The healing power and beneficial effects of water have been known since prehistoric times. The emergence of spa resorts at locations giving access to river-, lake- or seawater rich in minerals is directly related to this belief. An important part of today’s wellness industry is taken up by wellness resorts boasting a wide range of facilities and treatments involving water. These kinds of resorts boomed in popularity throughout the previous century.
Read on to explore the healing effects of fresh spring water, mud baths, and saunas as advertised throughout the 20th Century.
While drinking and bathing in source and sea water have been common practices for many centuries, dedicated spa resorts centered around water wellness only started to emerge in the 18th century. By the early 20th century, spas were equipped to cater for a complete wellness experience.
Apart from complex bathing procedures resort guests were often offered to follow a strict diet, or were even required to follow one. These diets often made the most of the beneficial qualities of the locally sourced water these resorts were built around.
The mud acquired at the resort location was also put to good use: covering the body with mud allowed for its thermal, mechanical and chemical effects to fully exert its beneficial effects.
Guests could take part in exercise programs or enjoy a range of diversions including golf, gambling, hunting and horse racing.
Luckily, guests were left with ample time to let the body recover from physical exertion, take in the natural scenery, and leave behind the stress of modern times.
This poster highlights the value propositions of Wörishofen Bayern spa in Germany: housing, medical care, water features, sports and an overall leisurely atmosphere ‘free from the pressure of fashion’. All of this was advertised to be set in a healthy climate, with adequate facilities making it enjoyable in both winter and summer time.
European Jewry contributed to the medical, economic and cultural development of the spa and spa culture in Europe. Popular centers for the Jewish bourgeoisie in the beginning of the twentieth century included resorts, such as Karlsbad (Karlove Vary), Marienbad (Mariánské Lázně) and Franzesbad (Františkovy Lázně).
Spas were places to be seen and became an important space for socializing and culture in the twentieth century. In 1911, the author Sholem Aleichem preserved this spa culture in one of his last books Marienbad, which lampoons Polish Jews summering at wellness resorts.
Where thermal spas sprung up around naturally occurring water sources, the popularity of spas resulted in wellness centers opening up in the 1970s in locations without a natural healing spring. These wellness resorts would still offer a wide range of treatments and water-related facilities, such as saunas.
Pioneering countries such as Finland and the Baltic States helped to popularize sauna culture all across Europe. From the 1940s onwards, soldiers who had fought alongside the Finnish during the Continuation War took the custom home with them.
Modern wellness centers take the basic principles of hydro- and balneotherapy to an unprecedented level. Today, these centers provide not only baths, therapeutic treatments and saunas, but a plethora of other facilities: contrast baths, wave pools, hot tubs, hammams and floating tanks – both challenging the body and relaxing the mind.
EXPLORE MORE: The wellness revolution: body culture
Sofie Taes for KU Leuven – Photoconsortium
with help from Sasha Goldstein – Jewish Cultural Quarter
This blog is part of the Europeana XX. A Century of Change project which focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.