The Early Days of Bath
by Jeanne Mozier
The warm mineral waters of Berkeley Springs were already known throughout the colonies for their curative value when 16-year-old George Washington came in 1748 to survey the frontier region for Lord Fairfax. In those early years, visitors like Washington found conditions primitive at the most ancient watering place in the Valley of Virginia. A large hollow scooped in the sand, lined with stones and surrounded by a screen of woven brush, was the only bathing-house. There were a few private cottages and small boarding houses for visitors, but most encamped on nearby hills bringing their own servants and provision in covered wagons. Local mountain settlers provided milk, butter, eggs, fowl and wild game.
During the final half of the 18th century, the settlement around the springs grew from a little bush village to a fashionable watering spot with such riotous amusements that it was branded a seat of sin. In 1776, George Washington and his family and friends established the town of Bath and set their sights on making it the country’s first spa. That same year, America’s first Methodist bishop, Francis Asbury, was horrified by Bath’s “overflowing tide of immorality.”
In addition to “taking the waters” several times a day — by cup and in baths — regular visitors for the summer season gambled at cards, raced horses in the streets and danced at twice weekly balls. Bathing facilities in these early years were used by both men and women but at separate times.
In 1784, stone pools in natural terrain were replaced by the first formal bath house. Newspapers and travelers of the time recorded three separate buildings located in Bath Square. There were five bathing-houses with dressing rooms, a large bath for swimming and a bath for poor people. Three years later, a New England man counted 172 houses, several taverns, and an assembly and tea room.
The nine-room brick Roman Bath House, built in 1815 on the same spot as the original individual bathing-house, has been modified and replumbed, offering modern visitors the opportunity to reenact history each time they bathe. Open daily, year-round, the Roman baths are operated today as part of Berkeley Springs State Park.
A detailed sketch of life 200 years ago at the spa was provided by French traveler, Ferdinand Bayard, who came to take the waters in the summer of 1791. After enduring four days of “abominable roads,” poor taverns and primitive meals of eggs, ham, chicken and potatoes, the 23-year-old Bayard arrived in Bath from Paris via Baltimore.
“Bath has two public buildings,” he wrote, “the theater and the bath house.” He described the bath house as “a plain and large frame structure, divided into eight small rooms made of badly joined boards where the bathers go in the morning. There is a staircase in each small room so that when the bather wishes he can gradually change the water line.”
Although Bayard reported the water tasted tepid and insipid, he praised its effects. “I saw several suffering with rheumatism who, carried at first to the baths and to the spring, walked there alone at the end of three weeks, with the aid of crutches,” he wrote.
The park area around the springs also drew comment from Bayard who identified a “grotto with benches for those who love to chat.” He noted a variety of summer amusements including young women from Virginia racing horses, boats heading downriver to Georgetown loaded with grain, gambling at faro, strolling Irish players and market-day fights with a Bruiser as referee.
Bayard lodged for the summer season with Mrs. Thorgmorton, a relative of George Washington and partner in the inn with James Rumsey seven years earlier. In 1791, Bayard was among 40 who were staying at the inn; he reported that they were “fed well” by Mrs. Throgmorton.
One of Bayard’s most entrancing vignettes centered on the social practice of five o’clock tea parties while at the springs. He described the circle of ladies, decked out in their finest, pouring from silver pots. There were “round slices of buttered bread and slices of smoked-cured meats presented to each person.” Although tea-time was silent, it was followed by entertainment. Bayard reported on the performance of a “wag, a Mr. West, who gagged rather well,” and the singing of “Miss Lee, the virtuoso of Bath.” The young songstress so impressed Bayard that he recorded the words for all four verses of her favorite song, “The Kiss.”
By the close of the 18th century, Bath was reputedly America’s premier spa, prescribed by noted physicians and visited by rich Virginia planters and merchants. Cure seekers in the mountain town were often outnumbered by gamblers, confidence men, troupes of actors, mothers seeking to marry off daughters and bachelors looking over the prospects. The powdered hair and linen shirt society may have come each summer to take the waters, but it was the partying in an unrestrained frontier spa that made their season at Bath.
Today’s visitors may “take the waters” in a full-service spa or historic Roman Baths at Berkeley Springs State Park in the heart of the tiny spa town. Also in the park are George Washington’s bathtub and spring water free for the taking from a pump. There are other full-service spaswithin a block of the park and springs offering a variety of treatments from massage and aromatherapy to mud-wraps and facials.