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Erika Janik

Writer, Historian, Inveterate Seeker. Curious About Everything (especially history). Passionate About Writing.

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water

The Original Ice Bucket Challenge

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.

V0011765 A man is treated to a cascade of water in the name of hydrop

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.”

The “Seaside at Home”: A Rocking Victorian Bath

Hydropathy, or the water cure, was hugely popular in the 19th century. And as such, people of all kinds – well meaning and otherwise – developed a panoply of devices and contraptions to help people wash out disease with cold, pure water.

The best might have been this one: the Niagara Wave and Rocking Bath

Source: sundogrr
Source: sundogrr

The bath, manufactured by the “Jersey” Co. (not sure about those parenthesis in the name – were they trying to hide something?),gave users the agitating sensation of the sea, an experience meant to replicate a visit to a real water cure where patients took all manner of baths, water wraps, and showers.

Visiting a water cure was expensive. A week’s stay could cost $10, which was more than the average American earning a$1 a day in the mid-19th century could afford. But water cure practitioners wanted to make sure their cure was affordable and accessible to all so they published reams of books and articles offering advice on home treatments. Any able bodied person could do it, they claimed. And judging by the letters in the main hydropathy magazine, the Water-Cure Journal, many people did and found relief.

The makers of the rocking bath hoped their product would help make home treatment even easier. It “will delight and benefit, especially invalids, delicate people and children” read one article. The back could even be wedged into an upright position to serve as a regular tub if no rocking was desired.

It was truly, as the ad copy reads, “A TREAT never experienced before.”

 

19th Century Health Resolutions for the New Year

Resolutions to be healthy and fit are among the most common this time of year. Only two days in to the new year, we’re all still winning our resolutions (good news!). In honor of my soon to be released book Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine, here are some 19th century tips for living healthy and well:

1. Drink water, the colder the better. Nature’s purest drink was the health beverage of choice for hydropaths, who promoted the benefits of regular bathing, soaking, and imbibing at least eight (and often a lot more – one guy claimed 30 glasses before breakfast!) glasses of cold water a day to wash out disease.

2. Think positive. Phineas Parkhurst Quimby believed that the cause of all disease was wrong thoughts. Replacing bad thoughts with good thoughts led to happiness and health.

3. Go natural. Samuel Thomson was a self-taught American herbalist who believed that nature knew best. He devised his own system of healing known as Thomsonism that relied on remedies made from the plants growing out your backdoor.

4. Move. Outside, if possible. Between drinking water and bathing, hydropathic patients went on long walks in the woods. The fresh air, trees, and other plants made for particularly restorative forms of exercise. On rainy days, patients juggled, danced, or chopped wood – anything to move more.

5. Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other spirituous substances. Homeopaths believed that certain foods and drinks inhibited healing. The movement’s founder, Samuel Hahnemann, even cautioned against drinking coffee, claiming it could lead to impotence, sterility, and mental and physical “degeneration.” But even Hahnemann couldn’t deny its pleasures, particularly in the morning: “In the first moments or quarters of an hour after waking, everyone who is not living completely in a rude state of nature, has a disagreeable feeling of not thoroughly awakened consciousness, of confusion, of laziness, and want of pliancy in the limbs,” Hahnemann wrote. Coffee “removes this disagreeable situation” and makes drinkers “completely alive” with each sip.

L0025612 R.T. Claridge, Hydropathy, or the cold water cure...

 

My new book is only days away from its release into the world (January 7th!). It’s about health and sickness and how Americans throughout the 19th century struggled and embraced a variety of ways to be well before we knew about things like germs. They even got a few things right.

 

 

 

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