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“All Hail to Pure Cold Water!”
Beset with ailments, Victorian women found solace, in more ways than one, in a new panacea—hydropathy
December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
A century and a half ago American women faced a very different life prospect than today. Without dependable birth-control techniques they could expect to spend their prime years bearing children. Without modern medicine they frequently could anticipate painful and debilitating disorders arising from the rigors of repeated childbirth. Moreover, they lived in a world where the facts of life and the processes of pro-creation were shrouded in secrecy and not thought fit topics for female conversation.
Contemporary manuals of advice offered little help. They encouraged women to accept their God-given biological destiny and prepare for a life of self-sacrificing service to others. What information they did give was often faulty. Even into the twentieth century some of these manuals adhered, for example, to the widespread but mistaken view that conception was most likely to occur during menstruation and least probable during the time we now know as ovulation.
Under these conditions it is not surprising that women responded avidly to those who could give them real medical relief and a good dose of understanding. One major source of such sympathetic healing in the nineteenth century was an aberrant medical practice known as hydropathy, or the water cure. From 1843 to 1990 two hundred and thirteen water cure centers sprang up to treat Americans of both sexes with the beneficent effects of pure water, and the good news of the water cure spread rapidly, especially among women.
Hydropathy was based on the belief that water was the natural sustainer of life. It prescribed bathing, wet compresses, steam, massage, exercise, the drinking of cold water, and a spare diet. From the time of its founding in 1845 through the 1850’s the Water Cure Journal and Herald of Reforms, devoted to Physiology, Hydropathy, and the Laws of Life —its motto “Wash and be Healed”—popularized the cure, listed new establishments, presented exemplary case histories, and promoted many corollary doctrines such as temperance, women’s rights, dress reform, and medical reform. It strongly endorsed the need for women medical practitioners, believing that most male doctors were insensitive to the problems of women and poorly trained to treat these problems. The Journal ’s campaign on behalf of women doctors in the 1850’s kept close tabs on medical-school admissions policies, and in bold type its readers were informed each time an institution opened its doors to women applicants.
The water cure, although it became especially meaningful to women, began as a phenomenon offered enthusiastically to all.
So ran the first stanza of a musical testimonial composed by Mrs. A. J. Judson in the 1840’s. Otherwise water-cure enthusiasts, more extravagant if less poetic in their praise, claimed to have witnessed miraculous recoveries among their fellow patients. Catharine Beecher Stowe, observed “one friend, a confirmed invalid of fifteen or more years,” who could not walk a half mile when he arrived at the cure, leave after four months “able to perform such exploits as climbing a mountain” and feeling “the health and elastic vigor of childhood.” Another patient, “given over by all physicians as the victim of scrofulous consumption” and having “selected his place for burial,” after seven months of the water cure “left, declaring himself a new man, and anticipating health and long life.” Other “interesting cases” observed by Catharine Beecher included two little girls brought to the water cure “emaciated and helpless, one with a leg useless from infancy, the other with distorted spine.” Restored to health, “they gambol together now,” Beecher said, “with ruddy cheeks and vigorous health, so changed and improved that a certain cure is fully anticipated by the physician.”
The most fashionable, most expensive, and best-known center of such restorative activity was located at Brattleboro, Vermont. There such notable Americans as Julia Ward Howe, Martin Van Buren’s family, Francis Parkman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Richard Henry Dana, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Helen Hunt Jackson enjoyed the establishment’s mountain environs, participated in a constant round of social activities, and generally gave themselves over to the serious business of improving their psychic and physical health.