Richmond Story: Edgar Allan Poe

As we pass the six-month mark of social distancing, economic disaster and an uncertain future, it seems fitting to use this week’s Richmond story to openly acknowledge these difficulties. Though months of bread baking, home improvements, online happy hours, exercise regimens and other optimistic efforts have sustained many of us, perhaps it is healthy from time to time to indulge in a bit of wallowing. In that, there is no better guide than one of our most famous Richmonders: Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was no stranger to loneliness, financial trouble and depression.  He even invented a new literary genre that aimed to inspire dread in its simplest, shortest and purest form.

X.50.01.301, Edgar Allan Poe, 1840s, The Valentine

Poe was born in 1809 to parents who were both travelling actors. When he was just two years old, his mother died of tuberculosis in Richmond, while acting in a local company. Poe’s father, from whom his mother was estranged, died soon after. Poe’s mother was buried at St. John’s Church in Richmond, and a local childless couple, John and Frances Allan, adopted the orphaned toddler. A tobacco merchant, Allan hoped that his adopted son would eventually take over his business. But Poe, from an early age, was determined to be a poet. Allan paid for Poe’s first year at the University of Virginia, but the young poet accumulated gambling debts and seemed aimless. His adoptive father cut him off financially, the first of many times over the course of Poe’s life. Shortly after this blow, Poe’s fiancée, Sarah Elmira Royster of Church Hill, gave into parental pressure and abandoned him to marry a wealthy man.

Poe left Richmond in 1826 heartbroken, though he continued to write. After publishing his first book, he remained unable to support himself and so tried brief stints in the Army, then West Point, from which he was expelled. All the while, John Allan sometimes helped his ward financially, only cutting him off again for misbehavior.

April 12, 1833 letter from E.A. Poe to John Allan, Poe-Allan-Ellis Papers, The Valentine

In 1831 while living in Baltimore, Poe began to attract notice as a writer. But he was still struggling financially and periodically wrote home to Allan for money. These letters, some archived here at the Valentine, went without reply. In 1835, he was offered the job of assistant editor at the Southern Literary Messenger, a new literary magazine based in Richmond. He took it, and so returned to this city. Despite a clear drinking problem that fueled professional clashes, his brilliance stood out. Poe was soon promoted to editor. Under his leadership, the Messenger became successful. He used the journal not only to publish his poems and short stories, but also wrote humorous and often brutal literary criticism. Few authors were spared. Poe left the Messenger and Richmond in 1837, for literary pursuits northward.

In 1839, Poe published The Fall of the House of Usher. In 1845, The Raven was unleashed. As his writing darkened, however, his personal life darkened as well. His relentless criticism of other writers, the death of his wife, his defiant personality and the financial bankruptcy of his own journal in New York left him alienated, unable to publish, destitute, depressed and grieving. He accumulated debts. In 1849, he returned to Richmond to give a reading and lecture on The Raven.  The homecoming provided him the opportunity to change his life when he reunited with the recently widowed and now-wealthy fiancée who had jilted him 23 years before. He seized it. Poe decided to marry his beloved Elmira at last and return to life here. But the move never happened. Just weeks after deciding to turn this new, optimistic page, amidst his arrangements to move back to Richmond, Poe was found unconscious outside of a tavern in Baltimore. He died in a hospital four days later. The previous few months had taken their toll on Poe, so much so that scholars have multiple theories as to how he met his end.

He was only 40 years old, but Poe transformed the alienation and despair that defined his life into a literary legacy that still inspires dread (in a good way) today.

Richmond Story: The Knights of Labor

In 1882 and 1883, a nationwide economic slump led to layoffs across the country. Many of these layoffs became permanent, even as the economy recovered due to industries replacing more and more workers with machinery. Against this mass industrialization, traditional small craft unions found few victories. In Richmond, like in most American cities, small craft unions were nothing new. Organized by trade, however, they were limited in size and thus limited in power. There were only so many quarry workers or so many foundry workers in a single city. Many felt powerless against the mass scale of industrialization.

V.92.68.03, Proposition for Membership in the Order of the Knights of Labor, c. 1885, The Valentine

A new labor model was needed to address the changing economic landscape. That model could be found in the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. Founded in 1869, it slowly evolved and expanded its mission and leadership so that by 1879, it was poised to harness the rising frustrations of the working class. This union revolutionized the labor movement by inducting members regardless of trade. Anyone could join: iron workers, typographers, cigar makers, granite cutters, mill workers, barbers, builders, textile workers. With sheer numbers, the Knights could match the power of what they called “the great capitalists.”

