Ah, the spa! A short history of the long soak

I’ve always loved a long soak in a hot tub, especially with some fragrant salts or oils added to the mix. I’m not alone! Tolkien wrote a poem about the pleasures of the bath, “Sing hey for the bath at the end of the day.” He seems to be channeling fellow Oxonian A. E. Houseman with these lines: “But better beer when drink we lack, and water hot poured down the back.”

Personally, when I visit the spa, I prefer hibiscus-mint tea with a swirl of agave nectar to beer.

Bathe away your blues

Alienists and other health practitioners in the Victorian period prescribed many forms of hydro-therapybath1 for the treatment of nervous disorders. Water treatments have obvious, immediate effects with the added benefit of being less likely to do harm than drugs or poorly tested electrical devices.

“The beauty, and utility, of hydrotherapy lay in its very flexibility. It was a form of therapy that could be modified in countless different ways, as the patient’s own needs and illness dictated. The water cure could be made ‘antiphlogistic [reducing inflammation], or depressive of increased action,’ when the body’s vital activity had to be lowered, as with fever or inflammation; ‘tonic or restorative,’ when bodily functions needed arousal, as with debility, dyspepsia, or many nervous complaints; and ‘alterative,’ when somatic action had to be regularized, as with constipation.” (Oppenheim, p.133.)

Showers are generally more stimulating than baths. Doctors prescribed warm or cold baths for hypochondriasis, tepid bathing for nervous indigestion, warm shower baths for general nervousness, and cold baths for hysteria.

I am fairly certain that a cold bath would make me more hysterical. Although when I was in college, I lived in a house without air conditioning. One of my favorite things was relaxing in a cool herbal bath at the end of the day. But the prescription mentioned above was for ladies in Victorian England, where surely it is rarely hot enough for a cold bath to be refreshing. 

From the beginning of time

African Bush Elephant mud bath 1Humans everywhere and always have sought out hot springs and bubbling mud. Not just humans: elephants famously love their mud, as do pigs and dogs or any creature with an itchy back. I’ve seen blue jays repeatedly flying through the water arching out of a sprinkler, trying to get a bath in the long, dry summer.

Wherever there is a hot spring or a potable mineral spring, humans have created a sacred place and a reason to loll about in the luxury. And if Nature failed to supply the hot water, people found ways to provide their own.

We all know about the Finns and their famous saunas, but they weren’t the only ones to invent this great pleasure. Sweating in groups was practiced all around the Baltic region.


Hupa Sweat House (northwestern California)

The Nahua (descendants of the Aztecs) call their steam rooms temazcalli (hot houses). Pre-conquest Americans devised sweat lodges and ceremonies with which to celebrate them from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

Sweat lodges are a great place to learn about a people’s language and culture, if you’re lucky enough to be invited into one. Linguists prize such invitations as a rare opportunity to hear ceremonials or special genres of stories or just a bunch of fun-loving Inupiat sitting around telling jokes about the visiting linguist.

If you want to try the traditional Nahua version, go to Oaxaca, Mexico and stay at Las Bugambilias, a lovely hotel near the central plaza. They will book you a few hours in their temazcal, a truly mind-expanding and body-restoring experience. Don’t plan on doing anything else that day.


Macaques in Jigokudani hotspring in Nagano Japan

I’m not finding anything about sweat lodges in other parts of the world, but hot springs are globally appreciated and not just by homo sapiens. Although, speaking for myself, I would rather not share my bath with a group of monkeys. Or bathe in a fur coat!

A treat for the elite

Elizabethans believed that diseases were transmitted through the pores, especially by hot water. This belief spread with venereal diseases from the bath houses in Southward where prostitutes infamously plied their trade.

That didn’t stop the elite from bathing in a few select locales. Bath, Somerset (a World Heritage Site), was founded by the Romans, although the Britons had a shrine on the same spot, dedicated to the goddess Sulis. The Romans, as we know, loved their baths. “Where are the hot springs?” was the first question they asked when they landed (before the conquering part began.)

