Being pampered by the pool: spas and wellness resorts in the 20th Century

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. 

EXPLORE MORE: Elixirs, tonics, diets and cornflakes: peddling health during the 20th Century

Read on to explore the healing effects of fresh spring water, mud baths, and saunas as advertised throughout the 20th Century.

Taking a sand bath at a hot spring, Japan, 1930, Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Mössebergs cold water spa, s.d., Falbygdens museum. Public Domain
Bathing in the Ogre river, staple of the local health resort, 1925, Latvijas Nacionālā bibliotēka. CC BY

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.

The Porla brunn spa resort, 1924, Anna Wilhelmina Hedström, Örebro läns museum. Public Domain
Design for a 1930s balneotherapy complex, 1936, Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Wave pool at Hajdúszoboszló, Hungary, 1943, Balatoni Múzeum – Keszthely. CC BY-NC-ND
Ronneby Brunn, 1961, Blekinge museum. Public Domain

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.

Stock of glass bottles to cater for spa guests at Ronneby Brunn, s.d., Blekinge museum. Public Domain
The Sprudel medical water drinking hall in Karlsbad, Czech Republic, 1912, Balatoni Múzeum – Keszthely. CC BY-NC-ND

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.

Spa guest receiving a thermal mud bath treatment in Dax, France, 1920, Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Wellness treatment with mud, 1956, Örebro läns museum. Public Domain

Guests could take part in exercise programs or enjoy a range of diversions including golf, gambling, hunting and horse racing. 

The offering at Bartholomew Joseph Alexander Dominiceti’s Baths, 1930, Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Panorama of available baths, drinking areas and therapeutic treatments at Wiesbaden baths, Germany, 1936, Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Postcard with greetings from health resort Schruns in Vorarlberg, Austria, s.d., Vorarlberger Landesbibliothek. CC BY

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.

Enjoying a healthy lifestyle at Porla brunn, 1924, Anna Wilhelmina Hedström, Örebro läns museum. Public Domain
Relaxing at the health resort, s.d., Falbygdens museum. Public Domain
Sunbathing by the thermal lake of Héviz, Hungary, 1934., Balatoni Múzeum – Keszthely. CC BY-NC-ND

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.

Poster advertising the Wörishofen Bayern spa, Germany, early 20th century, Friedrich Rehm, Wellcome Collection. CC BY

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).

Postcard from Marienbad, 1898, Balatoni Múzeum – Keszthely, Hungary, CC BY-NC-ND

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.

Sholem Aleichem author of Marienbad, Bibliothèque nationale de France, NoC-OKLR

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. 

Watercolor of a smoke sauna interior, 1947, Finnish Heritage Agency. CC BY

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. 

Sauna ritual with birch twigs, 1940s, Finnish Heritage Agency. CC BY
Three generations enjoying the sauna experience, 1930s, Finnish Heritage Agency. CC BY

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. 

Bubble bath in good company, 1995, Brabants Historisch Informatie Centrum. CC BY-ND

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.

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