In April of 1884, the Knights of Labor spread to Richmond. Eleven white workers established “The Eureka Assembly.” At first, they struggled to gain more members. Corporate interests were strong and leaders exploited racial tensions within the working class to maintain power. But by the fall of 1884, Black workers had formed a few of their own assemblies. They could not be official Knights, however, without a charter, which they needed from the local white organizer. By that time, eight white assemblies had been established in the city. Fierce debate between them ensued. Some members were in favor of integrating the union, while some opposed the idea. The organizer, Charles Miller, wrote to the national office outlining the dilemma. Terence Powderly, the General Master Workman of the Knights, and possibly the most famous labor activist in the country at the time, did not reply to the letter. Instead, he came to Richmond.

He arrived in late January of 1885 and stayed for two days. In those two days, he held two meetings. In the first, open only to white members, he discussed the inclusive structure needed to not just address larger local issues, but to apply political pressure and to secure victories for workers. Powderly told the group:

“We organize the colored workers into separate assemblies, working under the same laws and enjoying the same privileges as their white brethren… The politicians have kept the white and black men of the South apart, while crushing both. Our aim shall be to educate both and elevate them by bringing them together.”

V.93.108.02, Tenth Annual Convention of the Knights of Labor, Held at the First Regiment Armory, Richmond. General Master Worksman Powderly Addressing the Convention, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. October 16, 1886, The Valentine

The next evening, he presided over a much larger meeting at the Old First Market Hall, at 17th and Main Streets. This meeting was open to everyone: Black and white, men and women, members and non-members. It was packed. There, he announced this separate but equal structure, quite radical for the time in Richmond. Never before here had Black and white workers belonged to the same union. The enthusiasm of the crowd was so great, Powderly later recalled that “I organized an assembly of colored men at the conclusion of the meeting.” After Powderly’s visit, membership to the Knights of Labor exploded in Richmond. Even the women were inspired to organize for the first time in this city’s history, forming an assembly of white women cigarette makers.

By retaining maximum flexibility for both membership and regional prejudices, the Knights of Labor drew in the numbers needed to fight rising corporate power. Of course, because of this flexibility, many things did not change for Black workers in their segregated assemblies and more serious divisions persisted. But Black and white workers did, for the first time in Richmond, exert political pressure as one. As membership boomed, the Knights held boycotts against offending businesses. One of their first actions as an “integrated” union was to take up the cause of Richmond’s coopers—a trade unique at the time for not being dominated by one race. Forced to compete with free convict labor, Black and white coopers struggled to make a living. In the summer of 1885, the Knights declared a boycott on the Haxall-Crenshaw flour mill in defense of the coopers, which bought convict-made barrels. Right away, they took on one of the biggest and oldest businesses in Richmond. By the end of the year, the Knights won. With that, thousands of white Richmonders were compelled to, and did, join a boycott that benefited poor Black workers—a feat nearly unimaginable in 1880s Richmond.

Richmond Story: The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia

X.2019.16.122, Who Represents Her?, Flyer, circa 1917, The Valentine

On November 27, 1909, a group of prominent white women met in a Richmond home to establish a statewide suffrage organization. Named the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, they elected Lila Meade Valentine as their president. Their mission was to “educate” Virginians and Virginia’s legislators on the merits of women’s suffrage. Like all good educators, they were strategic, creative and tireless in their methods. For easy access to the halls of power and the public, they established headquarters at 802 East Broad Street—just blocks from both the Capitol and the busiest commercial district in the city. From there, audiences were easy to capture.

Out in the streets, they distributed flyers both serious and humorous. To reach people in their homes, artistic members such as Nora Houston designed postcards. The writers—Ellen Glasgow and Mary Johnston—wrote editorials. Adele Clark, another artist, even used trickery to spread the message. With a paintbrush in hand, she’d set up her easel on Broad Street. After an unwitting crowd formed to watch her paint, she turn from her canvas and begin to canvass for the cause. The Equal Suffrage League became hard to ignore as they traveled to schools, took over street corners, haunted legislative sessions, attended union meetings, marched in parades and even set up booths at the state fair. By 1914, the League had grown to 45 local chapters. By 1916, they reported 115 local chapters statewide.

