The L Street Brownies annual New Year’s Day plunge had its beginnings with pious reformers who wanted to wash the unwashed — immigrants, that is. Poor Europeans and Middle Easterners began pouring into Boston’s old tenement districts just after the Civil War. Those tenements lacked indoor plumbing, and the city had no place for a cheap bath.
Cleanliness, thought Boston’s high-minded reformers, would bring the poor closer to godliness. All they needed was a bathhouse.
And so bathhouses built after the Civil War had changing rooms for swimming, tub baths, showers, and, eventually pools and gymnasiums. They were wildly popular among the poor, less for hygiene than for entertainment.
In 1860, Boston’s board of aldermen and common council appointed a committee to find out if they could provide facilities for cheap bathing. Few people then — even the well-off — had indoor plumbing. The city had private enclosed bath facilities, but the hygienically challenged poor couldn’t afford them.
The committee recommended trying “cheap plunge baths for poor men and boys.” The Civil War intervened, but in 1866 the city spent $10,000 for saltwater bathing in East and South Boston. Five floating bathhouses were built. They were wooden dock-like buildings that floated on water during warm-weather months.
One natural beach bathhouse, the L Street Bathhouse, was built in South Boston, an Irish immigrant neighborhood. Today’s L Street Brownies change into their bathing trunks in a bathhouse on that same site.
Above the entrance to the old L Street Bathhouse was inscribed the motto, “Cleanliness of Body Is Next to Godliness.”
In the first month, 100,000 people came to the bathhouses. By 1867, the city built seven more.
In 1896, Mayor Josiah Quincy took the bathhouse ball and ran with it. A reformer, his father Mayor Josiah Quincy had brought a public water supply to Boston. The younger Quincy believed ‘when physical dirt has been banished, a long step has been taken in the elimination of moral dirt.’
He formed a Department of Baths, which in 1898 built the first year-round bathhouse on Dover Street in the South End, then a poor neighborhood of Jews, Italians and Armenians.
Dover Street Bathhouse
The Department of Baths opened the elaborate Dover Street Bathhouse on Oct. 14, 1898, to much fanfare. Quincy called it ‘the finest and most modern public bathing establishment upon this continent.’ It had three stories with a granite facade, terrazo mosaic floors and marble stairs that led to the baths on the second floor. Showers and tubs accommodated men and women, who used separate entrances. A laundry provided fresh towels.
The Boston Herald reported, “The inauguration of winter bath-houses for the free use of the people is something of a novelty in any city in this country.”
So many people used it the city built eight more bathhouses in the poorer neighborhoods: the North End, Dorchester, Charlestown, East Boston and South Boston. Most had alternating days for men and women, except for Dover. The bath houses provided bathing suits. Towels and soap each cost a penny, and on Saturdays children got towels and soap for free.
Inscribed over the entrances to the bathhouses were uplifting sayings like, “The Health of the People the Beginning of Happiness.”
“Boston calls her free public bathing facilities, ‘Hygienic Righteousness’,” reported Modern Sanitation magazine in May 1908. “To champion physical betterment is to promote the moral status of a municipality.”
They evolved into something beyond bathhouses, though: All had gymnasiums along with the tubs and showers. Over time, the emphasis changed from cleanliness to physical fitness.
L Street Brownies
The L Street Brownies’ Civil War-era bathhouse was rebuilt by rogue mayor James Michael Curley in 1931. The city named it the Curley Community Center.
The practice of cold-water swimming in South Boston is believed to date back as far as 1888 or even 1865. It probably started with European immigrants who thought jumping into cold water and then taking a sauna promoted good health. The L Street Brownies today claim superior immune systems.
The most dedicated L Street Brownies swam every day of the year. Their name comes from the L Street Beach and to the nut brown color of their members’ suntans. Every New Year’s Day, hundreds of L Street Brownies jump into the cold water for their annual polar plunge. Hundreds more watch and a video crew records the event for the nightly news. (You can watch the 2015 plunge here.)
The L Street Brownies started their South Boston tradition of jumping into Dorchester Bay on New Year’s Day in 1904.
The tradition of jumping into frigid water before a camera started on Feb. 25, 1905.
Promoters called the seven-minute film by the Renovare Company ‘an astonishing picture’ in which,
A number of sturdy men in bathing trunks are first shown playing on the ice, some of them having skates attached to their bare feet and others playing hand-ball. After their exercise, they run along the shore, upon which ice hummocks are piled high and plunge from the end of the ice-covered pier into the freezing waters of the bay. During the entire picture, the frosty breath of the men is plainly discernible. The film is of the very best photographic value, and the subject in every way one of the most remarkable we have ever made.
You can watch it here.
This story about the L Street Brownies was updated in 2021.