To some it was the sweatbath (Yiddish:
shvitz-bawd)... to some it was the steam bath ... to some it was
the Russian bath .. to some it was the Turkish bath.
But to Newark's large Jewish population in the 1920s and 1930s,
the three traditional old-world bath houses were known by a simple
Yiddish word, the "shvitz."
The word "shvitz" means 'sweat', but it was also a full
description for the type of bath houses that flourished in the old
Third Ward. Those who patronized these places went to the "shvitz."
The Third Ward bath houses, known as shvitz's, were popular for
a number of reasons. For one, they put Newark's large Jewish immigrant
population in touch with their Eastern European roots.
Further, this was an era when many Third Ward dwelling places
lacked indoor plumbing or running hot water, and the shvitz was
a high-class alternative to the Montgomery Public Baths -- one of
three such city operated bath houses in Newark that enabled city
dwellers to take a hot bath for a nickel soap and towel.
For many Third Warders, a visit to a city bath house or to one
of the three shvitz's was a weekly ritual.
With rare exceptions, the clientele was Jewish. The Jewish tradition
of sweating for health is at least 2,000 years old. Bath houses
are mentioned frequently in the Talmud, the religious authority
for traditional Judaism.
The Third Ward shvitz's were: (1) The Mercer Baths, located at
32 Mercer Street; (2) The Charlton Baths, located at 36 Charlton
Street, and (3) The Howard Baths, located at 147 Howard Street.
The Charlton Street bath house was unique among the three Third
Ward shvitz's because of a special addition: It was the only one
of the three that had a Mikvah.
Explaining the Mikvah
The "Mikvah" is a Jewish ritual bath that traces its
roots back to ancient times. Although both men and women have used
the Mikvah for purification in conjunction with Jewish ritual, in
the early 20th century, it had special significance for Orthodox
According to tradition, these women who followed the Mikvah ritual,
would immerse themselves in a Mikvah following their monthly cycle,
or after childbirth, to become ritually pure and eligible to resume
their normal relationships.
At the Charlton Baths, while ladies were allowed to use the shvitz
only on "Lady's Day" -- Mondays and Wednesdays -- the
Mikvah was open every day. It was presided over by a religious woman
who would accompany the visitor, assist with preparation for the
immersion, and say a special prayer for her. The Mikvah attendant
was called a "Tikerin."
Other Mikvah Uses
The Mikvah at the Charlton Baths was also used for religious conversions,
where a non-Jew converted to Judaism. For this purpose, a rabbi
would be present and would preside over the immersion procedure.
Many religious conversions took place at the Charlton Street Mikvah
during the 1920s and 1930s.
Operations at the Mercer Baths
The Mercer Baths were located at 32 Mercer Street, a six-block
long street that ran westward from High Street to Springfield Avenue,
cutting into Springfield between Broome and Prince Streets.
The bath house operation was a mom 'n pop operation.
The owner/operator was Isador Goldberg, son of a rabbi, who had
fled from Russia at the turn of the century to avoid the Russian
Army. He later brought his wife and child to America through 'landsleit'
(people from his home village of Kiev), who helped him get a job
in a New York City Turkish bath, where he learned the 'shvitz' business
from the ground up.
Becomes Bath House Owner
By the early 1920s, Goldberg owned and operated the Mercer Baths
and his wife, Gussie, operated the shvitz restaurant. The family
residence was a couple of doors away, so their children virtually
grew up in the bath house.
The Mercer Baths was a typical shvitz, similar to its two competitors,
the Charlton and Howard baths, with wet and dry steam, the masseurs,
and all the health treatments that the typical shvitz of the 1920s
A 1928 advertisement for the Mercer Baths1
called it "The most Modern Bath in the State of New Jersey."
As the ad noted, Ladies Days were Mondays and Wednesdays from
noon until 10 P. M. Ladies were not permitted to overnight.
The four masseurs or rubbers were listed by name as each developed
his own following.
The term 'cupping' in the advertisement were universally known
by those who applied or used them as 'bahn-kes'.
