Mineral Springs and Watering-Places of Georgian Times

From early times, the water from mineral springs were used to remove or alleviate disease, and these waters were often ascribed to the occult or sometimes said to be miraculous in their abilities to cure disease, both chronic and acute. Some people had such belief in the mysterious agency of mineral springs and their waters that they entertained exaggerated notions of their capabilities and power and used mineral waters whenever they were ill. However, other patients found that mineral waters did not alter or alleviate their sufferings, and they tended to claim that such waters cured people because of a “mere change of air, scene, and mode of life.”[1]

Mineral Springs and Watering-Places of Georgian Times

Unidentified mineral springs from the 1600s. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite critics, watering-places were prevalent and well patronized across the European continent in the Georgian Era. According to The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine:

“The British and Irish mineral waters noticed … exceed one hundred. Those in France are not fewer than eighty; while Germany is richer in these medicinal springs than either Britain or France. There are many in Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Sweden, Russia, and Switzerland.”[2]

Mineral springs were also considered natural sources that arose from the bosom of the earth. Several hypotheses existed as to the formation of them, but the most general opinion in the 1830s was that they were formed in the following manner:

“[Because of] atmospheric moisture in the form of rain and dew, which, sinking through the cracks and fissures of the soil in mountainous districts, penetrates deeper in the earth in proportion to the degree of pressure of the superincumbent column of liquid, and by its action on the different strata through which it percolates becomes impregnated with mineral particles, acquiring a higher or lower degree of temperatures; which some have considered referrible to the central heat of the globe, and have endeavoured to prove that the elevation of temperatures is in a direct ratio in the depth at which a spring arises.”[3]

The efficacy of mineral springs were claimed to depend upon intimate combinations of such things as saline, metallic, and gaseous substances present within the water. Different watering-places also had different amounts of minerals or salts and might contain alkaline, carbonates, sulphate of lime, or carbonic acids. Moreover, some of the watering-places had turbid water or it was colored by various substances. The smell and taste of the water at mineral springs were often characteristic of individual springs, and, so, for example, “an inky, astringent taste [was] peculiar to chalybeate springs.”[4]

Mineral springs were discovered in different ways. For example, several highly efficacious springs were claimed to have been discovered because of diseased animals that supposedly instinctively drank from the waters to aid in their recovery. Several specific cases of animals enjoying mineral waters were known, and animals were also claimed to notify people as to when mineral springs were ready to enjoy. For example, according to one person:

“It is a known fact that at Vichy, in the month of April, the period when the snow melts on the mountains, when the wind has passed over the springs from the direction of Puy de Dome, and has carried the vapour to distances more or less considerable, the ruminating animals on the left bank of the Allier swim across the river to come and drink with avidity at the salutary springs of the establishment: the waters are then fit for use, and the people of the country are in the habit of saying the season has commenced, the beasts have passed across, — les bêtes ont passé.”[5]

Today’s Carolus Thermen, thermal baths named after Charlemagne. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By the mid-1830s, it was noted that watering-places were often enhanced by adding pharmaceutical combinations and that different mineral springs were prescribed for people for different diseases. Among the types of mineral springs were sulphurous, chalybeate, saline thermal, saline aperient, alkaline, and acidulous springs. These six springs are described below.

