December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
Beset with ailments, Victorian women found solace, in more ways than one, in a new panacea—hydropathy
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.
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.
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.
One of the reasons nineteenthcentury women thought themselves frail and weak was that they became frail and weak during the protracted convalescence that orthodox medicine prescribed after childbirth. Most women remained in bed for several weeks and grew progressively enfeebled. Mrs. M. M. Gross, a doctor and a practicing hydropathist, believed that childbirth was a season of “purification” for a woman, and “it is absurd for her to envelope herself in blankets, and live for weeks in an unventilated room, where no air or water is permitted to clean her person, or purify her lungs.” Women who had benefited from water-cure principles during childbirth frequently compared its effectiveness to orthodox methods in the pages of the Journal . One Mrs. O. C. W. wrote that she was “kept confined to my bed nearly two months”, with the birth of her first child, and “it was not until about the middle of the following summer that I attained my former health and strength.” Wanting to avoid this “regular” treatment and “regular” results with her next child, she converted to “hydropathic, that is, natural principles.”
Except for the heavy reliance on cold water those principles, as Mrs. O. C. W. describes them, bear a remarkable similarity to modern maternity care: At my confinement, I was attended by intelligent females of the Water-cure order. Of doctors we had no need. At the commencement of labor, I took a sitz bath, and an enema of cold water; these soothed me into a quiet sleep, and seemed to prepare me for my coming trials. After the birth of the child, I was allowed to remain about an hour; I was then bathed in cool water, and linen towels wet in cold water were applied to the abdomen. The next morning I was again bathed, and I arose from my bed, walked to a chair, and sat up while I ate my breakfast, which consisted of Graham bread, a glass of cold water, and a few stewed peaches. In the afternoon I again arose, and partook of similar refreshments.
On the third day after her delivery she walked outside, and within a week she was once more enjoying her “usual health,” she wrote—a typical water-cure recovery. So strikingly did her maternal care contrast with the usual experience of women in childbirth that this woman’s daring became the talk of her upstate New York town. Originally she herself “could not… really believe that I should be quite so speedily raised up,” and her neighbors had warned her of the “rashness, presumption and folly” of her watercure plans. Nevertheless her rapid recovery and sound health showed that her trust in the water-cure had been well placed.
The success of hydropathy in gynecological treatment arose from its willingness to abandon orthodox theory and practice, its willingness to transcend contemporary stereotypes and conventions pertaining to women, and its belief that the best medical practices for women were those that the patients liked and that made them feel good. This new health care was based on what had been found to work rather than what physicians believed ought to work. In keeping with this pragmatism, hydropathy encouraged women to take an active role at all levels of their own health care—by becoming physicians themselves ( The Water-cure Journal anticipated that women would soon dominate medicine, it being a field properly theirs through its close association with qualities of nurture); by reforming their dress and abandoning the fashionable garb that deformed their ribs, impaired their internal organs, created chronic shortness of breath, and generally inhibited their free movement; and by taking personal charge of their own health after mastering the basic invigorating principles of bathing, exercise, and a spare diet. A revolutionary premise stood behind these hydropathic beliefs: that a woman’s body belonged to herself—not to her doctor, not to her children, and not to her husband.
In fact, the control by women of their own bodies was a basic tenet of the water-cure; its corollary was the regulation of male sexual impulses. While orthodox physicians “saw woman as the product and prisoner of her reproductive system,” water curists tried to help women exercise control over this system. The Journal not only hammered away at their campaign for more women doctors but also exposed and ridiculed the growing tendency of the medical profession to treat women as ignorant children who must be guided by their betters—especially by their physicians. When a leading gynecologist attacked female midwives as “cold, hard, calculating,” hence unwomanly, and hence dangerous, the Journal denounced such self-serving misogyny, pointing out that a struggle was being waged for the control of the medical treatment of women. The Journal vowed to resist orthodoxy’s effort to “wrest from our hands the very-wellpaying and correspondingly important practice of midwifery.”
