The Water-Cure Journal and Herald of Reform: Understanding Hydropathy in Antebellum America: A special guest blog by Rachel Williams

30 January 2017


This post has been written by Rachel Williams, a Lecturer in American History at the University of Hull. This blog post is the second in a special series from members of the British Association for American Studies (BAAS) to support the second BAAS Digital Essay Competition, sponsored by Adam Matthew. The winner will receive £500 and one year’s access to an Adam Matthew primary source collection of their choice. For more details, including how to enter, click here.

The Water-Cure Journal and Herald of Reform, included in the Adam Matthew resource Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900, was the foremost publication of the hydropathy movement in the antebellum United States. Hydropathy, which advocated the internal and external application of water to the body as a means to promote health, happiness, and longevity, was one of several alternative medical practises which gained popularity in America before the Civil War. These “nature cures” appealed to those wary of the increasingly liberal use by mainstream physicians of vigorous and invasive techniques such as bloodletting and purging.

The Water-cure journal, and herald of reforms © The Library Company of Philadelphia. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Edited by Joel Shew, a prominent practitioner who established his first water-cure centre in 1843, the Water-Cure Journal and Herald of Reforms was first published in 1845. A brief survey of just one issue of this journal – here, the August 1848 edition – helps us to understand the main preoccupations and aims of the hydropathy movement, and how adherents sought to attract converts.

The Journal was anxious to emphasise the integrity, legitimacy, and efficacy of the method it promoted, through testimonies and lengthy articles offering apparent proof of the benefits of the water-cure. One case study, for instance, explored the use of water therapy to treat a 38-year old woman who had suffered several miscarriages, as well as a spinal condition which threatened her current pregnancy. The article condemned the “cupping, scarifications, burnings, cauterisations, moxas, &c” inflicted upon her by mainstream physicians, and detailed at length the gentler water therapies administered at the Oyster Bay water cure facility. This involved foot-washing, injections of water, baths, and imbibing large quantities of cold water. The woman gave birth safely and, the article reported, “is gaining strength rapidly every day,” so that she was soon able to return home with her new child [46-49].

The Water-cure journal, and herald of reforms © The Library Company of Philadelphia. Further reproduction prohibited                                                                                     without permission.

Click the image to see this document in the collection.

A common feature of the hydropathy movement was the establishment of dedicated water-cure centres, often in rural areas, promising access to pure water, quiet and picturesque surroundings conducive to recuperation, and the latest technological innovations and modern comforts. The Water-Cure Journal was filled with advertisements for luxurious facilities equipped for a wide range of therapies. Dr Meeker’s retreat in South Orange, New Jersey, for instance, claimed “a private bathroom attached to each patient’s room…a large douche and swimming bath…three large plunge baths…and two wave baths, one of them from the natural falls of the brook in the ravine” [61].

The Water-Cure Journal not only trumpeted the benefits to be derived from plain water, but also warned against the deleterious effects of stimulants such as tea, coffee, and tobacco. Along with other antebellum reformers like Sylvester Graham, hydropaths believed such substances not only damaged the body, but also tempted human beings into licentiousness and immorality, and ultimately led to social ruin.

“They bring nearly all the penalties of poverty into the homes of the rich,” the Water-Cure Journal warned, “and spread such a blue, sulphurous, deathly flame over life, that all sorts of diabolism, quackery, and monstrous theological humbugs are sure to flourish” [43]. The Journal emphasised that the moral and medical superiority of the water-cure was down to its roots in nature – a nature ordained and created by God. There was almost something baptismal about submitting oneself to the restorative, cleansing powers of the water. As one testimonial claimed, “the rich and the poor, the hale and the weary, all could go to the gushing springs, limpid streams, ‘wash and be healed’” [42].

As the diversity of the articles, testimonies, and advertisements in the Water-Cure Journal suggest, hydropathy was more than eccentric quackery. Its adherents constructed an often radical worldview which encompassed the physical, the psychological, the religious, and the social realms, and which offered a sustained and articulate critique both of mainstream medicine, and of the excesses and social ills plaguing antebellum America.

Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900 is available now. For more information including trial access and price enquiries, please send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. For more details about entering the second BAAS Digital Essay Competition please click here.

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About the Author

Rachel Williams

Rachel Williams

Rachel Williams is a Lecturer in American History at the University of Hull. She is currently working on a book about civilian relief agencies in the Civil War era.