An escape to the country for rest, relaxation, and lots of water was just what many people seeking water cures in the mid-19th century wanted. And when we think of our own habits of escaping to somewhere watery and cool in hot weather, it seems crazy that water cures actually advertised the opposite – that winter, or at least more temperate times of year, were the best time to take the cure. It certainly had its perils. The cold could quickly freeze the wet blankets wrapped around patients. One patient complained of icicles raining down on his head when he stopped at the outdoor shower for his daily wash. It was all part of the cure, though.
While all kinds of people traveled to water cures, women found them particularly attractive. For many, it was one of the few times in their life when they could put the needs of their husbands, children, and homes aside. A stay at the cure was a chance for women to be pampered at a time when womanhood offered little in the way comfort for any but the very wealthy.
Writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame) discovered the wonders of the water cure on her own visit to the Brattleboro Hydropathic Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont. Suffering from the death of her brother, a recent miscarriage, chronic mercury poisoning (from previous medical care), and cholera, Stowe described herself as reduced to a state of “uselessness,” and in dire need of some medical attention. So she traveled to Brattleboro in 1846 to try the water cure. She liked it so much, her husband Calvin feared she might never come home.
“Not for years, have I enjoyed life as I have here,” Stowe admitted, “real keen enjoyment – everything agrees with me.” She loved the daily exercise – “I walk habitually five miles a day – at intervals between my baths, never in my poorest days less than three – and in some good days I have walked 7 – & not suffered for it.” It was some of the most vigorous activity she’d had in years. As a married woman, her mobility had become insular and mostly indoors, limited to the movements of the housewife and mother. She also loved the companionship of her fellow patients. In January, Stowe wrote “We still splash on here & it grows colder & colder.” The bar she held on to during her outdoor shower was covered with a half-inch of ice but she still took 5 or 6 showers a day and walked miles in the cold Vermont countryside.
Calvin grew less enthused with the water cure, though, as his wife’s absence stretched on for more than a year. He couldn’t wait for her to return, reminding her that it had been “almost 18 months since I have had a wife to sleep with me. It is enough to kill any man.”
Stowe did eventually come home, but she never forgot the pleasures of the water cure and the brief space she had that was all her own.