Tag Archives: Health

“St. John’s has been the petted child of every Government and the people of St. John’s are spoiled.”


April 15, 1890

Petition to establish public baths in St. John’s

Painting: Hans Bock der Ältere, The Baths at Leuk

An “outport visitor” to St. John’s in April 1890 was quite shocked to hear that it was the “intention of some young men of St. John’s to petition the government to establish public baths.”   The ‘outport visitor’ was so troubled that he penned a letter to the Editor of the St. John’s  newspaper the Evening Telegram making his objections known.

The ‘outport visitor’ wrote to the newspaper that he saw “the necessity of the baths” but  “to  ask the Government to establish them is something beyond human imprudence, and I should be surprised to find the people of St. John’s backing up such a proposal.”

At the time a ‘bath house’ was essentially a large room with rain showers and a plunge pool with a large swimming pool.

The idea of ‘public baths’, at this time, was a concept that was taking hold in many cities in North America.  Most homes did not have indoor toilet facilities or any kind of bath facilities. The young men of St. John’s were aware that in United States, there was a progressive move for cities to build public baths. Some cities in North America  saw the idea of ‘public baths’  as a  ‘moral imperative’ a Brooklyn, New York  newspaper  editor wrote :

“… it is a duty of the public, as its own government, to educate [the poor] out of their condition, to give baths to them that they may be fit to associate together and with others without offense and without danger. A man cannot truly respect himself who is dirty. Stimulate the habit of cleanliness and we increase the safety of our cities. And give over the idea that a free bath is any more of a “gratuity” than the right to walk in the public streets.”

Interior of a typical Bath House 1900 -1915

In Newfoundland the “outport visitor” had little time for such considerations. He argued if the:

‘public baths’ were approved next you would have “the young men petitioning the Government to provide them with soap and towels for their daily ablution… I should have thought that there was enough of private enterprise in St. John’s to start baths, where each person might obtain admittance on payment of a penny or so for each occasion.  But if this cannot be done, let these young men apply to Municipal Council to give them baths.”

The letter continued; if the young men of St. John’s can have a bath house at the expense of the taxpayers why not the men of Twillingate, Bonavista, Trinity, Harbour Grace and Placentia.   He concluded, it would be an injustice to establish a ‘bath house’ in St. John’s at the expense of the tax payers.

It was all too much for the ‘outport visitor’; he concluded that if ‘municipal officials’ could consider luxuries like ‘bath houses’ for their young men of St. John’s, then they were getting too much money from the Government. He wrote: “St. John’s has been the petted child of every Government and the people of St. John’s are spoiled.”

The ‘outport visitor’ who wrote the letter to the editor was not aware that St. John’s had a long tradition of supporting ‘bath houses’.  The “Princess Bath” on Water Street was advertising that it was open to the public as early as July 1860.  The advertisement for the Princess Bath read:

“The public of Newfoundland, visitors and travellers, are informed that the town of St. John’s is at length supplied with … Hot, Cold, Vapor and Shower, Salt and Fresh Water BATHS: also Salt Water Swimming BATHS …[with] separate departments for Ladies and Gentleman – and is situated on  Water Street  near the Galway Steamship Company’s  Wharf. Open from 6 am – 9 pm summer and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Winter  and from 3 – 6 p.m. on Sundays.   A female superintends the ladies department.”

With the introduction of indoor plumbing and bathing facilities in the home  ‘public baths’  were gradually replaced by the more conventional swimming pools.

Recommended Archival Collection:  A great place to discover history is in the pages of our local newsappers. Take some time to explore  the newspaper collections in your city or town. From your desktop take some time to explore  Memorial University’s Digital Archives Initiative (DAI), your gateway to the learning and research-based cultural resources. The DAI hosts a variety of collections which together reinforce the importance of the past and present, of Newfoundland and  Labrador’s history and culture.  Read More: http://collections.mun.ca/

Recommended Reading:  Washing “the Great Unwashed” Public Baths in Urban America, 1840-1920 (Urban Life and Urban Landscape Series) Ohio State University, 1991


Tar and turpentine remedy for diphtheria.


January 25, 1890

Fearing Quarantine many people denied they had diphtheria.

Fearing Quarantine many people denied they had diphtheria.

A diphtheria epidemic raged throughout Newfoundland from 1888 -1891, medical officials identified at least 3,183 cases and it had resulted in at least 624 deaths.

Parents were desperate for a cure and sought any remedy that they could find.  As a result adults and children were subjected to all kinds of treatments.

On January 25, 1890, the Newfoundland newspaper the ‘Twillingate Sun’ printed, “A Cure for Diphtheria.”  The article read:

“At the first indication of diphtheria in the throat of a child, make the room close; then take a tin cup and pour into it a quantity of tar and turpentine, equal parts. Then hold the cup over a fire so as to fill the room with fumes, the person affected will cough up and spit out all the membranous matter and the diphtheria will pass off. The fumes of the tar and turpentine loosens the matter in the throat and thus affords the relief that has baffled the skill of physicians. “

The St. John’s medical doctor, Dr. Thomas Howley in a report to government official explained how the disease was being spread. His report did not paint a pretty picture of St. John’s.  Howley wrote that the spread of the diphtheria epidemic in St John’s was caused by the:

 “wretchedly constructed and located dwellings”; houses were “built in defiance of all sanitary laws; damp sodden foundations; rotting timber sills; mouldy cellars; earth piled up against the bared walls preventing all chances of dryness; no house drains at all in the great majority of instances, necessitating the throwing out of the house slops out of doors, to still further saturate and poison the surrounding soil. . . .”

The St. John’s Board of Health, appointed in October, 1887 to eradicate the disease faced a number of obstacles.  Many of the poor families concealed the fact that they had the disease. The reason for such concealment was that families feared they would be quarantined to their homes, restricting their ability to earn a livelihood.

So intent were families to hide the fact that diphtheria was in their home, that a woman whose children had diphtheria hid the knowledge of the disease from her sister, the latter’s children being frequent visitors to the infected household.

In 1889 legislation was passed to enable the Board of Health to have a doctor visit any person sick or suspected of having a communicable disease   By April, 1892, diphtheria had all but disappeared from St. John’s, the number of deaths for the first three months of that year were 23.

In 1923, Gaston Ramon developed a toxoid vaccine, and clinical trials the following year showed that this vaccine induced a high level of protection among recipients. With the widespread use of this toxoid vaccine, the incidence of diphtheria dropped dramatically. Diphtheria is very rare in North America today and is considered to be eliminated.

Recommended Archival Collection:  At the Rooms Provincial Archives take some time to explore GN 2:17  known as the Quarantine letter books / James Crowdy these are not particular to the Diphtheria Epidemic  but the decisions made during  the outbreak of Asiatic cholera in 1832-1833  would have been the foundation for the preventive measures being discussed by government, including the proclamation and enforcement of quarantine regulations on incoming vessels, crew and passengers; the distribution of medication and literature  and the like.

Recommended Reading: Home Medicine: The Newfoundland Experience, by John K. Crellin, McGill – Queens University Press, 1994.