Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness

These three bathing themed photos are from the Missouri History Museum’s exhibit, “Capturing the City: Photographs from the Streets of St. Louis, 1900–1930”. During the first few decades of the 20th-century, the Saint Louis Streets Department generated one of the most extensive image collections (18,000) ever made of this city. Led by Charles Clement Holt, his photography division’s original intent was simply to document municipal challenges and needed improvements for the Streets Department, but these photos also captured scenes of everyday life. In this exhibit a selection of these images have been collected that capture the city as it once was and allows the viewer a glimpse at historic Saint Louis. I have chosen to concentrate on this one small slice of the show.

At this time Saint Louis was the fourth largest city in America and as with any large city of that day, public health was a primary concern. The institution of clean water and sanitary sewage treatment did more to reduce infant mortality and increase overall life expectancy in America than any other subsequent advancement. On the back of the photo of the two children bathing is written the title “The Saturday Bath”, 1909. Holt or one of his staff probably took this photograph for the city’s water department to promote advances in water treatment. In the second photograph, girls in a swimming class entertain an audience of neighborhood residents at the Mullanphy Pool, 11th Street and Cass Avenue, 1914. The signs prohibiting spitting in the water reminded people of the ever-present threat of tuberculosis. The third picture shows an interracial group of children playing in a wading pool at the intersection of 9th and O’Fallon streets in the Carr Square neighborhood, circa 1916. The building in the background with two large entry doors is a public bathhouse. In an era without air-conditioning, playing in the pool would have been one of the few escapes from Saint Louis’s notoriously oppressive summers.

In the hundred-plus intervening years, the ravages of time have not been gentle. Nothing of these depicted scenes still remains. The people are all gone. Even the structures are gone. All that remains are these photographs. They are like tinted windows that allow us to peer at how life once was, but these images never really revealing those lives in their entirety.

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