- Historic Sites
“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
Besides rigorous bathing the cure had two other chief principles: a communal atmosphere and an emphasis on the curative powers of outdoor exercise. Situated among hills bordering the Connecticut River, Brattleboro’s scenery “on every hand is the most romantic and beautiful kind,” Wesselhoeft wrote when he first discovered it. “Thus,” he continued, “it offers inducements to the exercise which forms so important a part of the cure. Fresh springs issue from all the surrounding hills … beautiful natural walks lead to each spring. Hills and green woods invite the patient on every side.” A half mile from the main buildings Wesselhoeft placed outdoor baths among the trees beneath a hill bordering the Whetstone Brook. A thatched summer shelter was built in another spot, provided with seats, and given the enticing name “Eagle’s Nest.” Many paths wound along the hillsides, through the woods, and beside the waters of the Whetstone and along the West and Connecticut rivers. Possibly with an eye to his entrepreneurial responsibilities, Wesselhoeft instituted a rule that each patient should contribute a dollar toward keeping the paths in repair. “A regular account was kept of receipts and expenditures, and each contributor, becoming a stockholder, had the right of suggesting improvements,” one of Dr. Wesselhoeft’s patients explained. Additional bathhouses were fitted into the landscape during the 1850’s and 1860’s, indicating both the success of the doctor’s plan and the cooperative spirit of his patrons.
Perhaps because they had adopted an adversary relationship to the wilderness for two centuries, Americans were less accustomed than Europeans to practicing “the art of life lived in the open air,” but Wesselhoeft and other water-cure practitioners were determined to show them that the outdoors could be the site of genteel leisure as well as hard work. These outdoor activities were particularly adapted to women. “Breakfast and luncheon on the veranda, needlework and reading aloud by groups in sequestered nooks, walking at all times and in all directions, archery and picnics in favoring weather were features of his curriculum,” wrote one observer. “By means of open wagons, stagecoaches and horseback, where nature was most alluring,” wrote another, “picnickers would gather.”
This environment was structured to provide women with more physical freedom than they experienced in the polite Victorian society then taking shape in American towns and cities. Whereas tightly laced corsets, elaborate attire, and the myth of female fragility constrained the average woman during this period, water-cure centers encouraged women to experience the psychic and physical relaxation that comes from healthy bodily exercise. Another structural advantage of the cure site for women was its rule against the admission of children. Admitted as patients but not as dependents of patients, children were kept at a distance. Boarding schools grew up in the area to accommodate them, but while at the cure itself mothers had to resign themselves to a sweet interlude of childlessness. Communing instead with adults, they could choose from a wide variety of social events ranging from amateur theatricals and musicals to “hydropathic balls.” For unmarried women water-cure establishments were congenial to courtship activities, and romance flourished among its young patrons.
Yet the water cures had more to offer women than a romantically restful resort atmosphere at the sanitariums. As the pages of The Water Cure Journal proclaimed, gynecological medicine was a major concern of hydropathy. Discussions of childbirth, menstruation, and diseases and disorders of the generative processes filled the Journal , and related topics such as frequency of sexual intercourse, masturbation, abortion, and barrenness also received discreet attention. In all these matters hydropathy lived up to its claim to be the friend of nineteenthcentury women. Its sympathy for the special medical problems of women stood in stark contrast to the hostility and indifference characteristic of traditional contemporary medicine.
The basic attitude of hydropathists toward the health of women was most clearly revealed in its treatment of childbirth. In one of its early issues The Water cure Journal presented its views on the topic, saying: “It is very certain that woman’s suffering in labor can be in a great degree prevented, and that she need not endure that weakness after child-birth which is so common.” Far from accepting severe pain during childbirth as natural or following the Biblical imperative as a sign of Eve’s guilt in originating sin, water curists felt that “it was unnatural for woman to be so injured, so torn to pieces, so wrecked by natural pains.” Hydropathy tried to reduce labor pains by encouraging women to relax with massage and warm baths during labor, and it sought to minimize the effects of childbearing on the female constitution by promoting extensive exercise during pregnancy and a prompt return to routine activities after delivery.