As a state-focused organization, the League aimed to gain suffrage through changes in the state constitution. But despite their multi-faceted efforts, the Virginia legislature rejected suffrage resolutions three times between 1912 and 1916. Some League members became frustrated and shifted their efforts to national organizations that lobbied the U.S. Congress for a Constitutional amendment. Others continued to press on at the state level, where they confronted the anti-suffragists’ escalating war of words. In Virginia, and across the South in general, many feared the unintended consequences of enfranchising Black women. With Black men and Black women at the polls, they argued, whites might lose power. In response, the League sought to allay those fears by embracing racist laws, positions and rhetoric. They printed more “educational” flyers, such as the one below, which assured nervous whites that white supremacy would, in fact, be strengthened by female suffrage.

V.89.25, Equal Suffrage and the Negro Vote, Flyer, circa 1910, The Valentine

Of course, the suffragists eventually won at the national level. When the Constitutional amendment passed Congress in 1919, the 32,000-member League poured their energies into the campaign for ratification. The amendment failed in both houses of the state legislature, however, by a large majority. It would not pass for more than 30 years. Only in 1952 did the General Assembly formally, perhaps begrudgingly, ratify the 19th Amendment. But none of this mattered much once enough states signed on by August of 1920. Within two months, and in time for the 1920 Presidential election, more than 10,000 white women and nearly 2,500 Black women had registered to vote in Virginia.

Learn more about the complicated, nuanced and problematic struggle for suffrage in Richmond when you visit our exhibition #BallotBattle: Richmond’s Social Struggle for Suffrage, which reimagines early suffrage debates through the lens of modern social media platforms.

Richmond Story: Fan Free Clinic

In the early 1980s, news outlets began to report about a mysterious new “gay cancer” in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Little was known about the disease, other than its main demographic. At first, the threat seemed far away to many Americans, with risk limited to the urban gay community. But soon, the epidemic spread to smaller cities and the demographic picture blurred. By 1990, the estimated number of people diagnosed worldwide with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was between eight and 10 million. With little information and with no known treatments, fear largely motivated responses in Richmond and around the word. People with AIDS were shunned. Hospitals posted huge warning signs outside patients’ rooms. Medical personnel wore hazmat suits and left food trays in the halls. Funeral homes refused to bury those who died of the disease. Here in Richmond, amidst this turmoil, a clinic initially founded to serve “hippies” stepped in to become the area’s leader in AIDS diagnosis, treatment, outreach and prevention.

V.89.192.320 Third annual AIDS candlelight vigil, sponsored by the Fan Free Clinic May 30, 1988 Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine Photo: Bruce Parker

The first free clinic in Virginia, two doctors, a nurse and a minister founded Fan Free Clinic in 1970. A large population of young, poor students and runaways had moved into the Fan District during the 1960s. Free love, communal living, recreational drug use and protests became the dominant lifestyle of the neighborhood. Skeptical of the judgment of the medical establishment, these young people tended to avoid doctors. When the Fan Free Clinic opened, it provided a revolutionary model for healthcare for a revolutionary generation. Without judgment and only using first names, the staff treated STDs, provided birth control, handled overdoses and treated a wide variety of injuries. They also provided counseling to young people entering into adulthood during this uncertain time.

A decade into operation, Fan Free Clinic had gained the trust of a skeptical community that had often avoided medical treatment. Soon, the staff began to notice that their young, mostly white counterculture patients had a lot in common with another medically elusive demographic: the broader population of urban poor, many of whom were Black. However, these individuals didn’t avoid medical care as an act of rebellion. Instead, many Black Richmonders couldn’t get time off work, struggled to find sustainable housing, couldn’t find childcare or simply couldn’t afford the care they needed. The Fan Free Clinic expanded to meet their needs as well, offering evening doctor appointments and advertising their services in homeless shelters.

When the AIDS epidemic hit Richmond in the 1980s, the Fan Free Clinic was poised to address the new healthcare threat. As hospitals balked at this mysterious new disease, as the media spread fear and misinformation and as scandalized citizens either moralized or refused to talk at all about the raging epidemic, Fan Free Clinic rose to the challenge. They formed Richmond’s frontline for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. In 1983, they set up an AIDS hotline and established Richmond AIDS Information Network (RAIN) with a network of volunteers. Through its AIDS hotline, volunteers answered questions about virus transmission and advocated for safer sex and the use of clean drug needles. Misinformation about how the disease spread terrified the American public, making education vitally important. Perhaps just as important, they fought the AIDS epidemic with compassion. RAIN provided services and companionship to those affected by the disease. They offered comfort to the dying, raised money for medical treatments and staged funerals. When other cemeteries around Richmond refused to bury AIDS victims, the Fan Free Clinic established their own burial ground.