They were glass cups that were applied to the skin by suction
and were widely believed to cure a number of bodily ailments. To
get the cups to adhere a blob of cotton was ignited to put heat
into the cup after which it would enable the cup to adhere to the
The application of bahnkes was a house treatment administered
only by Isadore Goldberg, the proprietor. He'd become expert at
applying the cups and once treated an ill grandchild with them.
As Goldberg's daughter recalled for me "This was a European
procedure that was supposed to be a cure-all."
The Bath's Biggest Feature
The biggest feature at the bath house was the 'plaitza', or rubdown,
using soap covered oak leaves with a "basam" from a bucket
of hot water and applied in the steam room by 'rubbers' or 'parchiks'
who seemed to be able to work endlessly in the 240 degree head of
wet steam room by occasionally dousing themselves with a bucket
of cold water.
The steam rooms had benches at differing levels, the higher the
level, the hotter the steam.
The customer would stretch out on the bench and the masseur working
from a wooden tub of soapy water, would pound the customer with
a brush made of flat oak leaves, and then massage the body, front
Some Other Shvitz Specialties
As mentioned earlier, cupping or bahnkes was a specialty believed
to cure almost any ailment, and proprietor was so expert at it that
he was often called upon to make house calls to apply the cups.
Another Mercer Baths specialty was the application of leeches,
a procedure called 'leeching'2.
Leeches were usually applied to the throat, also by Goldberg, and
they would suck the supposedly poisoned blood out.
Leeching was a popular treatment in the era of the 1920s, and
some neighborhood drug stores carried leeches in stock. Goldberg
bought his leeches from the Rosenbluth Pharmacy on Springfield Avenue
near West Street.
Another feature of the Mercer Baths was an in-house chiropodist.
In the 1920s, it was a Dr. Dillingham (with a D.S.C. after his name).
In the 1930s, he was succeeded by a Dr. Danoia.
The chiropodist had a separate room for his operations. He trimmed
nails, cut corns, and rendered whatever foot treatments were called
The Hydriatic Room
In addition to an in-house chiropodist, the Mercer Baths also
had a 'Hydriatic Room'. As the proprietor's daughter described it
to me "You were put in an electric box and only you head stuck
"The inside of the box had lights in it that made you sweat,
and they you'd come out and stand against a marble wall, and the
attendant in charge would turn on two hoses with a high pressure
water stream and hose you down.
He would then dry you down and you would go into an adjacent room
and lie down and take a rest.
The Mercer Pool
In addition to the wet steam room and dry room (sauna), there
was also a pool, filled with fresh, cold well water. Proprietor
Goldberg had a well drilled in the back yard to produce the water
for the shvitz pool.
After the Steam Rooms and Pool
After the shvitz visitors had finished with the steam rooms, or
pool, and the accompanying treatments, they usually went upstairs
to a dormitory-like room filled with cots, where they would rest
Then they would go into the Dining Room to fill the hearty appetites
they had worked up during their downstairs ordeals.
Mercer Restaurant/Dining Room
The restaurant/dining room was run by Gussie Goldberg, who had
married Isadore in Russia. They had a full-time cook, but Gussie
also participated in preparing the various Jewish food specialties
that their Jewish clientele ordered and expected to find at Mercer
any time of day or night.
Some of Gussie's specialties were thick vegetable soup, Greek
salad, and traditional Eastern European dishes.
The Card Games
Often after they had eaten, some of the diners would be ushered
into a special side room by Gussie, where they sometimes played
poker or pinochle, to a lesser degree, for big stakes.
These games took place not only with the male clientele, but also
on Ladies Days. Gussie used to collect a cut from winnings, which
was her payment for allowing the use of the room.
Mercer Baths Clientele
The typical shvitz customer at Mercer Baths would come in for
the afternoon, or for the day, and go him in the evening.
There were others who would come and stay overnight.
