Spas and Resorts

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SPAS AND RESORTS. Water therapy and visiting spas had a long history in Europe, especially in areas where the Roman legacy was deeply ingrained. There was growing interest in hydropathy in late medieval Italy, in some cases using bathing facilities that survived from the Roman era, and in fourteenth-century Hungary the granting of town status to a settlement frequently prompted the erection of a bathhouse.


The tradition of the spa may have been less strong on the western edges of Europe. Not until the late sixteenth century did visiting spas became fashionable in France and Britain. Under the influence of royal and aristocratic patronage, and stimulated by professional promotion, a series of centers emerged in France, but only three of theseBourbon, Vichy, and Forgeswere consistently patronized by the elite. Prior to the French Revolution, most Gallic spas remained small in size and appear to have focused on their medicinal roles, eschewing the formation of sophisticated social facilities.

Events took a different course in Britain. The late Tudor and early Stuart phase of growth, which saw important investment in Bath and Buxton and the discovery of Tunbridge Wells, was curtailed by the political instability of the years surrounding the Civil Wars (16381660). After the Restoration, however, the discovery and formation of spas accelerated. Many served a local or regional market, such as the cluster of semirural centersincluding Epsom, Islington, Hampstead, and Sadler's Wellsthat sprang up on the edge of London. A few spas catered to a national clientele, and in 1700 Tunbridge and Bath were the market leaders.

Change forged ahead faster in Britain than France. A key factor was that, whereas in France the state kept a tight rein on development, a resident intendant ('superintendent') controlling the pace and character of new initiatives and keeping the emphasis firmly on health, in Britain no such regulatory framework existed. Competition and commercialization were given full play. Such was the level of demand in Britain that it spilled over to the Continent. Although spas in France and Italy were visited by Britons in the eighteenth century, the principal destinations were Spa and Aachen, which offered an engaging social life, including opportunities for intensive gambling. Some Britons also traveled to the many spas in central Europe (such as Baden, which capitalized on the demand from Vienna), many of which possessed several baths that catered to a range of social classes.

The rising level of demand in Britain also led it to pioneer what was to prove a critical diversification in water cures, the developmentparticularly in the coastal counties closest to Londonof the seaside resort, a trend clearly underway by the 1750s. Serious investment in continental coastal resorts only began to occur from the 1790s. Parallel with the emergence of the seaside resort, and as a consequence of economic growth in the English Midlands and North, a second wave of spa development began, which stimulated both the expansion of Bath (to the point where, by 1800, it was among the top ten or so cities in England), and the rise of spas like Cheltenham, Malvern, Buxton, Matlock, Harrogate, and, later, Leamington.


Central to the character of spa and resort culture were the waters themselves. Popular interest in holy wells, sacred springs, and sea bathing was long established, but elite involvement stemmed from two factors. First, there was in the early modern period a growing fascination with and sympathy for the natural world as a whole. This expressed itself in areas such as gardening (which combined water and horticultural elements) and the picturesque and romantic movements, and led to the reconceptualization of the sea as a phenomenon to be admired and enjoyed rather than feared and avoided. Second, emphasis on the curative chemical properties of water was closely aligned with the rise of natural philosophy and science, and the shift from sacred and magical forms of health treatment to a regime based on rational "scientific" principles. In playing to the agendas of nature and science, water therapy articulated two of the principal themes of the Enlightenment, and demonstrated itself to be as much a cultural as a medical phenomenon.

One aspect of this was that spas and resorts became centers of pleasure as well as of health. In Britain the watering places were one of the key factors in an urban renaissance which, from the later seventeenth century, helped elevate the cultural status of the town. The water resorts acquired an ensemble of social facilities that included assemblies, theater, concerts, gambling, walks and pleasure gardens, sports like bowling and horse racing, and circulating libraries, together with a range of luxury shops and services. The scale and sophistication of this package would vary according to the importance of the resort, but its standardized character was striking. So also was the highly formalized daily routine that bound together the various parts of the package and propelled visitors into contact with each other. As one account of 1737 put it, "you cannot well be a free agent, where the whole turn is to do as other people do; it is a sort of fairy circle; if you do not run round in it, you cannot run at all, or are in everybody's way." This holiday camp mentality placed a huge premium on corporate behavior, and it is clear that one of the functions of the watering places was to weld together the members of the ruling order who flocked to them. In Britain the boundaries of this elite were expanding to accommodate a growing middling order of professionals and businessmen, and the resortsparticularly in their function as marriage marketsplayed an important role in merging old and new social groups. Such a process was tenable so long as the expansion of the middling order remained within certain limits. However, by the late eighteenth century such was the growth within this sector of society that spa life began to fragment, with social events becoming increasingly cliquish and privatized, and many among the landed elite vacating the big spas for smaller, exclusive coastal resorts.

See also Aristocracy and Gentry ; Gambling ; Sports .


Borsay, Peter. "Health and Leisure Resorts, 17001840." In The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, Vol. 2, 15401840, edited by Peter Clark, pp. 775803. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000.

Corbin, Alain. The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World, 17501840. Translated by Jocelyn Phelps. Cambridge, U.K., and Berkeley, 1994.

Hembry, Phyllis. The English Spa, 15601815: A Social History. London and Rutherford, N.J., 1990.

Porter, Roy, ed. The Medical History of Waters and Spas. Medical History, supplement no. 10 (1990).

Walton, John K. The English Seaside Resort: A Social History, 17501914. Leicester, U.K., and New York, 1983.

Peter Borsay