Dubbed the Carlsbad of the USA, Hot Springs Arkansas was a fashionable place at the turn of the twentieth century, populated as it was by elegant women and affluent businessmen, who travelled from different parts of the USA to enjoy the thermal water treatments offered by health establishments hosted in architecturally attractive buildings. Before the age of the personal car, which made the distant locations accessible, as well as the medical innovations following WWII, which offered fast and immediate relief to various ailments*, Hot Springs abounded in bathhouses that provided the latest medical and therapeutic equipment; these included electro-massage tools and gymnasia, where people could recover, relax, and even socialize in an environment in which the stylish furniture, the lighting design such as artful stained glass, the marble stairs, the porcelain bathtubs, the brass handrails, the modern tap accessories competed to offer the highest sophistication to the customers.

We can locate the development peak in Hot Springs sometime between the 1880s up to WWII; afterwards, the customers came in fewer and fewer numbers until the 1960s, which was the time when the once-popular bathhouses of the spa town closed their doors, unable to keep up with the changing times, in terms of maintenance and medical offer. The story of Hot Springs as a settlement around the hot springs of the Washita, known for their medicinal value*, started around 1819; in 1832 already, there was a reservation managed by the federal authorities. Further impetus to using the thermal waters with minerals as a cure for ailments was given by the wounded soldiers of the Civil War. In the 1870s, Hot Springs was already populated by nice wood hotels and villas, and it became a national destination for sufferers with a variety of ills and physical complaints*. Wood, however, did not pair well with the steam resulting from water, hence fire was a common occurrence at the time to the point that imposing establishments such as Arlington Hotel burnt to the ground…twice at least. As a consequence,  sounder buildings were erected at the turn of the century; the result was the appealing Bathhouse Row whose reminiscences, in an amply refurbished version dating 1980s, can still be admired today. The 1930s was the time when the thermal water collection system was modernized by building large underground reservoirs and by providing these with an elaborate network of pumps, which would supply at once the waters in the thermal springs to all the bathhouses of Hot Springs*.

One of the most iconic bathhouse on Bathhouse Row is Fordyce. It was built in 1915, in the present form, and it hosted historic artifacts, exquisite furniture, as well as many museum objects and exhibits, of which the Native-American collection of the founders` family is worth mentioning. The bathhouse was established by Samuel Fordyce, a businessman from St. Louis, Missouri, who came to Hot Springs in the 1870s for health issues, and, subsequently, brought his family in. He established a bathhouse, which today bears his name, but he was also co-founder of other two renown bathhouses of the Bathhouse Row, Maurice and Ozark; in addition, he invested in the opera house of the city, in the streetcar system, in other hotels and country clubs*.  Until it closed its doors, in 1962, Fordyce bathhouse was a standard of quality: the bathing experience was raised, by the help of the stained-glass windows, imported marble, bathing enclosures, and innovative Zander physical therapy equipment*. After careful restoration, Fordyce opened again in 1989 and it currently hosts the park’s museum and visitor centre (the Bathhouse Row and the other attractions, including the Promenade and the Arlington Hotel are today part of a National Park); it is also an exhibition which abounds in original objects of the bathhouse*, but, also, in valuable instruments and accessories of the time, which were donated by various charities and local associations. Fordyce Park Museum hosts more than a quarter of a million visitors per year*.

Let us start our visit, from the ground floor. Visible from the entrance, the tile work is something that attracts visitor’s attention, and we can admire the tiled floors on all three levels. They are all original and they survived the years of decay rather well.


