The Golden Age of Bathing

“Splish, splash, I was takin' a bath long about a Saturday night.

A rub dub, just relaxin' in the tub thinkin' everythin' was alright”

Bobby Darin

State 34: Arkansas - March 22, 2018


We woke up at a Walmart in Hot Springs feeling well rested and ready for a brand new day. Yesterday, we visited the Rohwer WWII Japanese American Concentration Camp, and today we were desperately in need of something more uplifting. The first task of the day was to drive across town to visit the national park depicted on the reverse of the Arkansas Quarter; Hot Springs National Park. Created by Congress as Hot Spring Reservation on April 20, 1832, the area now known as Hot Springs National Park represents the first time the federal government preserved land to be used for public recreation. Thus Hot Springs has the honorable distinction of being the oldest federally maintained land in the National Park System, and was the first park to be featured on the reverse of the US quarter in the “America the Beautiful” coin series.”

According to the Native Americans who had lived in the region we now know as Hot Springs, the mineral water has long been believed to possess medicinal properties. Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1802, the first Americans ventured to Hot Springs, and identified the region as a potential health spa. By 1832, Hot Springs developed into a successful spa town. From Cirrhosis to Syphilis and every illness imaginable, people ventured from far and wide to Hot Springs seeking relief the mineral water rumored to provide.

Over the next 80 years, Hot Springs rapidly transitioned from a frontier town into an elegant spa city. Underground pipes pumped mineral water down the mountainside directly into the bathhouses. In 1912, the first bathhouse on what would become known as Bathhouse Row was constructed, and seven more soon followed over the next decade. These bathhouses represented the highest luxury of the time with amenities such as: marble walls, billiard rooms, gymnasiums, and stained glass windows. For the next four decades, the bathhouses were extremely profitable, and frequented by thousands each year.

Advances in modern medicine during the 1950’s led to the decline of the bathing industry in Hot Springs, and one by one each of the grand spas on Bathhouse Row went out of business. Today, the Buckstaff is the only surviving bathhouse from the Golden Age of Bathing. The seven other bathhouses stood vacant for many years, and began to fall into disrepair. Local residents of Hot Springs began to advocate for the revitalization of Bathhouse Row, and in 1974 all eight Bathhouses were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Although the Golden Age of Bathing in Hot Springs had clearly come to an end, the town’s residents sought to re-purpose the buildings for more modern uses, while preserving the structures representing the very history of Hot Springs. Today the buildings of Bathhouse Row operate in the following capacity: The Buckstaff is still the last surviving bathhouse, the Quapaw offers a modern spa experience, the Ozark is a contemporary art gallery, the Superior features a microbrewery, and the Hale offers cultural arts programs. Maurice and Lamar have been restored and are awaiting tenants. The Fordyce was restored to its original magnificence, and now serves as a museum educating visitors about the Golden Age of Bathing. The Fordyce also serves as the Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center, and is where we began our exploration of the oldest federally managed recreational land in the National Park System. The buildings of Bathhouse Row are pictured in the order in which there are described.

By this point on my cross country journey, I have visited close to 100 national parks, and the visitor center at Hot Springs was by far the most spectacular. I am a Massage Therapist, although I no longer practice. I found it fascinating touring what was essentially an early representation of the modern spa, and embraced the origins of my former profession. Please see the pictures below of the restored early 20th century Fordyce Bathhouse at Hot Springs National Park.

Please see additional pictures below of our visit to Hot Springs National Park.

What does Al Capone, Major League Baseball Players, Native Americans, illegal gamblers, and President Bill Clinton, all have in common? They, along with millions of others over the millennia, have ventured to Hot Springs to bathe in the mineral waters. Now, the Cross Country Couple had too arrived to take bath! Today, bathing usually consists of a 5-minute lukewarm shower, and then running out the door to get to work! However, during the Golden Age of Bathing, personal hygiene was frequently a week long event! People once traveled from far and wide to soak in the hot spring water believed to have medicinal benefits to cure their diseases.

The majority of people today seek out a physician for treatment of a specific ailment verses visiting a mineral spring bathhouse as was common practice a century ago. With today’s emphasis on detoxification, stress reduction, and holistic health, perhaps the beliefs of those who partook in the Golden Age of Bathing are not as archaic and misguided as they seem. You have to admit, a relaxing warm bath with essential oils after the most awful day does feel oh so very nice!

When visiting a state, Nate and I do our best to immerse ourselves in the local culture, as much as our beliefs will permit. Therefore, we contemplated bathing at the sole surviving bathhouse from the Golden Age of Bathing; The Buckstaff. As a Nurse, Nate is quite comfortable providing hygiene to others, but I on the other hand find it a tad creepy and unnecessary to bathe someone who is physically and mentally capable of doing so themselves. I was not overly thrilled about a stranger washing me, but “When in Rome”!!! After a short walk, we arrived at the Buckstaff Bathhouse, and learned the cost to bathe was $33.00 per person! Wow! I could go out for a dinner and a movie for that price! I was not about to pay $33.00 plus tax and tip for someone to scrub me squeaky clean when I am fully capable of washing myself! Thank You Very Much!!!

It was time for Nate and I to put our heads together to concoct a creative solution. A quick google search revealed the town of Hot Springs happened to have a Planet Fitness where we typically workout and shower, which you can read more about by clicking here. Although we did not get rubbed down in the bathhouse, we technically did bathe in Hot Springs! I guess the Cross Country Couple would not have fared well had we lived during the “Golden Age of Bathing”.

After departing the Planet Fitness in Hot Springs, we drove across town where we found a Walmart to spend the night.