Friday, April 15, 2016

Public Bathing - Thomas Jefferson & the hot, mineral baths at Warm Springs, Virginia


"You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other," John Adams (1735-1826) wrote Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in July 1813.  Often at each other's throats, the former presidents were mellowing in their old age as infirmities began to set in.

Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States, was the victim of a variety of physical disorders including stress-induced headaches, periods of intense diarrhea, painful joints, several bone fractures, probably prostatic cancer, & declining kidney function. Intermittently he experienced depression, & insomnia; as he was an anxious, probably compulsively controlled person.  (Sounds familiar.)

An engraving of a 73-year-old Thomas Jefferson by John Neagle, after an 1816 painting by Bass Otis

Thomas Jefferson was in his mid-70s, when he visited the mineral waters at Warm Springs.  Warm Springs, later called the Jefferson Pools, is located in Bath County, Virginia.  Jefferson first mentioned being disabled by "rheumatism" in summer 1811.  By 1818, he wrote of his most severe attack of rheumatism ever, accompanied by life-threatening constipation. Taking the waters at Warm Springs, Virginia, may have helped the rheumatism & probably acted as a colonic, but Jefferson expressed some negative responses to the experience.



In 1761, an octagonal Pool House was built at Warm Springs for use by ladies & gentlemen alike, though at alternate times from early morning to late evenings. 


1768 Delle Terme Porrenttae, by Italian botanist Ferdinando Bassi, features illustrations including this one, of individuals bathing in a lake or healthy mineral spring.

Jefferson had first written about Virginia's warm, mineral springs, in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, “There are several medicinal springs, some of which are indubitably efficacious, while others seem to owe their reputation as much to fancy and change of air and regimen, as to their real virtues.”  There were 2 pools at Warm Springs, 35 feet in diameter & fed by the spring through loose cobbles at the bottom of the pools. The temperature of the water varied only a degree or two from its usual 96.   

When John Howell Briggs, who had represented Sussex County at the 1788 Virginia Ratifying Convention, visited in July 1804, he found indifferent accommodations & indifferent food. Yet, he said, “the bath at the Warm Springs is most luxurious. It is inclosed with an octangular wall; about ten yards across and in the center about 5 feet 6 inches deep, shallower at the sides.”  In 1805, Virginian John Baylor noted in a letter that the springs’ buildings were constructed of logs, and he mentioned the offensive smell of the water like “a dirty Barrel of a gun.” 



A year later, Virginian Alexander Dick wrote in his 1806 journal of log huts at Warm Springs; the smell of the copious spring; & of 50 to 60 people with attendant servants, horses, & carriages.  In 1808-09, John Caldwell of New York toured Virginia & published letters about what he saw, "The warm springs, from whence I date this letter, are five miles from the hot springs; here is, perhaps, the largest and most elegant bath in the world. The water is blood warm, and bubbling out of the rock underneath, can be raised or lowered at the pleasure of the bathers."


Edward Beyer’s print of Warm Springs published in 1857 in Album of Virginia: or, Illustration of the Old Dominion. Edward Beyer, a German artist, spent 2 years traveling, sketching, & painting throughout Virginia.

With the hope of helping his aching joints, Thomas Jefferson visited Warm Springs in 1818.  His initial assessment of the effect of the spring water was positive, but his visit led to near-disastrous results. On August 4, he wrote his daughter, Martha Washington Jefferson Randolph (1772-1836) , “Every body tells me the time I allot to the Springs is too short. That 2. or 3. weeks bathing will be essential. I shall know better when I get there.” Three days later Jefferson wrote Martha that he had journeyed by horseback to the springs  & had “tried once to-day the delicious bath and shall do it twice a day hereafter.” He described the table as well kept  & the other guests numbering about 45, “but little gay company here at this time, and I rather expect to pass a dull time...so dull a place, and distressing an ennui I never before knew. … the spring with the Hot and Warm are those of the first merit. The sweet springs retain esteem, but in limited cases.”

Martha Washington Jefferson Randolph (1772-1836) by James Westhall Ford (American artist, 1794-1866)

In a 2nd letter to his daughter 1 week later on August 14, 1818, Jefferson wrote that he continued to bathe for 15 minutes 3 times a day & presumed that the seeds of his rheumatism were eradicated. He decided to yield to the general advice of a 3 week stay. He wanted “to prevent the necessity of ever coming here a 2d time." 

In his 3rd week of taking the waters at Warm Springs in 1818, Jefferson developed boils on his buttocks. The 50+ mile ride to the spa plus possibly unsanitary conditions there may have led to this illness.  His homeward return ride was a trial. Once at home, for several weeks he conducted his correspondence lying down. He did not ride a horse for several months.  

