The therapeutic benefits of natural mineral water have been well-known since Antiquity. Half of all existing spa resorts emerged from the remains of Roman thermal baths. In the Middle Ages, natural springs were mainly frequented by the local population, who went there to wash and drink the ‘miraculous water’ in the hope of finding relief from their aches and pains. During the Renaissance, interest in ancient history drew people’s attention to mineral springs, but these had not yet become tourist destinations, were hard to reach and lacked accommodation.
The turning point came in the 18th century. Construction sites appeared one after another and functional spa establishments developed in Europe, such as Spa (Belgium), Aix-en-Savoie (France) and especially Bath (Great Britain) which became a model for spa towns. ‘Taking the waters’ became synonymous with holidays and noble idleness. Aristocrats fled the city to stay at spa resorts to ‘treat their spleen’ as, according to the humoral theory that prevailed during the Enlightenment, melancholia was health’s worst enemy. Doctors recommended baths, drinks and above all games and social diversions. The waters’ good reputation depended more on their visitors’ social status than on the healing properties of the water itself. Bath, for example, became a prime cultural and social destination thanks to its spa. Top of the list was the Grand Tour through Italy, which included Rome and Venice as essential stops and was designed to ‘finish’ the education of the wealthy classes. The spa in Bath was the number two destination. Rich middle-class social climbers went there purportedly for a cure but with the ulterior motive of forging ties with the aristocracy staying there, something that would have been unthinkable in the capital. The spa towns in France opened casinos, which were actually forbidden elsewhere. Later on, springs were slowly but surely given protection and, from the 19th century onwards, ‘spa physicians’ regulated and supervised the therapy.
Whereas in the 17th century doctors recommended drinking up to four litres of mineral water per day, in the 19th century at some resorts, such as Vals in France, they advocated ‘consuming in moderation’. The drink became a supplement to the therapy, which mainly focused on bathing. As such, doctors prescribed the use of graduated glasses, which spa clients could take away with them in a small wicker basket. However, the French Academy of Medicine denounced a number of drinkers who hydrated themselves when they felt like it or who even entered competitions to see who could drink the most!
During the same period, hydrology flourished and natural mineral waters were analysed: Their healing properties had, of course, to be derived from their composition. Meanwhile, spa resorts began to bottle and export their products, like Contrexéville, Henniez, Vittel, Vichy and Évian for example. Business got off to a difficult start as glass was expensive, a lot of the merchandise was lost during transportation and hygiene conditions during bottling left a great deal to be desired. Water did not keep well and town doctors recommended consuming artificially carbonated water, which was more hygienic.
During the 20th century, public enthusiasm for spas waned. Bathing water was mainly remodelled as table water and place names became brand names for mineral waters distributed worldwide.