“All Hail to Pure Cold Water!”


In 1851 the railroad to Brattleboro was completed, and a golden decade began at the water-cure center. Visitors were met at the depot by lorn Miner, who drove the village coach during that period—returning patrons were greeted personally—and trunks were piled high on the top of the coach for a precarious ride down Main Street to the Wesselhoeft sanitarium. The crack of the whip and the rumble of the coach daily announced new arrivals to those already sequestered in the center’s commodious buildings—two large houses linked by a new dancing salon and parlor in the front and by bathhouses in the rear. The main buildings thus formed a square, enclosing a green courtyard with a fountain and surrounded on three sides by a broad piazza that served as a sheltered place of exercise for the patients in bad weather. One side of the buildings was reserved for women, the other for men. Behind this complex was another new building containing the kitchen, the dining hall, and the doctors’ offices on the first floor, with a range of single and double rooms above. As a sign of the increasing prosperity of the center and its growing resort atmosphere, an additional building containing a bowling alley, billiards room, and gymnasium was erected to serve the large numbers of new patients who arrived by rail.

The remarkable popularity of Brattleboro demonstrates how rapidly the water-cure craze took hold of middle-class Americans. Opening in May, 1845, with fifteen patients, it expanded during its first season to accommodate a hundred and fifty. The next year it more than doubled its clientele and its staff. By the end of the 1850’s the place attracted between six and eight hundred guests annually. The Green Mountain Spring Monthly Journal , edited by Brattleboro’s chief doctor, Robert Wesselhoeft, claimed a circulation of thirty thousand copies in 1851; and Wesselhoeft’s main assistant, Charles Grau, began another monthly in 1858, The Brattleborough Hydropathic Messenger . Dozens of other water-cure establishments were equally successful as the craze extended from New England through the Middle Atlantic and Middle Western states.

Who were these water-cure enthusiasts, and why were they so enthusiastic? Casual visitors to the cure sites made it clear in their letters home that the clientele was predominantly female. At Brattleboro roughly two thirds of the patients seem to have been women. This proportion is astonishing in a period that discouraged women from travelling alone, and we might well assume that for every woman who came to the spa alone, there was one who persuaded her husband, father, or brother to accompany her there and make use of the resort facilities while she engaged in the full routine of the cure. The new bowling alley, billiards room, and gymnasium may indeed have been built to accommodate these male escorts. The costs were the same for all guests—ten dollars a week in summer and eleven dollars in winter—covering “medical advice, board, lodging, and attendance at baths.” Wesselhoeft claimed that no patients were turned away for lack of funds, but his was obviously a profit-making enterprise designed, primarily for middle- and upper-class patrons.

The cure put heavy emphasis on bodily sensation and physical exertion. As Dr. Wesselhoeft explained it, a typical day at the spa began at four in the morning, when the patient was awakened and wrapped in thick woolen blankets, leaving only the face or sometimes the whole head free. “All other contact of the body with air was carefully prevented.” The patron was left to perspire “till his covering itself becomes wet.” During this time the head “may be covered with cold compresses and the patient may drink as much fresh water as he likes.” Windows and doors were opened wide during this process. When the attendant “observes that there has been perspiration enough, he dips the patient into a cold bath, which is ready in the neighborhood of the bed.” This deliberate shock to the system was held to be highly restorative, and when it was over, patients said they felt a new “sense of comfort.” A mysterious process of purging was believed to occur during the coldwater plunge, the pores giving off “clammy” waste matter and absorbing the pure moisture of the springwater. “This is the moment when the wholesome change of matter takes place,” Dr. Wesselhoeft wrote, “by which the whole system gradually becomes purified. In no case has this sudden change of temperature proved to be injurious.”

When the bath was finished, the patient was sent out to walk and to drink the pure springwater from a variety of nearby natural sources. Meals were very simple and consisted of only a few varieties of food. At breakfast there was a choice between bread and milk and mush and milk; at dinner, soup, one kind of meat-usually beef or mutton—vegetables, and a plain pudding; supper was a repetition of breakfast with the addition of fruit. Tea and coffee were banned altogether. Like most water-cure physicians Wesselhoeft preferred not to administer any drugs.