Working conditions in bath houses that use thermal water from Hot Springs National Park have undergone significant changes throughout the last 150 years, Dan Chmill, an interpretive ranger for the national park, told Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club on Wednesday.
"There were makeshift bath houses built throughout the antebellum period before the Civil War and after the Civil War, but moving into the late 19th and early 20th century, we have the heyday of the Victorian era bath houses that continue to line Bathhouse Row," Chmill said.
"All eight were in operation, as well as almost a dozen off the government reservation, numbering close to 20 bath houses using the park's thermal waters to offer healing, but also leisure opportunities for hundreds of thousands if not millions of visitors every single year to Hot Springs."
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Chmill said in the late 1800s, many bath houses in Hot Springs were misappropriating federal funds.
"The House of Representatives sent a commission down here in 1884 to survey why the funds were being misappropriated, mostly for the creek arch that was running right across the valley floor and ultimately covered up in what is now the front yards of the bath houses and Central Avenue," he said.
"During this time, three House of Representative members also spoke to the bath house attendants. They were going to ask them what the conditions were in the bath houses, and what they found was an incredible amount of exploitation that was going on for these men and women."
The commission found the attendants were required to furnish their own supplies for use in the bath houses.
"By 1880, there were only 30 some-odd bath house attendants, so it was very easy to exploit such a profession," Chmill said. "But as we move into the 20th century, this begins to change. And one (reason) is not only the popularity of Hot Springs itself, but the number of bath house attendants that are arriving and the money that they are receiving. So the growing economic power of bath house attendants really begins to jump in the beginning of the 20th century."
Chmill displayed a graphic that showed salaries for all bath house attendants in Hot Springs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries along with those salaries adjusted for inflation.
In 1898, attendants were paid $33,870 ($1,247,440 in 2023 dollars) among the roughly 100 attendants. By 1908, that figure had more than tripled to $100,851 ($3,351,004).
"One of the reasons is the sheer popularity of Hot Springs," Chmill said. "The popularity of these waters having healing potential to cure rheumatism, gout, what will be arthritis, but even things like alcoholism and cancer. As more folks were taking baths, the more bath house attendants were being paid."
He said most of this money was re-infused into the community, noting, "This is one reason that allowed bath house attendants to be leaders in the community moving forward."
Chmill then spoke of the oral history project he and the national park are compiling about the history of the bathing industry in Hot Springs.
"What we are embarking on at the national park is what I've been calling the 'We Bathe the World' oral history project," he said. "This is a year-long project (that) began in March; we'll go until the upcoming February and March of 2024. What we're trying to do is to uncover and recover the histories of bath house employees."
The project includes people who were connected to the bath houses.
"What we're also trying to do is to look for narrators -- for folks who may have worked in a bath house, who knew folks that worked in a bath house and would like to share their stories about their relationships with them, and as important, folks (whose) parents or grandparents worked in the bath houses to show the stories that they pass down, but also to share the legacies that they shared with their families," Chmill said.
Those connected to the bath houses are interviewed on camera to capture their stories in their own words.
"One of the reasons why we're trying to collect these stories is not only to have them be internal and be able to learn from them as interpreters in the national park, but we also want to share them with the public," Chmill said. "One of those ways is to record them (with) a crystal clear quality, have good sound, so that we can show them."
For those interested in participating in the project, call Chmill at 501-620-6706 or email [email protected].