  • Sulphurous springs were said to be the “most important and efficacious in the removal of many intractable disease.”[6] These springs had sulphur that existed usually in combination with hydrogen gas and sometimes in larger quantities, carbonic acid gas and various salts. These springs were said to be “exceedingly stimulating.” Therefore, people who were weak or of irritable or of nervous temperament were cautioned to be careful when using them. When sulphurous springs were used as a bath, it was reported they increased capillary circulation and mucous membranes. When taken internally, these waters acted primarily on the mucous membranes of the stomach and bowels and excited the secretion of the bile and abdominal venous circulation. These waters were also claimed to be efficacious in cutaneous and rheumatic afflictions. Aix-les-Bains had a sulphurous spring, which encouraged many famous visitors, such as England’s Queen Victoria, the French socialite Madame Récamier, and several of Napoleon Bonaparte relatives such as Pauline Bonaparte, Hortense de Beauharnais, and Josephine Bonaparte.
  • Chalybeate springs were said to impart a “tone to the digestive apparatus, and to the system generally, increasing the muscular power, altering the quality of the blood and of various secretions.”[7] Chalybeate waters were said to help individuals “of torpid and lymphatic temperament and weakly constitution; … cases of general debility and muscular atony, unattended by morbid alteration of organs or of the fluids, but frequently dependent upon chagrins or other oral causes … impaired energy … of hypochondriasis and other disorders of the nervous system; of passive hemorrhage, and catarrhal affections.”[8] In addition, these springs were frequently used as an after-cure, subsequent to the employment of other mineral springs. The chalybeate waters became particularly popular in the mid-1700s when Dr. Anthony Relhan began promoting the drinking of these mineral waters from a spring at St. Anne’s Well Gardens in Hove, England. Relhan also published a book on mineral springs in 1761 and that led to increased public interest in drinking chalybeate mineral water that could be obtained from places like Tunbridge Wells, where people like Eliza de Feuillide (Jane Austen‘s cousin), frequented, or Aix-la-Chapelle visited in the late 1700s by the Princesse de Lamballe, who was superintendent of the household to the French queen, Marie Antoinette.
  • Saline thermal springs contained muriate of soda, or common table salt. These salts were usually combined with sulphates, carbonates, and muriates and a variable amount of carbonic acid gas. When this water was taken internally it supposedly increased “the secretions of the alimentary canal without proving purgative, of the kidneys, and of the skin.”[9] When used as a bath it was claimed to excite both the nervous and vascular systems, diminish swellings, help with rheumatism, chronic gout, and improve the mucous membranes. However, its use required “professional superintendence and [was] contraindicated in most of the cases in which sulphureous waters [were] inadmissible.”[10]
  • Saline aperient springs were distinguished by the predominate ingredients of sulphate of soda (Glauber’s salt) or sulphate of magnesia (Epsom salt). These springs were generally gaseous and hot or contained little gas and were cold. The hot springs generally excited a person’s system while the cold one was said to be cooling, aperient, purgative, or diuretic depending on the quantity taken. If used for too long, this spring was said to be debilitating. People were also cautioned to suspend its use for short periods of time. 
  • Alkaline springs were composed of an abundant amount of carbonate of soda compared to any other mineral spring. Free carbonic acid also usually formed a portion of an alkaline spring. When taken internally, these waters supposedly affected “the mucous membranes of the stomach and bowels, urinary apparatus, and air passages … Used in the form of bath, they usually [had] a sedative effect upon the nervous system; allaying irritation, slightly increasing the action of the cutaneous capillary vessels and of the absorbents; frequently imparting softness and clearness to the skin; and affecting, in a secondary manner, internal organs.”[11] These springs were also used for stomach problems, gouty complaints, urinary disease, and laryngeal and bronchial irritations.
  • Acidulous springs were usually placed under this heading because they contained a large proportion of free carbonic acid. “They are for the most part, cold, very sparkling, and effervescing, without smell, of a sharp, piquant, agreeable taste, and soon lose their properties by exposure to the atmosphere.”[12] These springs were also usually cool and refreshing but also exhilarating. They were claimed to alter the secretions of the alimentary canal and kidneys. Such waters were frequently “taken either pure or mixed with wine, as an ordinary beverage, and [were] not unfrequently exhibited in febrile and inflammatory complaints. They sometimes, however, prove[d] too exciting, producing headache, heaviness, confusion of ideas, with general agitation and sleeplessness; but in general [were] highly useful in many cases of dyspepsia, nervous affections, with the character of relaxation or torpor; pulmonary complaints, and disease of the urinary organs. The Seltzer water is, perhaps, the best and most familiar specimen of the whole class.”[13]

When taken internally, people usually started with about a half a pint of spring water and then increased their intake daily until their stomach could hold no more. The patient then continued with the daily dose for a set period and ended by lessening the quantity gradually. When the weather was cold, patients were often advised to drink chalybeate waters in bed and rub their stomach with a warm napkin. In addition, the routine for taking mineral waters was often similar and as follows:

“The water should always be drunk early in the morning, at the spring when possible, gentle walking exercise being taken at the time: when not easily digested, or when too exciting, it is usual to dilute it with milk, whey, or some other simple fluid. Two or three glasses are also generally taken in the afternoon. As other medicines interfere with the operation of the water, they should be abstained from, unless allowed by the physician.

Baths are usually taken in the morning, two or three hours after drinking, at a temperature between 86º and 96º. They increase the activity of cutaneous circulation and secretion; perspiration being not unfrequently produced. They have also a sedative effect on the nervous system; the pulse becomes slower while in the bath, and a tendency to sleep frequently supervenes. Acting on the surface of the body, they produce a revulsion from internal organs, promoting their secretion, and diminishing visceral congestion. If taken at too high a temperature, baths act as stimulants; increasing the frequency of the pulse, causing copious perspiration, a feeling of general indisposition, with symptoms of increased irritation or of local congestion, as headache, giddiness, sleeplessness, a sense of oppression on the chest, &c. These symptoms may, however, depend upon the bath being used in cases to which it is not suited, or the individual being in a state of undue excitement from travelling or other causes. When existing in a trifling degree, they often spontaneously subside; but sometimes necessitate a suspension of the course, with recourse to other remedies for their removal. Some symptoms caused by the baths, as slight increase of indisposition, or of pains which previously existed, an itching or eruption on the skin, termed poussée or pourpre de bain, are usually considered by the physicians as precursors of the favourable effect of the water.”[14]

French poster for mineral waters by Albert Guillaume France, c. 1890-1895. Author’s Collection.


  • [1] Lee, Edwin, An Account of the Most Frequented Watering Places on the Continent, 1836, p. 5.
  • [2] Forbes, Sir John, etal., The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine, Vol. 4, 1847, p. 660.
  • [3] Lee, Edwin, p. 9.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 19.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 6.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 32.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 79.
  • [8] Forbes, Sir John, etal., p. 492.
  • [9] Lee, Edwin, p. 113.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 114.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 164-165.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 196.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 196-197.
  • [14] Ibid., p. 24-26.

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