Anyway, Bath was popular in Elizabeth’s time, although only “the court element,” as Hembry putsbuxton it, could afford the experience. It was popular during the summer months, when London was too hot and plaguey and the weather permitted immersion out in the open air. Also when the roads were dry enough to make travel something other than an ordeal. They had coaches toward the end of Elizabeth’s reign, but only small, stiff, jouncing ones on iron-rimmed wooden wheels. 

A rival spa was established in Buxton, Derbyshire, by the Earl of Shrewsbury. The elite of the elite favored this establishment. Mary, Queen of Scots went there, as did Lord Burghley and his sons. The Earl of Leicester was on his way to Buxton when he died. Queen Elizabeth reputedly laughed at the fashion — she who was gifted with robust health and abstemious tastes. She had no need for spas.

Taking the waters


Comforts of Bath- The Pump Room, by Thomas Rowlandson

You don’t have to immerse yourself to benefit from a spa. Many such retreats gained their fame from the healthful ingredients in their bubbling spring waters. Hot springs have a higher mineral concentration, so the two benefits are often found together, but taking off your unwieldy costume and actually getting wet was not required merely to sip a cup of hard water.

This too is an ancient remedy. The waters at Ojo Caliente in New Mexico have been a source of healing for thousands of years. The Tewa people built pueblos near the springs; before that, there is evidence that migratory peoples would stop here on their circuit. Ojo is famous for having four different mineral springs to offer: lithia, arsenic, soda, and iron. I’ve been there many times. You bathe in the outdoor pools, dashing across the snowy paths to get to the next one. There are paper cups handy so you can drink straight from the springs flowing out of the rocks.

We know about the pump room at Bath from Jane Austen, of course. From the painting by Thomas Rowlandson shown here (1798), water was served from a counter, as in a bar. That water contains a little of everything, according to Thermae Bath Spa: sulphate, calcium, chloride, sodium, bicarbonate, magnesium, silica, and iron. 

The water cure


The bath at Bath

The water cure, aka hydrotherapy, was developed in England from the 1840s. It wasn’t enough for the inventive Victorians to sit around in a pool of water, however elegant that pool might be. They needed a theory and they needed gadgets.

Once the idea took hold, spas and institutes for hydrotherapy (hydros) sprang up everywhere. The major spas were at Malvern in Worcestershire and Ben Rhydding in Yorkshire. The latter pioneered the compressed-air chamber, which removed atmospheric moisture, for the particular relief of asthma and bronchitis.

James Ellis, a former lace merchant, styled himself Dr. Ellis after studying hydropathic medicine in Germany and Austria. in 1845 he became the master of Sudbrook Park in Richmond, a fashionable “hydro.” Richard Metcalfe supervised two establishments in the 1870s: Priessnitz House, near Edgware Road in London, and Gräfenburg House in the London suburb of New Barnet. Umberslade Hall, a hydro run by Edward Johnson in Warwickshire, was situated in a large park, with paths for walking and lakes for boating and lanes for carriage rides. Oh, and also baths.

“Both offered more than thirty variations of water therapy – every conceivable sort of shower and bath, hot and cold dripping sheets, hot fomentation packs for local inflammations, tepid or cold affusions, and much else. Each form of treatment had its price, from six shillings for a private Turkish bath (by appointment only), to one shilling, sixpence for more commonplace ministrations. These fees were additional to the weekly residence charge, which ranged from two pounds, twelve shillings, sixpence to six guineas for a superior bedroom and private sitting room.” (Oppenheim, p. 132.)

Everyone who was anyone, and many who were nobody, enjoyed the hydros. Here are som patrons whose names you might recognize: George Eliot, Dickens, Macaulay, Huxley, Bulwer-Lytton, Tennyson, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, Ruskin, Darwin, and Spencer.

I’m among the nobody class, but you would have found me at Priessnitz House on a chilly afternoon after too much writing. And I want one of these rocking baths!




Hembry, Phyllis May. 1990. The English Spa, 1560-1815: A Social History. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Oppenheim, Janet. 1991. “Shattered Nerves”: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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