Next, on the first floor, we can see the so-called Cooling Room, a place where customers, particularly the women, were relaxing after the bathing regimen. Loosely wrapped in sheets or bathrobes, the customers were reading, socializing, or dozing. It has to be mentioned from the onset that Fordyce, and the spa culture in general, functioned on strict segregation rules. In the nineteenth century, gender segregation was based on different times of the day (e.g. men were allowed to use the waters at certain hours, whereas women in their dedicated hours; in the twentieth century, bathhouses like Fordyce had entire wings gendered coloured, so as to say- from the entrance, there was a separate elevator that was taking the women to their areas, and so there were dedicated dressing rooms and state rooms; one of Fordyce’s attractions, the rooftop garden overlooking the picturesque area of Hot Springs was also allowing men to sunbath in the nude, as relaxation following their bathing regimen; needless to say, sunbathing in the nude was a totally no-no for women, even in their separate wing, hidden by the lush vegetation of the rooftop garden, as they might have been!).

Next, we are visiting the Ladies Bath Hall. We notice the elegant porcelain bathtubs, the marble walls and sitters. Some of the bathtubs’ accessories and other fittings resisted the decades of neglect, hence we can approximate their original state.

The next two sections are dedicated to the Hydrotherapy Room and to the Vapour Cabinet Room. In the first, there were sun-ray cabinets, frigid cabinets, as well as devices for sprays, douches, sitz baths (the bather sits up to hips in the thermal water), electric baths for specific ailments. In the second, those metal boxes in the photos, which have the cut for the head to stick out during the treatment, were the vapour cabinets-in fact some steam boxes in which the temperature varied from 46 to 60 Celsius degrees! Sitting in these steam cabinets (for 30 minutes!) was recommended for rheumatism, obesity, advanced syphilis. By the organization of the bathhouse, these two sections are still in the women area, although posters on the walls show men in the vapour cabinets. Probably, similar cabinets were to be found in the men area.


Now we are entering the Men’s Bathhall. The aforementioned gender segregation was yet even more visible in the arresting design of this hall. The women areas are esthetically inferior to the men areas. The corridors of the bathhouse open to a grandiose area that has the appearance of German and Austrian baths: the glass ceiling and the statue-fountain in the middle of the room suggest a medieval atmosphere, a combination of church postures and chivalric stances. The glass ceiling is made up of 8000 pieces and it depicts Neptune’s daughters (the face of Neptune was depicted in the Fordyce’s facade decorations too, as shown above), mermaids, dolphins, and fish playing in the water.   The large statue-fountain in the middle of the hall depicts the sixteenth-century Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto who is said to have visited the area of Hot Springs, at that time inhabited by the Native Americans*; the monument shows him receiving the curing thermal waters from a Native-American girl. The blue hues created by the ceiling combined with the majestic posture of de Soto give to the hall a special feeling, something similar to what the patients were experiencing as they were sitting on the marble benches waiting for their bath, and sipping from the spring nearby.

 There are three elevators in the bathhouse, each specialized to a gender area, and all corresponding to the three floors of the bathhouse. The elevator operator had the role to promote services available to women or men (by appointment), such as chiropody, Hubbard Tub, shoeshine stand (only for men), beauty parlour (only for women).

The dressing rooms were a transit area between the floors. Here we can see the men as well as the women dressing and changing cabins.

On the second floor, we can visit the Chiropody Room. Chiropody or podiatry dealt with foot problems such as ingrown nails, bunions, corns, fallen arches; an old fashioned medical procedure, the painful cysts between the bones on the bottoms of feet were crushed and slid off with sideward knuckle punches. Auch!

On the third floor, the Men’s Parlour was equipped with a billiard room, as well as other games facilities.


On the same floor, but, obviously,  strictly separated from the Men’s Parlour by a screen, there was the Ladies’ Parlour, which was also a music room. Once the bath regimen completed, the women customers had the possibility to stay in this lounge-room where they could chat, read or write letters. At times, depending on the good fortunes of the establishment, the Fordyce administration turned the Men’s Parlour into workspace and the Ladies’ Parlour into a Beauty Parlour.

