By Dick Nieuwendyk – mtltimes.ca
By the late 19th century, 500 miles of Montreal streets were served by only 90 miles of poorly constructed sewers. The city was burdened by the staggering infant mortality rate among the poor and numerous outbreaks of infectious diseases.
Due to a concern for public health and hygiene, progressive members of Montreal’s upper middle class, urged the City of Montreal to build “a bath for every neighbourhood.” Public baths were as much for sanitation as for recreation. For the price of a bar of soap, thousands of Montrealers deprived of indoor plumbing frequented public baths.
Between 1833 to 1933 The city of montreal constructed 23 public baths in industrialised neighborhoods where bathtubs and hot water were not present. During the great depression, the city continued to build these baths to counter rising unemployment.
Montreal was unique in its public bath status – with twenty-three baths at the height of its bath culture, it contained the highest number for any city in North America. It was not until the 1950s that standard bathroom fittings became readily available to every home, and the use of public baths started to decline. In 1956, the city began to renovate public baths into swimming pools, citing the growing trend of recreational aquatics. Gradually the modest size of these pools could not satisfy the want of more
ample facilities, and as the standard for new pools reached olympic proportions, the need for public bath buildings once again fell to the wayside, and many are now threatened with closure or demolition.
Bain Mathieu, built in 1931 was amongst the 23 public baths built in Montreal. The historical site was abandoned in 1990 for a period of approximately 10 years. As of the year 2000 it was delegated to the Société pour Promouvoir les Arts Gigantesques (Gigantic Arts Promotion Society), or SPAG, which renovated and transformed it into a multipurpose serving space. Bain Mathieu showcases a permanent collection “Bains Publique de Montréal 1835-2000”, free of charge, on the historical importance of public baths in Montreal, and invites the public to visit Bain Mathieu.
Period photographs, accompanied with descriptive texts permit to depict disregarded facts of our city’s rich history.
The Bain Mathieu is located on 2915, Ontario Street East in Montréal
Sources: McGill Archives, MontrealPlus, Bain Mathieu