Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Take the Waters ... Please

Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

Bathhouse Row, Hot Springs National Park

The 19th century was the best of times and the worst of times.  On three divergent fronts. We had the idle rich that glorified luxurious travel We had pioneers braved the wilderness to forge a new nation, and we also had the uneducated/quack doctors and patients that sought and promoted quack cures for all sorts of maladies.

Consider that...
  • Electricity was promoted as cure for numerous diseases.
  • Corn Flakes were marketed to cure masturbation.
  • Drinking or bathing in mineral water allegedly able to cure all sorts of ailments from alcoholism to arthritis, baldness, Bright’s disease, cancer, catarrh, chapped hands, constipation, diabetes, diarrhea, “female complaints,” flux, gout, hectic fever, high and low blood pressure, indigestion, insomnia, jake leg (a neurological malady caused by drinking moonshine whiskey containing tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate, an industrial chemical), malaria, milk leg, neuralgia, opium addiction, piles, pneumonia, rheumatism, ringworm, scurvy, sour stomach, St. Vitus’ dance, toothache, ulcers, and venereal diseases, plus various other unspecified skin, eye, stomach, bladder, liver, spleen and kidney problems."*
Last week I took a side trip to the mother of all national park units, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. Besides my peculiar interest in questionable medical cures, I had been offered a volunteer park service job there this summer and wanted to check it out. 

The original Hot Springs Reservation, the first designation of Hot Springs National Park, was set aside by Congress in 1832. Hot Springs National Park is thus the oldest of more than 400 units in the national park system. That's 40 years older than Yellowstone National Park. nd as such, it can rightly claim that it is America's Spa.

In about 1870 westerners increasingly traveled to Hot Springs for the thermal baths and to drink the mineral water. Native Americans used it for centuries before that. It took another 100 years for the site to finally be placed on the National Register of Historic Places for its own protection. There's been a long history of conflicts among private landowners, entrepreneurs, and the federal government on what should be regulated to protect this natural resource. Like
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the news over the last month, the federal government won the fight but works in partnership with local interests.

Mineral water has historically been defined as "a natural water produced from a well or spring that naturally contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids." Did you know that water spa aficionados distinguish about a dozen different types of mineral water? Thermal, Hypothermal, Mesothermal, Hyperthermal, Osmotic, Chemical, Oligomineral, Carbogaseous, Alkaline, Sodic, Saline / Chloro-Sodic, Sulfated, Sulfurous, and Ferruginous. **

What intrigued me about Hot Spring's bathhouse row of seven historic spas was the segregated and regulated pseudo science of the operations. First of all these were initially white-only establishments primarily tended to by African-American attendants. The National Park Service rightly now exhibits the role of race in the operation of the facilities.

Women's Treatment Room
As for the pseudo-science aspects, you need to realize that many of the treatments offered at the spas then required a doctor's prescription to acquire. Not that there wasn't an economic motive to provide them to anyone that could pay the bill. Three of the treatments' apparati are captured in the adjacent photo I took.

~ Left, background) Multi-jet needle-like showers where dozens of water jets targeted specific parts of the body.

~ (Right, background) Mercuric sitz-baths where one sat in a short tub and allowed mercury-laden water to be absorbed through your mid-section.
~ (Foreground hoses) Intense, high pressurized enemas.

(Not shown) Electrified soaking tubs.

Enema Control Cabinet. Steam Cabinet on the Left.
The more traditional regimen for the average patron was:
  1. Perhaps a workout in the private gym
  2. A hot shower
  3. A cold shower followed by a hot towel wrap
  4. A cool-down period
  5. Dressing in the latest styles in the ornate men's or women's locker room, and then 
  6. Socializing on the top floor in the men's smoking lounge or women's tea room.

Men's Dressing Room
Ceiling Above the Men's Dressing Room Scilpture
All in all an interesting afternoon's visit and worthy of a visit and perhaps a modern spa treatment at one of the many commercial spas now still operating in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Should you choose to replicate "taking the waters" for your health I encourage you to skip the mercury baths and electrified baths.

(Dry) Electrical Therapy Treatment Room

See Also:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19230311


  1. Oh my, how interesting. So, did you take the summer job? Seems like the wild west might be more up your alley.😉

  2. No, I turned it down to work in Flagstaff for the Forest Service in Search and Rescue this summer.