The Fan Free Clinic, renamed Health Brigade, in still in operation today. Its mission remains unchanged: to provide medical treatment, health education and social services to Richmonders with limited access to care. Though its mission remains the same, the clinic’s reach has expanded in order to serve Richmond’s transgender community. As before, they are on the frontlines, combatting the healthcare challenges of a pandemic which has had a disparate impact on communities of color. Currently, Health Brigade is providing free testing and accurate COVID-19 information to a clientele that desperately need this vital lifeline of care.

To learn more about the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Virginia and the ongoin impact in 2020, we invite you to experience Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic, our exhibition that uses first-person oral histories and powerful black-and-white portraits to offer a nuanced look at the ongoing epidemic through the stories of survivors, caregivers, activists and health care workers on the front lines.

Richmond’s Women Mayors

With the current widespread Coronavirus upheaval, editorials have begun to note the efficient government responses and low casualty rates in countries run by women. Is it cause or coincidence? What would our local, national and global realities look like right now if women ran things? What would Richmond be like under a woman with executive power? As usual, history is a useful place to turn to explore these questions.

Virginia has never elected a woman governor or sent a woman to the Senate. The city of Richmond, however, has had two women mayors.

Delegate Eleanor P. Sheppard (1968-1977) working at desk on her last day in the Virginia House of Delegates in the Virginia State Capitol, March 5, 1977, V.85.37.2417, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine

The first, Eleanor Parker Sheppard, held the office from 1962 to 1964. As the first woman on city council as well—elected in 1954—she transitioned into the mayoral role with confidence. As the city dealt with desegregation, Sheppard pursued a bold, progressive agenda of public works. She sought to expand healthcare and children’s services while also helping to bulldoze the way for I-95. But public works do not always work for everyone. An advocate of “urban renewal,” Sheppard supported the demolition of the Fulton neighborhood, which permanently displaced many Black Richmonders. Sheppard was popular and not long after her term as mayor expired, she moved on to a decade-long career in the House of Delegates.

Richmond Mayor Geline B. Williams with recent Haverford College graduate Kyle Danish, August 5, 1988, Lindy Keast Rodman, V.91.04.894, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine

Richmond’s second woman mayor served from 1988 to 1990. Geline B. Williams also took office during heightened racial tensions. But her priorities and approach proved to be very different from Sheppard’s. A conservative, Williams had represented the overwhelmingly white First District as a City Council member. Many believed that the recent annexation of Chesterfield (in Williams’ district) was a bald attempt to drown out the voting power of Richmond’s Black residents. Tensions increased when Williams became the first white mayor since 1977. Critics and Black council members argued that political power in a predominantly black city had been handed back to white suburbanites. City Council meetings turned ugly. Amidst all the controversy, Williams served quietly. Her mere victory turned out to be her most controversial action. Critics accused her of being an invisible mayor, while her supporters called her gentle. Her political goals tended toward traffic safety, leaf collection, lowering taxes and maintaining a tight budget. She retired from political life shortly after her term was up.

The political legacies of these two women, as complicated as they are, actually do very little to reveal what executive power wielded by a woman looks like in Richmond. That’s because both Sheppard and Williams served as mayor at a time—between 1948 and 2004—when Richmond adopted a Council-Manager government.  In that system, City Council and their appointed City Manager held executive authority and Council also appointed the mayor. That meant that the position of mayor was largely ceremonial. In fact, both women arguably held more power as council members.

It seems that for a variety of reasons, history has not given us the inspiring lesson we had hoped for. But here at the Valentine, we believe it is our role to use the past to inform the present and shape the future. And this fuller, more nuanced history of women serving as Richmond’s Mayor can perhaps help to inform and enliven the next generation of leaders across the city.

The Covenanters

In the midst of the pandemic in the absence of school, Richmond parents are struggling to both educate and entertain their children. While this problem may feel new, at one point in Richmond’s history, a vast, structureless day was common.

The first free public school opened here in 1870. But attendance was far from mandatory. And for many children who worked in factories to help support their families, cost was far from the main obstacle to education. Until the early 20th century, many Richmond children lucky enough to escape factory work spent much of their days outside and on their own. This was especially true of boys, who enjoyed more freedom than girls. With little oversight, it was not uncommon for many of these children to trespass, steal, throw rocks and terrorize animals.