The Mercer Baths was not a hotel, but there were a few customers
who lived there in lockers, and so long as they paid their 75 cents
a day, they were entitled to stay overnight. This meant they would
take all their meals in the restaurant, and it made for a very lucrative
The regular Mercer Baths clientele were mostly local Jewish businessmen,
mostly from the Third Ward -- and then, too, there was the "Jewish
Abner (Longy) Zwillman, a Third-Ward-based top New Jersey mobster
would arrive at the baths with a coterie of friends and associates
every Sunday night, brought to the front door in his 16-cylinder
Zwillman also brought various 'business' associates (he was one
of the 'big six' in nationwide organized crime) and they would talk
business while "shvitzing."
A daughter of the shvitz owner, near 90 years old, recalled to
me that at times, Longy would take over the whole restaurant. He
always brought a crowd with him, she recalled...he never traveled
Source of Oak Leaves for Plaitza at Mercer
The daughter of the proprietor shared with me a recollection of
how the oak leaves used by the "Parchiks" (rubbers/masseurs)
at the Mercer Baths were obtained.
"Every year," she recalled, "just before the spring
of the year, my father would assemble the parchiks and load them
into his open touring car, and go into the woods to pick oak leaves.
"They would tie the leaves into bundles and bring them back
and dry them on the roof of the bath house.
"It was illegal, but they never got caught. They knew where
to go and they would be gone for two or three days and bring the
leaves back flat. After they had been dried out, they would be used
in the steam for months to come.
Recollections of Visits to the Howard Baths
My own recollection of visiting a Third Ward bath house dates
back to the 1920s when I was five or six years old. I'd been a sickly,
asthmatic child and my mother had convinced my father that a visit
to the shvitz might be helpful for my various ailments.
We walked together, my father and I, over to the Howard Baths,
the Howard Street establishment being the nearest bath house to
our cold-water living premises at 29 Montgomery Street.
My recollections of that long-ago visit are vague, but I do vividly
remember my father leading me by the hand, both of us wearing nothing,
into a dismally lit, fiery hot steamy room with stepped up wooden
My father spoke to a masseur, called a rubber then, and he stretched
me out flat, face down, on the second-level wooden step and started
whacking me with a bunch of hot, wet soapy leaves.
The soap quickly reached into my eyes, and I wiggled free, slid
down to the floor level, and ran screaming from the steamy inferno
into the cold outside.
I recall it as one of the scariest experiences of my life, and
I have since never allowed anyone to lay a hand on me for any reason,
except for medical examinations, in the more than 75 years since
Seymour Pierce's Recollection of the Howard Baths
What I recall mostly, says Seymour Pierce, a fellow Third Warder
and longtime Newark native, was going to the Howard Baths with my
father. I was in the ice cold pool, and all over the old guys were
either getting rubbed in the hot, hot "sauna" steamed
by hot water thrown on red hot "small boulders" and usually
rubbed by big, strong Russians, or the like.
Or, they were getting "bahn-kes" (cupping) to cure all
ills...or they were getting other treatments.
They finished the evening, still wrapped in towels, eating steaks,
drinking wine or booze, and then to bed.
Ben Unterman's Comments on Third Ward Shvitz Baths
I didn't go to the shvitz because of my (young) age. I went to
the Montgomery Public Baths for a bath.
The shvitz was a luxury for those older people who wanted the
thrill of barely breathing wile sitting on an elevated bench in
a room full of steam, or the agony of someone hitting you with those
Then came the luxury of the Turkish massage with the rubdown by
a masseur with the usual hang-over belly who is mad at the world
and lets you feel it.
Or you could have the "bankes" (cupping treatment) or
the "leeches treatment."
When you finished your beating, your oily massage, your shower,
you take a towel, wrap around your body and then you begin the best
part of the shvitz.
You sit around a table with your group of odd-shaped friends,
order a glessele of tea, herring, bialys, lox, etc, and then take
out a deck of cards and play pinochle or poker. That was worth the
trauma and the beatings.
The shvitz was a carry-over from the old countries, and a home
away from home.