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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
Perceptive readers of the Journal might have noticed, however, a great similarity between Nichols’ methods and those he condemned. Sexual release through genital stimulation was a rudimentary water-cure experience for women. In this same article Nichols described the most common water-cure treatment for the most common female disability, prolapsus uteri , or fallen womb, thus: “The water-cure treatment for prolapsus uteri is the general treatment of invigoration; and the local treatment best fitted to give tone to the whole region of the pelvis.” Prominent among the available options, he said, were wet bandages, “carefully and tightly applied,” the “sitz-bath,” and “frequent vaginal injections.” As a general principle, he concluded, “whatever exhausts vitality in a woman causes prolapsus uteri . Whatever restores the tone of the nervous system cures it.” Thus although Nichols drew the line at overt masturbation, he did encourage patients to experience release of tension through stimulation of the “pelvic” area.
While an air of Victorian repression hovered over the lives of most American women, those frequenting the water cure found a sympathetic sanctuary where they could be more expressive and feel more relaxed than they did at home. There was something profoundly comforting about these cure centers for women. There bodily sensuality could be more freely indulged, and female communality replaced the characteristic isolation of American domestic life. One patient’s sketch captured this sense of release in the 1850’s: The next morning, after visiting the lady physician in her neat little office, we made our first visit to the bathing rooms, and found the baths really agreeable. Figures gliding in and out draped in sheets.…One lady sat with sketch book in her hand and sketched her companions, amidst a burst of fun and laughter, herself the most comical of the group, her head turbaned with a crash towel and her robe hanging as gracefully about her little figure as the robes of Roman Senators in the days of the Empire.
An important part of the release women experienced was simply that of being able to talk about their bodies and their symptoms. “The experience of each individual gradually becomes known to most of [his or her] fellow patients,” Catharine Beecher wrote in praise of the cure in the New York Observer in 1851. This communal aspect of the treatment could provide women with the psychologically reassuring knowledge that their problems were shared by others, and practitioners of hydropathy were fully aware of the therapeutic benefits of this kind of communication. “The hydropathic treatment differs from all others,” the Journal maintained in 1850, “inasmuch as it is administered to hundreds of persons congregated in one place, who are in the constant habit of meeting and discussing its merits, so that there is nothing important that is not known to the whole body; whilst under the allopathian and homeopathian treatment, patients are treated at their own homes, so that none but their own families know the results of either mode of treatment.”
Women who were ill may have chosen the water-cure because it provided a supportive female environment and frequently employed women doctors, but in so doing they were probably also choosing the best medical treatment available to them at the time. In comparison with orthodox medicine the water-cure at least provided the fundamentals of exercise, cleanliness, good diet, and a reassuring environment, rather than leeches, injections, and strong drugs in the isolation of one’s usual domestic setting. One outstanding specialist in uterine diseases still, in 1858, taught medical students to insert leeches into the womb even though he admitted that this could “induce a paroxysm of almost intolerable suffering.” Thomas Nichols voiced an attitude typical of water-cure advocates when he denounced the “tinkerings and torturings” of orthodox gynecological medicine, saying that “their scarifications, leechings, cauterizings” outrage human sensibilities and “produce the most deplorable results.”
Nineteenth-century women could not, of course, rely on abstinence as their sole means of avoiding pregnancy. Abortive pills were widely advertised in spite of the new set of state regulations designed to prevent women from seeking this option. Typical of such advertisements was one that appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1857: Dr. Chessman’s Pills. The combination of Ingredients in these pills are the result of a long and extensive practice. They are mild in their operation, and certain in correcting all irregularities, Painful Menstruations, removing all obstructions, whether from cold or otherwise, headache, pain in the side, palpitation of the heart, disturbed sleep, which arise from the interruption of nature. TO MARRIED LADIES they are invaluable, as they will bring on the monthly period with regularity. NOTICE : they should not be used during pregnancy, as a miscarriage would certainly result therefrom.