T. L. Nichols, a doctor, a frequent contributor to the Journal , and a supporter of women’s rights, declared: “Women must become their own physicians, and the physicians of each other. They have leaned too long upon a broken reed.” He further insisted that every woman must have “control of her own [life]” before she could be cured of illness. The control of a woman’s sexual life by her husband was especially pernicious, Nichols implied, since it subjected her to the potentially deadly abuse of her generative system. “By the sensual and selfish indulgences of those who claim the legal right to murder them in this manner, and whom no law of homicide can reach, and upon whose acts no coroner holds an inquest,” Nichols wrote, “thousands of women are consigned to premature graves.”
Although Nichols’ language may seem exaggerated, it should be remembered that the sexual experience of nineteenth-century women occurred in a culture that attributed an almost insatiable sexual drive to males, but practically none to females. Acting on such cultural definitions, many men assumed that women had no sexual needs of their own and that their role in sexual intercourse was merely that of an agency through which male satisfaction could be achieved. In these circumstances it is not surprising that many women were dissatisfied with their sexual lives in the nineteenth century and that they began to speak by midcentury of controlling “conjugal excesses.” In this effort to assert some female control over sexuality the water cure provided emotional support and medical documentation. Most important, it advocated sexual abstinence as an essential ingredient in the cure of a wide variety of female illnesses ranging from nervous prostration to inverted wombs. On the question of sexual expression itself the Journal decried “conjugal excesses” as “a shame to our race” as well as a danger to female health and maintained that “the true and only safe rule in the exercise of the propensities and instincts God has given us for the wisest of purposes, is to be temperate in all things .”
To understand fully the eagerness with which middle-class nineteenthcentury women flocked to water-cure centers, it is first necessary to understand how widespread’ ill health—usually associated with the reproductive system—was among them. In fact, so general were physical disorders among women of childbearing age that invalidism often became both chronic and ritualized. Invalidism did offer certain compensations. The decline, convalescence, and recovery ceremonies of the female sickroom allowed women to communicate with one another about their physiological fears and to express their normally repressed emotions. Whether they were nurses, companions, or patients, women in the sickroom were freed from the usual taboos against intimacy between females.
Invalidism was also a means through which women could express their resentment at being excluded from the culture’s dominant values of competition, achievement, strength, and self-assertion. If their sex disqualified them from full social usefulness, then it could also disable them for the performance of their unrewarding routine duties.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, after ten years of childbirth and marriage, retreated for nearly a year to Brattleboro’s water-cure, from which she declared her unhappiness to her husband, Calvin. Assessing her marriage, she recalled the “sickness, pain, perplexity, constant discouragement, wearing, wasting days and nights” of the early years when Calvin was often absent and of little help when he was present. “Ah, how little comfort had I in being a mother—how all that I proposed was met and crossed and in every way hedged up! In short,” Harriet concluded, “God would teach me that I should make no family be my chief good and portion, and bitter as the lesson has been, I thank Him for it from my very soul.”
Calvin managed the household as best he could in Harriet’s absence. Remaining at Brattleboro months longer than she had originally anticipated, Harriet slowly but deliberately advanced through the steps leading to an invalid’s cure. Defending her need for a prolonged stay, Harriet gave herself sufficient time to think through her attitude toward American society’s treatment of women and her own response to that treatment. Uncle Tom’s Cabin , written a few years later, was built on the premise that there was something basically incompatible between the institutions of American society and the well-being of its oppressed minorities—especially of its women, both white and black.
The extent of female invalidism was recorded by Mrs. Stowe’s sister, Catharine Beecher, in an 1855 publication, Letters to the People on Health and Happiness . In a personal poll that sampled a total of seventy-nine communities and over a thousand women, she found that the sick outnumbered the well by a ratio of three to one. In a typical community profile of Batavia, Illinois, she recorded: Mrs. H. an invalid. Mrs. G. scrofula. Mrs. W. liver complaint. Mrs. K. pelvic disorders. Mrs. S. pelvic deseases. Mrs. B. pelvic diseases very badly. Mrs. B. not healthy. Mrs. T. very feeble. Mrs. G. cancer. Mrs. N. liver complaint. Do not know one healthy woman in the place.