Roving boys even formed gangs that warred with each other. In response, a local woman named Katherine Hawes founded a group in 1896 to harness all of this energy for the common good. After meeting with the founder of the Boy Scouts in England, she decided to bring the principles of that organization to America. The Covenanters Movement, as it came to be called, was the first of its kind in this country. Hawes organized the group through the Second Presbyterian Church here in Richmond.

Covenanter parading during J.E.B. Stuart monument unveiling, May 30, 1907, Bolling, Storrs, Grant Photograph Collection. PHC0005/V.82.32.03. The Valentine

Semi-military, semi-artistic, semi-community service oriented, the Covenanters drilled, marched and went camping. They learned wood-carving, leatherwork and took music lessons. With an orchestra and a fife and drum corps, they gave concerts and marched in parades. They also engaged in community service projects, like distributing holiday baskets to the poor. Their headquarters, at 6th and Main Streets, featured a library and bowling alley.

Undeniably successful and popular, the Covenanters movement spread far beyond Richmond. The Second Presbyterian Church established 119 companies as far south as Brazil. However, the group was obviously limited to cities and towns with a Second Presbyterian Church. So when the Boy Scouts came to America in 1916, the Covenanters were quickly overshadowed and outnumbered.

Moral Quarantine

The act of quarantine has, of course, been used throughout Richmond’s history to stop the spread of viral contagion.  But the quarantine concept has also been used here to halt what many believed to be moral contagion as well.

In the early 19th century, Magdalen Societies began to appear in cities all over America, the first being founded in Philadelphia in 1800.  These charities sought out “fallen women,” like sex workers, to rehabilitate into moral rectitude. Magdalen members believed that once these women were quarantined from the people and associations of their sinful lives, they could be reformed. This moral quarantine came in the form of housing, meals and a strict schedule, which often included prayer and training in handicrafts. In 1874, the Magdalen Association of Richmond opened such a home on Spring Street, in Oregon Hill, in the 1819 Parsons House. Their stated mission was to provide “shelter and reformation for fallen women.” Within ten years, the mission of the home had narrowed somewhat, as a refuge for unwed mothers.

Spring Street Home, Early 20th century, V.46.38.269, The Valentine

By 1881, the Spring Street Home took in around twenty women per year, seeing them through their pregnancies, childbirth and adjustment to motherhood. At a time when the stigma of single motherhood was so great that a family’s social standing could be ruined by a pregnancy, maternity homes put a curious twist in the concept of the moral quarantine. Many argue that the main goal of maternity homes in general was to hide the women from “good society”, rather than to save them from the bad. Either way, the Spring Street Home sat on extensive grounds in Oregon Hill, and even had a view of the river.

In 1932, it moved to a 100-acre parcel in the West End and was renamed Brookfield. The new facility had dorm rooms, living rooms, a recreation room, nurseries, delivery rooms, a chapel and a library. The entrance to Brookfield bore a stone carved motto: They Shall Obtain Mercy. Fees were charged to those who could pay. By this time, the home served mostly teenagers and was the oldest of its kind south of Baltimore. In 1968, the home moved again, to a smaller facility on the north side. Five years later, they integrated to serve African Americans. But societal changes, including birth control innovations, legal access to abortion and changing social attitudes about single motherhood made Brookfield increasingly irrelevant. In 2011, it closed for good.  The west end location was demolished in 1968 for development, but the original 1819 building in Oregon Hill still stands.

Mint Juleps & John Dabney

Now that Virginians can order cocktails for take out and delivery, consider supporting your favorite bartender by ordering our most historic cocktail: the mint julep. Through tense times, mint juleps have broken seemingly impossible barriers and won over Richmond’s fiercest critics.

When Charles Dickens came to visit in 1842, his published impressions scandalized Richmonders. He criticized the squalid conditions in the factories and streets, the immorality of slavery and the willful blindness of the wealthy to the misery all around them. He did, however, praise our mint juleps. Beloved by visitors and citizens, the mint julep represented the genteel southern class in the light they wished to be seen. Even a staunch abolitionist like Dickens could not deny its charm. And our most famous mint julep, made by a local bartender named John Dabney, touched the lips of visiting politicians and royalty during this city’s darkest era. In fact, his recipe became a tool of Richmond diplomacy.

