Forgotten History: Pittsburgh’s Natatorium

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Pittsburgh Natatorium, postcard early 1900s
A century ago you could take a dip in a massive swimming pool near the banks of the Allegheny River.

Popularly known as the Phipps Natatorium, this pool and bathing complex was just off Penn Avenue, fronting Duquesne Way (now Fort Duquesne Boulevard) near the old Sixth Street Bridge.

Hopkins Map 1923 with Natatorium marked in white.
Municipal pools served various purposes for the urban population. At their most basic, they provided places to get clean. Nineteenth century Pittsburgh was hella dirty, after all, and the prevailing social gospel of the day held that cleanliness encouraged moral behavior. But genteel sensibilities were offended by nekkid working-class Yinzers bathing in the three rivers — so much so that in 1895, such public scrubbings were outlawed during daylight hours within city limits.

While a cleaner population was desired so, too, was a more cultured one. Beginning in the 1890s, the national public bathhouse movement seemed to provide a solution to promoting cleanliness and the cultivation of good character. Many would come to be built in Pittsburgh’s industrial neighborhoods, reflecting national trends.

Natatoriums were a little different. Part cleansing facilities, part recreational centers, they sprang from the intersection of multiple social needs. It was deemed necessary to provide socially acceptable opportunities to fill expanding leisure time among the working class, lest those folks seek, erhm, disreputable ways of amusing themselves. And the era’s reform philosophy dictated that it was an obligation of privileged classes to provide morally and physically uplifting opportunities for the laboring masses.

In April 1889, the Pittsburgh Post lamented the lack of local recreational options and called for civic improvements that would not only improve quality of life but save lives:

What, then, is left to mortals here below?….If you want to lengthen….human lives, spend a million for boulevards…

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