Thursday, June 15, 2017

Taking the waters in Hot Springs

When the attendant asked for my sheet, there was no turning back. I had stripped off my clothes, stuffed them into a locker, and entered the men's bathing area clad in only a thin cotton sheet. What I was about to experience was close to the what visitors to Hot Springs would have participated in 100 years ago, in this very bathhouse, including the nudity.

My wife and I journeyed to Hot Springs, Arkansas to feed my curiosity about the history of medical tourism connected to springs. In Florida after the Civil War, elaborate facilities housed bathers who found our springs to have great curative powers. Places like Green Cove, White Sulphur, and Suwannee Springs were home to elaborate bathhouses with ornate Victorian-style facilities such as hotels and spas for their upper class clientele.  For a brief time hydrotherapy became an important treatment for curing a variety of ailments, and sanitariums and spas offering methods for healing involving water popped up all over Florida. Henry Flagler's Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine had elaborate spa facilities; John Harvey Kellogg opened a branch of his Battle Creek Sanitarium in Miami Springs; and the Seventh Day Adventist Church practiced hydrotherapy at the Florida Sanitarium in Orlando. Studying the history of hydrotherapy in America wet my appetite to experience the practice myself. That's how I found myself naked in Hot Springs, warily handing over my bed sheet to a stranger.

From Fordyce to Buckstaff
While touring the elaborately restored Fordyce Bathhouse, the Park Ranger shared that two of the bathhouses on Bathhouse Row still allowed one the opportunity to soak in the famed mineral waters. Quapaw Baths and Spa offered a more contemporary spa experience with facials, massage, and "Hot Stone Alignment." The Buckstaff Bathhouse, however, offered the ultimate "thermal mineral bathing experience" that was virtually unchanged from what bathers have undergone in Hot Springs for decades. After the Ranger's description of the Buckstaff process, even my wife, who is not a fan of spas, agreed that we had to give it a try.

Detail of the lobby of the Fordyce Bathhouse, restored by
the National Park Service.
Detail of the spectacular stained glass at the Fordyce Bathhouse.
Fountain and tile work in the lobby of the Fordyce bathhouse.
Unlike the Buckstaff, the Quapaw offers a communal bathing area
like those in Europe and Asia (no nudity.)

At the Buckstaff
We arrived at lunch time when the baths were closed and were told to return at 1:30. By 1:15 the line had all ready began to form in the lobby, and we waited for our chance to sign-up. Buckstaff offers a variety of services, but we signed up for the Whirlpool Mineral Bath treatment that included a tub bath, sitz bath, vapor cabinet, needle shower and hot pack towel treatment for $33.

Buckstaff Baths opened in 1912 and is the only Hot Springs bathhouse that still provides the traditional bathing experience. The bathhouses on Bathhouse Row catered to different clientele – while the decor and architecture of the Fordyce bathhouse obviously catered to the upper end of the economic spectrum, the more Spartan appointments of the Buckstaff make it clear that it was for folks with less means. The building itself has a covered porch along the front with enormous columns that appear to poke out between eye-catching blue and white striped awnings. The lobby is smaller and more minimally decorated in comparison to some of the more upscale neighbors like the Fordyce which boasts beautiful fountains and tile work in the lobby to entice guests.

Buckstaff Bathhouse. Library of Congress.

After we paid for treatments my wife and I split up; as is tradition the baths are segregated by gender. The women's baths were on the second floor, the men's on the first floor adjacent to the lobby. I was the first male in the men's bath after the staff's lunch break, so it felt a bit odd as I began my bathing experience in a large facility without any other bathers. After depositing my clothes in a locker, I headed into the bathing area, a large open room that appeared to take up the entire back of the rather large building. In the center of the room were rows of vinyl covered tables, much like those you would see used by contemporary massage therapists. Along the walls were various marble stalls with various hydrotherapy devices; sitz baths to my right, enormous tubs on my left. I didn't have time to look around much as the bath attendant, dressed in entirely in white, (as is the tradition), led me to my mineral bath.

A note of self-disclosure, I have always been modest about nudity. In middle school swimming class I wore underwear under my bathing suit so I wouldn't have to be naked in front of the other kids. While I'm not that kid any more, I must admit I was a bit uncomfortable getting buck naked in front of a complete stranger at Buckstaff Bathhouse.
The men's changing area at the Buckstaff. Library of Congress.

Little has change since this photo was taken. Library of Congress.
Here's what the tub looks like, sans plumbing. Library of Congress.

Hot mineral bath
The attendant helped me into the enormous tub. He instructed me to place my feet on the far end of the tub and lean back. The water felt hot at first, but I got used to the temperature fairly quickly. The temperature gauge by my right foot showed it was 104 degrees. The hot mineral water comes from 45 separate springs on the side of Hot Springs Mountain and the average temperature of the water at its source is 143 degrees. Here is an explanation from the Park Service of why the water is hot:

Rain water collected throughout the recharge area northeast of town slowly converges at a maximum depth of probably between 6,000 to 8,000 feet at a point just west of the Bathhouse Row area. Here the rocks are cut by a series of large faults. Cracks and fractures associated with these faults provide the hot water with an escape route up to the surface. Heated by the natural heat gradient within the earth, the trip up is so rapid, that there is very little cooling of the water. Of the approximately four thousand years it takes the rainwater to make its round trip, perhaps only a year or so at the very most is needed to get back up the surface.