John Dabney, Late-19th century, V.99.61.07, Gift of Mrs. Lillian Dabney

John Dabney was born into enslavement in Hanover County around 1824. Owned by Cora Williamson DeJarnette, Dabney was rented out to a relative named William Williamson, who owned a restaurant in Richmond.  Williamson arranged for Dabney to be trained by chefs. He soon became well-known locally for his terrapin stew and his canvasback duck, but what really impressed people were his mint juleps.  As an enslaved bartender, Dabney was allowed to keep a portion of his earnings. With those earnings and fueled by his rising fame, he bought his wife’s freedom in the late 1850s. Still enslaved himself, he kept bar at a number of fashionable restaurants during the Civil War. He had been saving to purchase his own freedom when the war ended.

As a free man, he continued to keep bar around the city. By 1868, he’d saved enough to purchase his freedom from Williamson—which he did, even though he was already free. After 41 years of bondage, Dabney found himself in a position very few freedmen did: he was so beloved by the powerful class that any Richmond bank would loan him money. With his culinary skills and sterling reputation, he opened his own successful restaurant here in the early 1870s.  His son later wrote that his father’s “reputation and business standing rendered him almost immune to segregation, ostracism or racial prejudice.”

Another Kind of Microscopic Menace

Viruses aren’t the only microscopic menaces that have shaped Richmond history.

Few people know that this city lies atop one of the most diverse diatom deposits in the world.  Diatoms are single-cellular aquatic plants that have been fossilized—quite beautifully—within their silica walls.  The diatoms pictured are leftover from the era 5 million years ago, when Richmond lay under a shallow sea.

Our diatom deposits first gained attention through the efforts of the Richmond Microscopical Society, founded in 1880 by local microscope hobbyists. They had been aware of diatoms in the soil here, although it was not until the C&O Railroad attempted to dig a tunnel downtown in the 1890s that the sheer diversity of Richmond’s diatoms became clear.

Slide of diatoms taken by Thomas Christian, 1885, X.61.35.10, The Valentine 

Thomas Christian, one of the founding members of the society, lived near the project dig beneath 8th Street. He and his daughter would venture into the construction zone every evening to take samples of the day’s excavated earth.  He spent much of his time arranging different species of diatoms into beautiful and elaborate slides, such as the one pictured above.

Soon, his findings attracted the attention of the Smithsonian and the world.  The futile digging of the 8th Street tunnel soon became a national joke, as the slippery earth repeatedly caved in. Diatomaceous earth—earth rich in diatoms—is very unstable. Eventually, the railroad had to abandon the project, though the lessons of Richmond’s diatom-rich soil were quickly forgotten, with tragic results. When C&O attempted to repair the Church Hill Tunnel in 1925, the famous cave-in that entombed a work engine and at least three workers was due to the diatom-rich clay.


Hygiene and Richmond’s Public Baths

Historically speaking, good hygiene is a relatively new concept for Richmonders.

At a time when washing our hands is our best bet at defeating a pandemic, let’s remember that for most of this city’s history, for many of its citizens, such a simple act was not easy. Until 1950, a large number of homes in the Richmond area did not have the luxury of indoor plumbing.  Of course, lack of access to clean water for both drinking and washing has been the source of many outbreaks here: from cholera to polio.

Branch Public Baths exterior, 709 W. Main Street, Early-20th century Cook Collection, The Valentine

But in 1909, a local banker and philanthropist named John P. Branch drastically improved public health when he opened the city’s first public bath. He built the facility, then deeded it to the city, with the stipulation that the city reserve $3,000 a year to operate it.  The city knew a good deal when it saw one and accepted. A brick building that still stands at 1801 East Broad Street, Branch Public Bath #1 used coal-fired boilers to provide hot water for showers and tubs on the second floor.

These grew so popular that, four years later, Branch built the more beautiful Branch Bath #2 at 709 West Main Street.  At each, any white Richmonder (like so many other amenities in the city, the public baths were segregated) could pay 10 cents to receive a bar of soap and a sterilized towel.

Branch Public Baths interior, 709 W. Main Street, Early-20th century Cook Collection, The Valentine

Admission for children was 3 cents. Men were allowed 20 minutes in the showers, women 30 minutes, though these rules were obviously, largely unenforceable. At the peak of their popularity in the 1920s, public baths served over 80,000 Richmonders a year.  Winter was the most popular bath season.  During the spring and summer months, many still preferred to bathe in creeks and lakes.

The Branch baths remained in operation until 1950, when patronage plummeted following the rise of indoor plumbing.

As public health officials continue to remind us to wash our hands, this history is a fascinating exploration of how basic hygiene was once a thriving business in Richmond.