When you think about South Boston, a few touchstones come mind. Whitey Bulger and the infamous Winter Hill Gang, Matt Damon’s eclectic genius in Good Will Hunting, and, of course, the most epic St. Patrick’s Day parade in the nation. But what folks who grew up in the small, once predominately Irish part of Boston know, is that it’s also home to one of the nation’s oldest polar bear plunges — a Southie New Years Day tradition.
According to the New England Historical Society, the first ever arctic dip took place in 1904, though Southie lore places the first plunge somewhere around the end of the 1800s. The L Street Brownies, as the brave folks were called, gathered at the bathhouse decked out in nothing but swimsuits and undergarments. They then dove into the freezing Boston Harbor to cleanse themselves of impurities — ready to step into the new year on the good side of health.
Bathhouses were wildly popular in the late 1800s, and served as a gathering place for immigrants who sought to use the modern plumbing, a luxury among the poor. Bathhouses also served as a meeting place to gossip, trade news of the town, and talk about opportunities for themselves in their new country.
Since indoor plumbing was so scarce in the city, a council was formed to help figure out how to keep the population’s hygiene in check. A wintry dive in the cold harbor, thought by the Europeans to keep illnesses away, seemed like the perfect idea. And thus, the L Street Brownies took their first dive.
“Cleanliness of Body Is Next to Godliness,” was inscribed on the top of the first L Street Bathhouse, as the New England Historical Society reported.
As bathhouses grew in popularity across the city, those in Southie took their plunges every day of the year. The nickname, the Brownies, stemmed from the deep, dark tans of the swimmers who took to the water to boost their immune system. The original Brownies, and those still participating today, claim that because of the tradition, they have the strongest immune systems in the city. The first image captured of the daring divers was snapped in 1905.
“A number of sturdy men in bathing trunks are first shown playing on the ice, some of them having skates attached to their bare feet and others playing hand-ball. After their exercise, they run along the shore, upon which ice hummocks are piled high and plunge from the end of the ice-covered pier into the freezing waters of the bay. During the entire picture, the frosty breath of the men is plainly discernible. The film is of the very best photographic value, and the subject in every way one of the most remarkable we have ever made,” the New England Historical Society said.
Though the 1980s and 1990s saw a decline in membership, the polar plunge has had a surge of participants in recent years. Last year, over 600 participants of all ages dove into the Boston Harbor, launching from the very same public bathhouse that still stands on South Boston’s L Street — now called the BCYF Curley Community Center. Though the building is now used for fitness and recreation, the tradition of bringing the community together is still prominent today.
The 2019 polar bear plunge featuring the L Street Brownies, a tribe that anyone older than the age of 16 can be a part of, will kick off at 9 a.m. on January 1. Creative costumes, and courage-aiding cocktails, are entirely optional.