This image by Thomas Rowlandson, Venus’s bathing, Margate, was produced in the 1790s. The Royal Sea Bathing Hospital at Margate was founded in 1791, focusing on the disease of consumption. The fashion for the ‘water-cure’ and for its sea-bathing variant went on for at least a century. But was it something that could cure menstrual problems, or should women with these stay well away from the sea? When I was a young teenager, I remember my school showing a film about how menstruation was nothing to fear, which included a reassurance that bathing while menstruating was perfectly safe. But I also grew up with anecdotes about how cold water would stop the flow of blood.
In 1880 the American physician John H. Packard wrote in Sea-Air and Sea-Bathing, ‘Where there is, in young girls, delayed or difficult menstruation, a summer at the sea-shore will sometimes correct the difficulty altogether’; he attributed such an improvement to ‘exposure to the sun’s rays’, rather than to the water. But, more commonly, it was the water that was thought to affect the body, giving a tonic effect to the whole system.
In Victorian medicine, however, it was normally immersing the feet in hot water, rather than the whole body in sea water, that would be recommended to promote the menstrual flow. Cold water was generally thought to have the opposite effect. John Floyer’s treatise on cold water bathing, Psychrolousia, a history of cold bathing, both ancient and modern, was first published in 1715 but subsequently reprinted over the next century. In it Floyer mentioned a self-help cure in which women immersed their feet in cold water to stop a heavy period. So far, so consistent: hot water promotes the flow, cold water stops it. Yet Floyer also says that cold baths ‘produce Sweats, Urine, Stools, and the Menses, as I am informed by the Women … cold Baths are also good for the Menses’. ‘Informed by the Women’ very much suggests a female practice that existed even before the renewed interest in the medicinal value of bathing.
Because of these mixed messages about the effect of cold water, the habit of sea-bathing could be blamed for all a woman’s menstrual problems! In A Practical Treatise on Sea-Bathing and Sea Air, first published in 1853, George Hartwig warned that
irregularities of the menses often take place during a course of sea-bathing. Sometimes the catamenia (i.e. the periods) appear before the usual time, in other cases they retard or last longer than usual. When the [bodily] economy is exposed to an influence which so energetically stimulates and modifies its vital action, it is by no means surprising that these transient changes should take place. Alarm on their account is perfectly groundless, unless they are accompanied with other symptoms of illness. Bathing must be discontinued during the menstrual period, as its sudden suppression or the increased loss of blood might lead to the most dangerous consequences.
So, it could work both ways. In Sea-Air and Sea-Bathing: Their Influence on Health (1877), the Edinburgh-trained physician Charles Parsons also argued for the benefits of sea bathing for both absent and heavy periods, attributing any improvement to the tonic effect on the whole system. Moving the blood to the skin helped with excess flows, while
In amenorrhoea, dependent as it (is) so often is upon defective hygiene, want of air, exercise, and proper food, and too sedentary a life, the influence of sea-air and sea-bathing is almost unparalleled. But when this disease is of organic origin, sea-bathing is no longer a specific, but a simple remedy for improving the general health of the body.
So, there you have it. Sea-bathing can affect the health of the whole body, and regulates menstrual periods, whether they are too heavy or absent. The only worry seems to have been about whether swimming during the period itself is advisable, and I do wonder whether the fears here are about ‘pollution’ rather than the health of the woman herself.