The Ladies’ Parlour was connected to the so-called Assembly Room, and so the Men’s one. Both had the possibility to ward themselves off from the common area by private screens. The Assembly Room was the only area of the bathhouse where men and women could stay together. Boasting an elegant stained glass ceiling, and an intricate tile floor pattern, the Assembly Room was the place where customers, stylishly dressed, were listening to music played at the Knabe grand piano of 1915, in the company of their friends. Against the left wall, there were large wooden cabinets that contained John Fordyce’s Native American and Spanish artifact collection* (visible in the original photos on display in the exhibition of the Fordyce’s Park Museum).

On the third floor, the visitor can see the Beauty Parlour. In fact, as mentioned above, several rooms hosted the Beauty Parlour in the period 1915-1962. During WWII, the Beauty Parlour was mot opened due to labour shortage. The services offered here included: shampoo, lacquer, finger wave, neck-trim, lash dye, permanent and cold wave, oil bleach, facial and manicure.

Next to the Beauty Parlour, in the current organization of the bathhouse, there is the Massage Room. Massage has been a central and popular part of the bath routine…then and now. The Massage Room also included the electrical massage and therapy equipment. At times, this room also served as the mercury rub room. From the vantage point of today’s medicine, to think that once mercury was a popular treatment for various ailments is completely absurd.

On the third floor, there are located the 22 State Rooms, which were exclusively dedicated to women. Furnished and equipped with all comfort, including hot and cold running water, and telephones, these rooms were facilities were the female customers could relax and spend some time by themselves, once the bathing regimen was fully completed.

 On the third floor, there was The Hubbard Tub Room and the imposing hall of the Gymnasium. Non-ambulatory patients were transported into the Hubbard Tub Room; here, they were lowered into the tub by the wooden stretcher attached to the overhead tram. The Hubbard Tub was recommended for the polio cases, arthritis, rheumatism, paralysis, pain or stiffness in the joints or weak muscles.

We have mentioned the gender segregation, but it is also important to discuss about racial segregation in the American spa culture, up to the 1960s. Although African Americans were not allowed to frequent the bathhouses on the Bathhouse Row, including Fordyce, for the entire of these establishments’ existence*, the bath attendants were in great majority African Americans. This applied to the whole life of Hot Springs as an established spa town, from 1875 to 1980s. Bath attendants provided to the customers of the bathhouses personal assistance and individual therapy; they monitored and timed the baths, they ensured the safety of the customers. In 1910, the federal authorities regulated the amount of work that a bath attendant was supposed to deliver*, but even in these circumstances, the work conditions in the hot steam were extremely strenuous. A compensation for this situation was the payment. A bath attendant like Katherine Fagan Tate (1863-1928), born in El Dorado, Arkansas, and a resident of Hot Springs since 1897, was paid 10 to 20 US dollars a week in a time when 7 US dollars was the average for a woman (including a white one).


*Mary Bell Hill, Images of America: Hot Springs National Park, Arcadia Publishing, 2014 p. 107.

*Mary Bell Hill, Images of America…p. 7.

*Mary Bell Hill, Images of America…, p. 7.

*Mary Bell Hill, Images of America…, p. 41.

*Mary Bell Hill, Images of America…, p. 54.

*Mary Bell Hill, Images of America…, p. 54.

*In 1962, when Fordyce closed, the manager, considering a possible demolition of the building, instructed the staff to take objects that can be rescued. After years, when Fordyce became a museum, many of the objects were returned-Mary Bell Hill, Images of America…, p. 111.

*Mary Bell Hill, Images of America…, p. 123.

*Mary Bell Hill, Images of America…, p. 58.

*Mary Bell Hill, Images of America…, p. 110.

*In 1904 the African Americans received the right to own and operate bathhouses in Hot Springs (e.g. the Crystal Bathhouse). Until 1964, they used only black operated bathhouses (e.g. the Pythian Bathhouse and Sanitarium).

**Mary Bell Hill, Images of America…, pp. 85, 86.

Information available as such or on the leaflets in the Fordyce -Park’s Museum.










2 thoughts on “Luxury and Science in the American Spa: Fordyce Bathhouse of Hot Springs, Arkansas

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