He wrote his daughter again on August 21, 1818, “I do not know what may be the effect of this course of bathing on my constitution; but I am under great threats that it will work it’s effect thro’ a system of boils. A large swelling on my seat, increasing for several days past in size and hardness disables me from sitting but on the corner of a chair. Another swelling begins to manifest itself to-day on the other seat.” 

Jefferson’s letter of September 12, 1818 to Dr. Thomas Cooper (1759-1839), 1st professor of natural science & law in the University of Virginia, stated that he had returned from the Warm Springs several days earlier though not in the condition he had hoped but instead “in prostrated health, from the use of the waters. Their effect, and the journey back reduced me to the last stage of exhaustion; but I am recovering.” He explained the brevity of his letter as a result of not being able to sit erect due to pain.

On October 6, 1818, Jefferson wrote to his old friend, South Carolina Senator Colonel William Alston (1756-1839), “I became seriously affected afterwards by the continuance of the use of the waters. They produced imposthume (abscess), eruption, with fever, colliquative (profuse) sweats and extreme debility. These sufferings, aggravated by the torment of long & rough roads, reduced me to the lowest stage of exhaustion by the time I got home. I have been on the recovery some time, & still am so; but not yet able to sit erect for writing.”

Jefferson wrote John George Jackson (1777–1825), attorney & industrialist, just after Christmas on December 27, 1818, that “my trial of the Warm springs was certainly ill advised. for I went to them in perfect health, and ought to have reflected that remedies of their potency must have effect some way or other. if they find disease they remove it; if none, they make it. altho’ I was reduced very low, I may be said to have been rather on the road to danger, than in actual danger.”

Assessing his 1818 visit to the mineral springs as a past president, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “it would be money well bestowed could the public employ a well educated and experienced physician to attend at each of the medicinal springs, to observe, record, and publish the cases which receive benefit, those receiving none, and those rendered worse by the use of their respective waters.”  (The normally strict constructionist Jefferson had supported the establishment of federal Marine Hospitals in 1798; & of course, negotiated nearly by himself for the Louisiana Purchase less than a decade later.)  

In 1819, Jefferson explained that he was "too feeble to walk much but riding without fatigue six to eight miles per day, and sometimes thirty or forty."  Jefferson's strength declined further in winter 1822, when he wrote that he could walk "only [to] reach my garden, and that with sensible fatigue." 

John Adams, at about age 80 c 1816, by Samuel F.B. Morse

Jefferson wrote. "Man, like the fruit he eats, has his period of ripeness. Like that, too, if he continues longer hanging to the stem, it is but an useless and unsightly appendange."  Six months before his death, John Adams wrote to Jefferson: "I am certainly very near the end of my life. I am far from trifling with the idea of Death which is a great and solemn event. But I contemplate it without terror or dismay." Presidents John Adams & Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826.

See:

Edwin Morris Betts and James Adam Bear, editors, The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson, Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1966.

William Burke, The Mineral Springs of Western Virginia, New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846.  

Exhibit inspired by William Burke's work at the University of Virginia Library, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, organized & curated in 2009, by Janet Pearson, under the direction of Joan Echtenkamp Klein.

Analysis of The Water at Warm Springs
Approximate Partial Analysis (Parts per Million)

388.00    Dissolved Solids (Calculated) 
120.00    Iron (Fe)   
    5.40    Sodium (Na) (Calculated)  
194.00    Bicarbonate (HCO3) 194.00
160.00    Sulphate (So4) (by turbidity) 
    1.50    Chloride (Cl)  
      .10    Nitrate (NO3)  
 316.00    Total Hardness (as CA CAO3) 


Bathing Machines from 18C Britain to Early America


In 1794 New York, traveler Henry Wansey visited Long Island reporting, "We crossed at nine in the morning, at Brooklyn Ferry, with our horses, and rode through Flat Bush to Gravesend, near the Narrows, where there is a beautiful view of the sea and all the shipping entering the harbour. A Mr. Bailey, of New York, has just built a very handsome tea-drinking pleasure house, to accommodate parties who come hither from all the neighbouring ports...It seems parties are made here from thirty or forty miles distance, in the summer time."  By the 1790s, public bathing & swimming had become popular up & down the Atlantic Coast. Henry Wansey noted that Mr Bailey "intends also to have bathing machines, and several species of entertainment."



