The bath and bathhouse in America had many forms, including private versions attached to houses or separately constructed in a garden, and public baths at resorts, in public gardens, and at the seaside. The term “bath” referred both to the structure covering the water and to the watering receptacle or pool itself. The structures were sometimes called bathhouses or bathing houses. Baths at natural sources of mineral waters were also referred to as spas and springs.
Although garden treatise literature contains few references to garden baths, other evidence indicates that the bathhouse held a prominent position in American ornamental landscapes. Baths were situated in public gardens, such as a public bath and garden in Norfolk, Va., or Bathsheba’s Bath and Bower in Philadelphia, and in many private gardens, such as John Donnell’s Willow Brook in Baltimore and Charles Willson Peale’s Belfield in Philadelphia. Baths at private estates might be simple, as suggested by the note in the South Carolina Gazette in 1733, of “frames, Planks, &c. to be fix’d in and about a Spring . . . intended for a Cold Bath.” They also could be quite substantial, as was Charles Carroll of Carrollton’s stone-lined bath, which he ordered in 1778 to measure ten by eight feet with a depth of four-and-ahalf feet. Few detailed descriptions of the architecture of these bathhouses survive, however. At Monte Video in Connecticut, the bathhouse was described merely as Gothic. More is known about the architecture of public baths, where the structures were larger and often quite elaborate. Many textual descriptions and images of baths survive because they were considered civic amenities, such as the bath at Castle Garden in New York [Fig. 1]. Samuel Vaughan’s 1787 plan for the town of Bath included “baths [at a] for company 5 by 18 feet that fills in 5 minutes & emties [sic] in four,” dressing rooms [b], two piazzas with seats [bb], a large bath for swimming [f], and a separate “Bath for Poor People [g]” [Fig. 2]. Sophie Madeleine du Pont in 1837 described and sketched a bathhouse at Warm Springs (Berkeley Springs), Va. (later W.Va.), with a thirty-foot octagonal masonry basin and four separate bathing rooms [Fig. 3].
Mineral springs were visited as early as 1669 when Massachusetts colonists took the waters at Lynn Red Spring, but it was not until the end of the French and Indian War that springs began to be developed widely as commercial establishments.1 A bath at Stafford Springs in Connecticut opened in 1765 and became, in the words of Samuel Peters, “where the sick and rich resort to prolong life, and acquire the polite accomplishments.” 2 In addition to bathing, spas, such as Yellow Sulphur Springs, near Philadelphia, often included a variety of entertainments such as dining, dancing, and overnight lodging.3 Bathing, as a general practice, was argued to have healthful effects. J. B. Bordley wrote in 1798 that “[e]very family in this fine climate ought to have its bath. . . . Bathing moistens, soaks, washes, supples and refreshes the whole body.” At the age of 95, Charles Carroll of Carrollton credited his longevity to daily cold baths. When bathed in and imbibed, mineral waters rich in sulfur and iron were particularly renowned for their curative properties for ailments such as rheumatism, cholera, malaria, hysteria, gout, and digestive disorders. Du Pont, seeking relief from a back and knee ailment, took the waters of Warm Springs, and she described vividly the sulfur- rich water’s “odour of half spoiled eggs.”
As their popularity grew, accommodations and other facilities were built at many of the springs to cater to the travelers seeking rest and refreshment. These resorts often included elaborate gardens. In 1775, the Virginia Assembly laid out the town of Bath around a spring that had been owned by Lord Fairfax. Lots sold at 25 guineas each, and Bath included a theater, inns, and places to ride and play billiards. Charles Varlé’s landscape design for the town in 1809 [Fig. 4] included a reservoir or fountain “covered with a vine treliage in a form of a dome or copula,” a jet d’eau, a bowling green, and two labyrinths “contrived so as to be different in their issues and windings.” The town became a fashionable resort; visitors included Baron and Baroness de Riedesel and Mrs. Charles Carroll of Carrollton.4
The Bath resort community declined in popularity with the rise of the other Virginia springs in the Allegheny highlands described by Thomas Jefferson as “medicinal springs.” These springs became part of a social tour that lasted from July through mid-September. The tour generally started at Warm Springs, and continued on to Hot Springs, White Sulphur Springs, Sweet Springs, Salt Sulphur Springs, and Red Sulphur Springs.5 Lewis Miller’s sketch of Yellow Sulphur Springs illustrates accommodations, walks, benches, lighting, and other features for the recreation of the bathers [Fig. 5]. Historian Carl Bridenbaugh credits these resorts, at least in colonial times, with “promoting colonial union and . . . nourishing nascent Americanism.” He argues that, in addition to the springs’ appeal as salubrious escapes from humidity, heat, and noise, they offered the “most significant intercolonial meeting places. . . . [and] provided a powerful solvent of provincialism.”6 As some of the most elaborate landscape designs of the period suggest, resorts may also have done much to disseminate the fashion for baths and bathhouses in residential gardens as well.