You know the adage to drink eight glasses of water a day? This is because water is crucial to our health: It makes up about 60 percent of our body’s weight. According to the Mayo Clinic, water flushes toxins out of vital organs, carries nutrients to cells and provides a moist environment for ear, nose and throat tissues. And of course the lack of water can lead to dehydration.
Today water is fashionable; we carry around water bottles and the brands we drink have become status symbols. But the fact that water is important is nothing new. Various forms of hydrotherapy existed in the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman societies. Hippocrates (c. 460 BC to c. 370 BC), often referred to as the Father of Western Medicine, prescribed bathing in spring water for curing illness. There was also a focus on hydrotherapy in China and Japan that even predates the Roman bath complexes.
In a way, when you take a sip from a bottle of Ramlösa, you take part of that history. Ramlösa, Ronneby and Loka are a few of the many mineral water sources in Sweden, around which fashionable health spas grew up in the early 18th century. When I took a sip of Ramlösa mineral water, I could clearly taste the iron in it — it tasted good and it made me wonder what happened to the old “taking the water” tradition in Sweden. All those places where people gathered to take the cure — were they actually cured, and if so from what? When did that tradition die out and why?
Curious, I contacted Elisabeth Mansén, professor of history of ideas at Stockholm University. In her book “Ett paradis på jorden” (2001), Mansén writes about the Swedish resort tradition. She explains that the tradition took off with Sweden’s first spa resort, Medevi, which was founded by one of the country’s then most famous doctors and chemists, Urban Hiärne (1641-1724), who had studied the phenomenon on the continent. Medevi was followed by several others in the early 18th century: Ramlösa, Ronneby, Gustafsberg, and Sätra among the more famous ones. And in the beginning “taking the waters” (or “dricka brunn” as it was known in Swedish), was thought to cure almost anything.
“Yes, almost everything except perhaps cancer, epilepsy and tuberculosis. The most common diagnoses were gout, rheumatism, psychological problems and problems with indigestion,” says Mansén. “But it’s hard to say whether the water itself cured anything, and I have to admit the statistics from these resorts, which are kept at Riksarkivet (the National Archives) in Stockholm, are imposing.”
Mansén explains that it can hardly have been the water alone (with its relatively small quantities of minerals and salts) that led to such enormous effects. Doctors in the early 19th century were already pointing out other benefits of the resorts: The change of air, rest, diet, a more regulated life, perhaps access to better health care and the possibility that people were removed from their destructive home environments were also important components.
According to Mansén, the resorts filled a number of needs—they meant vacation, health care, preventative care and a way to care for oneself all rolled into one experience. Some people traveled there alone, others brought their families with them.
“We oftentimes forget that also poor people came. The letters, diaries and pictures we have from that time that describe the resorts often belong to the middle or upper class, but there are also stories about how maids and farmhands were cured,” says Mansén. “Some people came to recover after a difficult birth, others to get rid of a stubborn cold.”
The stay at the resort was divided into semesters of four to six weeks; according to tradition that’s how long it took a cure to “take.” In the beginning, one only drank the water to flush out the ailment, but at the same time one also bathed in the water, especially warm baths were popular, which in turn were good for the general hygiene.
“The most important persons at the resort were the doctor and the priest. As soon as you arrived, you had to register with the doctor to receive your prescription for your stay. You also had to report the result to the doctor prior to leaving,” says Mansén.
It seems the resorts had a holistic view of humans and their health. Exercising was part of the recommendation, which at the time meant trips in a carriage, walking in the adjoining park and arranged dances and balls. The social aspect of life, with communal meals, walks and cultural events were important. Worries and cares ought to be left behind.
In some ways, this kind of restfulness is still alive in the many resorts and spas that exist today. The tradition to “dricka brunn” died out sometime between World Wars 1 and 2, however. Many factors were at play.
Mansén explains: “There were structural changes in society, a reorganization of health care, and also a change in attitudes and values. Add to that an accelerated medical specialization. New medicines and treatments were introduced and people put their hope in experts rather than their family doctor. There was also a change in how people viewed their spare time. Activity became more important than rest, and it was no longer enough with a stroll in the park. Turistföreningen (the Swedish Tourist Association) and Friluftsfrämjandet (the Swedish Outdoor Association) were successful in their campaigns for hiking trails and biking holidays. It became more important to see as much as possible of Sweden, than to remain a few weeks in the same place.”
There are traditions worth keeping, and this might be one of them. There’s a lot of interest in spas in Sweden today with newspapers full of ads selling a weekend at a spa. And of course there’s a renewed interest in alternative medicine and natural remedies in general. Today, though the spas are more sophisticated and algae and seaweed treatments are often offered, there’s always water involved to some degree.