 1700s Benjamin Beale's Bathing Machine Modesty Hood

The bathing machine was an 18C & 19C contraption devised to allow "proper" people to change out of their usual clothes, possibly change into swimwear & then wade at beaches. Bathing machines were roofed & walled wooden carts rolled near or even into the sea. Some had solid wooden walls; others had canvas walls over a wooden frame.  The bathing machine was part of etiquette for natural water bathing more rigorously enforced upon women than men but observed by both sexes among those who wished to be proper.  Men & women were usually segregated, so nobody of the opposite sex might catch even a glimpse of them in their bathing suits, which were not considered proper clothing in which to be seen. 



 1700s Ralph Waters I (1720-1798) Figures and Bathing Machines in the Bay below Tynemouth Castle

Bathing machines usually were rented out by concessionaires whose livelihood depended on the renting of bathing machines, deck chairs, bathing suits & other beachfront paraphernalia. Their target market was the newly rising middle class & upper lower class vacationers, who now had the time & the transportation to go to the seaside once a year, but not money enough to spend on a luxury resorts or private homes on the shore.



 1775 Hall Margate Guide

Of the 1770s bathing machines, Tobias Smollett wrote, "Imagine to yourself a small, snug, wooden chamber, fixed upon a wheel-carriage, having a door at each end, & on each side a little window above, a bench below – The bather, ascending into this apartment by wooden steps, shuts himself in, & begins to undress, while the attendant yokes a horse to the end next the sea, & draws the carriage forwards, til the surface of the water is on a level with the floor of the dressingroom, then he moves & fixes the horse to the other end – The person within being stripped, opens the door to the sea-ward, where he finds the guide ready, & plunges headlong into the water – After having bathed, he re-ascends into the apartment, by the steps which had been shifted for that purpose, & puts on his clothes at his leisure, while the carriage is drawn back again upon the dry land; so that he has nothing further to do, but to open the door, & come down as he went up – Should he be so weak or ill as to require a servant to put off & on his clothes, there is room enough in the apartment for half a dozen people." The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, Tobias Smollett, 1771



 1788 Benjamin West (American painter, 1738-1820) The Bathing Place at Ramsgate

A contemporary description of George III bathing at Weymouth in 1789 describes the king’s dippers thusly: "The bathing-machines make it [‘God Save the King’] their motto over all their windows; and those bathers that belong to the royal dippers wear it in bandeaus on their bonnets, to go into the sea; and have it again, in large letters, round their waists, to encounter the waves. Flannel dresses, tucked up, and no shoes or stockings, with bandeaus and girdles, have a most singular appearance; and when first I surveyed these loyal nymphs it was with some difficulty I kept my features in order." Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, vol 5, pp. 35-6



1789 George III bathing Royal dipping – print by John Nixon, published by William Holland



 1791 Sayer Bathing Machine 



 1800 Droit House with Bathing Machines, Margate, Kent

The bathing machines in use in Margate, Kent, were described in 1805 as "four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, & having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy."


 1803 Woods Bathing Machine



 1804 Diana Seaside.  

In Sanditon, Jane Austen writes of Miss Diana Parker feeling the need “to encourage Miss Lambe in taking her first Dip. She is so frightened, poor thing, that I promised to come & keep up her Spirits, & go in the Machine with her if she wished"



 1810 A Peep at the Mermaids



1820 Badekarren werden ins Meer gefahren TitelBade Kutschen der See-Badeanstalt auf der Insel Norderney



 1820s Venus Bathing



1829 Mermaids at Brighton by William Heath (1795-1840), Depicts women sea-bathing with bathing machines at Brighton.



 1830s Ramsgate bathing machines off the High Street

An excerpt from The Traveller’s Miscellany and Magazine of Entertainment, written in 1847 recalls the details of a luxury bathing machine, "The interior is all done in snow-white enamel paint, and one-half of the floor is pierced with many holes, to allow of free drainage form wet flannels. The other half of the little room is covered with a pretty green Japanese rug. In one corner is a big-mouthed green silk bag lined with rubber. Into this the wet bathing-togs are tossed out of the way. There are large bevel-edged mirrors let into either side of the room, and below one juts out a toilet shelf, on which is every appliance. There are pegs for towels and the bathrobe, and fixed in one corner is a little square seat that when turned up reveals a locker where clean towels, soap, perfumery, etc. are stowed. Ruffles of white muslin trimmed with lace and narrow green ribbons decorate every available space."



 1831 Bathing Machine by George Bonnart in Margate, Ramsgate & Broadstairs Illustrated History



1858 The Bathe at Newport, by American artist Winslow Homer, Harper's Weekly Newspaper September 1858.