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January 2: Hot Baths

January 2, 2014

manholecoalholecoverA bathhouse owned by Israel Cohen at 23 Hester Street in New York blew up from accumulated coal gases on this date in 1898, according to the New York World. The explosion “wrecked the first floor of the house, [and] blew the engineer of the baths, Henry Stephenson, who was responsible for the accident, ten feet.” More than two hundred customers had taken baths for the new year before the business closed at 10 p.m. “There was intense excitement in the neighborhood,” wrote the newspaper in an unsigned piece on page 5. “People ran from their house in fear of an earthquake.” According to New York’s Tenement Museum, prior to 1901 “tenements were not constructed with central heating. Tenants heated their homes using either the fireplace or a coal stove.” Buildings also “seldom had running water installed inside the building. When indoor running water was required by the city in the late 19th century, landlords provided only cold water. If tenants wanted hot water, they could either heat it directly on the stove or purchase a hot water heater that connected to the tenant’s stove” — or visit a public bathhouse. For buildings with heat, coal was the energy source, and coal covers, smaller than manhole covers, covered coal holes to which coal dealers could supply their merchandize without entering a building.

“No one was hurt by Stephenson, who was working as an engineer without a license. The baths were damaged to the extent of $2,000.”