s; however, critics often complained about their poor state of repair. Its location on the Islands also wasn’t easily accessible to many Toronto residents. 

Public health reformers supported Harrison’s proposal for a downtown bathhouse. The City agreed to build the facility, modelled after a bathhouse which had opened in 1897 in Buffalo, New York. In contrast to Buffalo’s modest building, Toronto spent $47,000 on its first public bathing facility, a luxurious sum that the Toronto Telegraph likened to “the baths of the Shah of Persia.”

In late 1909, the Harrison Public Baths opened, named after Alderman Harrison who had first proposed the facility. Immediately popular, it received over 2000 visitors in its first week.

 

The Harrison Pool Today

The Harrison Baths offered a large main pool as well as lockers, laundry facilities, public showers, and a dunk pool. Showers cost five cents per use, but other facilities, such as the laundry, were free. 

The success of the Harrison Baths inspired numerous other bathhouses to open in the city. In the 1930s and 1940s, several bath houses opened near the Ward to serve the large Jewish population, who used the facility to clean before the Sabbath. But bathhouses continued to grow in popularity as a relaxing excursion for many Torontonians: Turkish, Finnish, and Russian bathhouses also opened downtown. 

Today, the Harrison Bath building continues to be operated by the city as a recreational pool.