“All Hail to Pure Cold Water!”


Clearly women in the mid-nineteenth century were seeking contraceptive and abortive remedies. Here, too, hydropathy may have served as an important source of information and sympathetic treatment. One example of such support was that provided by Russell Trail, an early popularizer and leader of hydropathy, who in his Hydropathic Encyclopedia of 1853 mentions “the safe period” and other contraceptive devices. Trail believed, Norman Himes noted in his Medical History of Contraception , that “a woman had an absolute right to determine when she should, and when she should not conceive.” And on a less formal level it seems probable that women doctors at water-cure establishments in their lectures and conversations with their women patients shared what knowledge they had of the use of contraceptive techniques.

Orthodox medicine, by contrast, took a very negative view of efforts by women to control the birth of children. “The dread of suffering, fears respecting their own health and strength, the trouble and expense of large families, and professedly, also, the responsibility incurred in the education of children, these and other reasons equally futile and trifling … induce them to destroy the product of that conjugal union for which marriage was instituted,” Dr. Hugh Hodge asserted in lectures delivered at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1839.

Given this hostility of orthodox medicine to the “trifling” problems of women, hydropathy must have seemed a tremendous blessing. Offering at least a temporary respite from their annual childbearing, offering sympathy for their pain, a chance to discuss their fears, and a recognition of their sensuality, it is no wonder that water-cure establishments won the patronage and enthusiastic support of so many American women.

Mrs. Sklar, an associate professor of history at the University of California and mother of two children, is the author of Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity , published by Yale University Press in 1973.