Continuous Bath Time

Most of the canvas straps still clung tightly to their large tubs which lined the basement room, despite the excessive sagging from thirty-seven years of disuse. Diffused rays of sunlight danced along the row of mummified bathtubs, yellowed with time and blackened with mold. A strange breeze wafted in from the dark, tiled morgue down the hall. There was no other place I wanted to be.

Continuous baths were one form of hydrotherapy used in mental hospitals beginning in the early 1900s. The technique was derived from German spa treatments, where people would spend from a few hours to a few days surrounded by flowing water. This treatment was used to induce relaxation in excited or agitated patients, as well as to relieve pressures from bed sores and other physical ailments.

The patient was placed in tub of warm or hot water (usually ranging from 92°F to 99°F) that would flow in through the sides and drain out the back. The temperature was regulated by an attendant at a control panel before it entered the tub, and another attendant would monitor the temperature and provide for any needs the patient might have. A canvas was secured across the top of the tub to maintain the temperature, and it could be used as a surface for eating meals, or to restrain violent patients without the use of a camisole (straitjacket). Patients were usually kept in the tubs for a few hours, and in some cases overnight.

Although these continuous bath treatments reduced the hospital's mechanical restraint figures, they required multiple skilled attendants; as overcrowding became a major issue, there simply weren't enough staff members to administer the treatment. Many shiny new hydrotherapy rooms sat unused in overcrowded hospitals during the 40s and 50s. The advent of shock therapies and chemical drug treatments phased hydrotherapy out quickly as a treatment for mental disorders.

The following is a set of continuous bath photographs taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt at Pilgrim State Hospital in 1936:

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