It was the summer of the ice bucket challenge. Dumping icy water (or just ice. Or just ice to make a stiff drink) on your head to raise awareness for ALS while challenging others to follow suit.
One hundred and fifty years ago, people poured ice cold water on their head or bathed in it as a medical treatment itself. Hydropathy, or the water cure, promoted the benefits of pure cold water to good health. Many people took the cure at any number of water cures that opened around the country in the 1840s and 1850s. Most cures were located in beautiful spots alongside streams, lakes, or beside mountains. But the best time to come wasn’t summer but winter when the water was colder and the breezes strong and chilling. Water cures often advertised their winter amenities to people looking to be well.
Hydropathy’s founder Vincenz Priessnitz maintained that the water “cannot be at too low a temperature.” The “lower the temperature,” he claimed, “the more efficacious it will prove.” As a result, many water cures charged more in the winter than for a summer visit.
Unsurprisingly, winter brought its own hazards to those taking the cures. Icicles sometimes formed around the head of the outdoor shower, sending icy daggers along with cold water down on the head of the patient below. Outdoor bathers sometimes found themselves floating beside chunks of ice.
While critics of the water cure delighted in these tales of peril, patients loved it. Reformer and teacher Catharine Beecher declared hydropathy “the safest and surest methods of relieving debilitated constitutions and curing chronic ailments.”