Surveying the health of her personal acquaintances, she concluded, “I am not able to recall, in my immense circle of friends and acquaintances all over the Union so many as ten married ladies born in this century and country, who are perfectly sound, healthy, and vigorous.” Although Catharine Beecher’s casually gathered statistics provide impressionistic rather than conclusive measurements of the health of her generation, they do show that great numbers of women perceived their health as precarious, and they demonstrate the ubiquity of the image that linked women with infirmity in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.
Catharine Beecher’s remedies for this situation fell into three categories. First, she campaigned for dress reform and an end to the suffering women experienced through fashions that distorted their physiology and hampered their freedom of movement. Second, she urged women to exercise regularly and rigorously to restore the natural resilience of their bodies. Third, she recommended the water cure and its attendant comforts.
Not all water-cure propagandists were as “respectable” as the Beecher sisters, however. Given hydropathy’s emphasis on the physical emancipation of women, it is not surprising that women’s-rights advocates of all kinds should have been drawn to the movement. The career of Mary Gove Nichols—a leading water-cure lecturer from 1845 to 1853—serves as an example.
Born to a freethinking father and a Universalist mother, Mary Neal married Hiram Gove in 1831 and bore their first child a year later. Four subsequent pregnancies were abortive or produced a stillborn child. While Gove grew increasingly tyrannical, petty, and economically dependent on her needlework during the 1830’s, Mary began to administer cold-water treatments to neighboring women; and by the end of the decade she began lecturing to women on anatomy, physiology, and hygiene. In 1838 the newly formed Ladies Physiological Society in Boston invited her to give a course of lectures, and this launched Mrs. Gove on a health-reform career dedicated to relieving women from the suffering they experienced due to their ignorance of biology and especially of sex. In 1842 she published her Lectures to Ladies on Anatomy and Physiology and left her husband.
After lecturing to female patients at Brattleboro in 1844, she established her own water-cure center in New York the next year and increasingly emphasized the necessity of mutual love for the procreation of healthy children. In 1848 she married Dr. T. L. Nichols, and together they opened a new water-cure establishment in New York City, established a short-lived co-educational water-cure medical school—the American hydropathic Institute—in New York, and increasingly adopted radical answers to the questions posed by the status of women. She and Nichols planned a “School of Life,” to be located at Modern Times, site of a Long Island utopian community. At the school complete freedom was to be practiced in every human relationship, including that of sex. Every woman was to have the right to choose the father of her child. In their joint work on marriage in 1854 and in Nichols’ Journal of Health, Water-Cure, and Human Progress they attacked marriage as the origin of most human misery and evil. This advocacy of “free love” was totally out of Victorian bounds, and from then on the Nicholses were ostracized by respectable water curists.
Mary Gove Nichols was one of several women who lectured to women audiences about their physiology at midcentury. Such lecture courses were a standard event at water-cure centers, especially those designed primarily or exclusively for women. The Glen Haven Water-Cure of up-state New York employed Harriet Austin as resident physician for women, and her advertisements in the Journal stressed the fact that women at Glen Haven “walk erect as God made women to walk.” Summing up the Glen Haven attitude toward women, Dr. Austin said: “We eat, we drink, we sleep, we work, we dress, we laugh, we pray with freedom ” She encouraged women to come to Glen Haven to learn “our ideas, our notions, our plans, our purposes” and to carry back “our forms of life into the centers where they dwell. … We propagate our principles … we make thorough converts of those we have not seen.”
Whether or not it was converting women sight unseen, hydropathy was encouraging new forms of freedom for women. Some of these were revealed in an article by Thomas Nichols in his Journal in 1851. There Nichols concluded by condemning (and at the same time probably informing most of his readers about) the shocking practices begun by “a mercenary and libidinous wretch” whose medical practice consisted in “manipulations and anointings, managed in such a way as to stimulate the passions and produce a temporary excitement of the organs which his deluded victims mistake for a beneficial result.” This masturbatory cure was “extremely lucrative,” Nichols said, deluding “thousands of women” in New York City alone, and “has been taken up in other places.” He assumed that “every pure-minded woman” condemned these “shameful practices.”
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.
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.