The whirlpool was created by a vintage looking device that looked like a cross between a kitchen mixer and outboard engine. It was attached to the tub above my left foot and the electric engine was perched just above the water. I wondered what would happen if it were to fall from its perch – I could see the headlines in my mind: "Florida man electrocuted in Hot Springs mineral bath." I did my best to put those fears out of my mind and relax into the warm flowing water.

The whirlpool motor at the Buckstaff was similar to this one. Library of Congress.

At one point the attendant added more water to the tub and it was noticeably warmer coming out of the tap. I was promised a 20 minute soak but I could tell by the clock on the wall it was much more like 15 minutes. By the time the attendant returned with a towel to take me to the sitz bath, I was so comfortable in the tub that it took great effort on my part to remove myself from the warm mineral waters.

Sitz bath
The attendant then led me to the sitz bath which had a small wooden seat resting in it that he proceeded to scrub with Ajax. I figured it was because my short stature might require a boost to fit correctly. I sat in the little tub while warm water cascaded over my mid to lower back. It felt heavenly, like taking a long warm shower (but without the guilt of wasting water or electricity.)  After a few minutes I was once again rousted from my relaxed state to cross the room for my vapor cabinet experience.

Here's a vintage illustration of a sitz bath.
Sitz bath in the Fordyce Bathhouse.
Vapor cabinet
My only previous experience with steam bathing was a very short stint in the steam room at the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa. I found it hard to breathe and impossible to see. Traditionally at Hot Spring bathhouses there are two types of vapor cabinets, the type where one's head is exposed and the walk-in type. I was taken to the walk-in type for two minutes of steam. I found it hard to breathe through my nose, so I breathed through my mouth. The air had an interesting earthy, sweet taste. Soon sweat was oozing out of every pore in my body. While at first I found it to be claustrophobic and uncomfortable, again by the time the attendant came to get me out I didn't want to leave!

Fordyce Bathhouse vapor cabinet.
Sweating in a vapor cabinet. Library of Congress.
Buckstaff Bathhouse walk-in vapor cabinet. Library of Congress.
Hot pack treatment
The attendant asked if I had an area of my body that I would like "packed" with hot towels. Remembering how good it felt to have warm water pouring on my lower back in the sitz bath, I asked him to apply the towels to my back. I laid face down on the table and warm damp towels were applied to my back. Then I was wrapped up tightly in sheets like an Indian papoose. There is something calming and relaxing about being confined like this, a similar treatment was used in asylums to calm agitated patients. Ten minutes later the attendant returned to take me to the needle shower.

Hydrotherapy treatment, image from the Willard Digital Collection/Willard Library
Needle shower
I'd seen images of people in needle showers with hoses pointed at their backsides that looked like cruel torture devices. They still have the equipment in the Lightner Museum in the spa of the former Alcazar Hotel. So I wasn't quite what to expect as I stepped into the Buckstaff's needle shower. The website defines a needle shower this way:
A needle bath or needle shower directed jets of water all round the torso. Sometimes the water flow could be adjusted, and a particular setting was promoted as a liver shower or bath, supposedly offering a stimulating massage for internal organs. Its energizing effects were considered more suitable for men than women. Needle showers were marketed to gentlemen’s athletic clubs as well as private houses. Some people call them cage showers.
I found it to be relaxing, but was a little disappointed that the water pressure wasn't as epic as I had imagined. When the attendant returned the last step left in my hydrotherapy treatment was the cool down room.

Needle shower and sitz bath at Fordyce bathhouse.
Fordyce bathhouse needle shower.
Lightner Museum needle shower in St. Augustine. 

Needle shower in France, circa 1880.

Cool down
I was directed into a room full of massage tables where I was instructed to chill for about 10 minutes. The space was simple and sterile looking – white subway tiles on the walls, ceiling fans overhead, and a TV near the door. Another bather came in and I considered striking up a conversation to compare our experiences, but I was decided I was too blissed out and I didn't want to risk breaking the spell by talking. After a few minutes, I left and got dressed, and then went outside to wait for my wife. While I was seated in an Adirondack chair on the Buckstaff's front porch, some other tourists came by to pose for pictures. One of them was smoking and I almost felt like yelling at them for bursting my healthy bubble. It felt like every pore of my skin was open; every cell in my body relaxed. I decided to run to the gift shop next door before my wife got there and almost couldn't get out of the chair. I was that relaxed. It felt good.

The cool-down room in the Fordyce Bathhouse.
My wife did not experience the same level of relaxation that I did, and she later pointed out that the building was definitely showing its age. While it was not hospital clean, to me the age of the surroundings only added to the experience. The archival images from the Library of Congress used in this post are not that different from how it looks today, only with more wear and tear due to the passage of time. 

I was disappointed that I was not given drinks of spring water throughout the process as I had anticipated (my wife was). Hydrotherapy as practiced in the late 1800s and early 1900s included taking the waters both internally and externally. To compensate, my wife and I capped off our experience at the Superior Bathhouse, now a brewery, with the only craft beer brewed using hot springs mineral water. Now that's refreshing!

Superior bathhouse photo by Leslie Fisher for All About Beer Magazine.

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