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Is (or was) the dew bath the latest beauty fad?
April 29, 2010

Dear Cecil:

Recently I was browsing through the "vintage advertising pool" on Flickr, the online photo sharing site, when the attached caught my eye. It speaks of the dew bath, "the new fad with Chicago women" — as of 1902. I realize fads come and go, but this was one that deserved to endure. What became of it? The thought of walking down alleys, peeking over fences, and spotting comely Chicago maidens with their butts in the air would be an incentive to visit that no mere tourist promotion could match.

— Your Pal in Kansas City, Una Persson

Cecil replies:

Things like this make you realize the inscrutability of the past. For example, can you believe that, in olden times, one of the goals of fashion was to make your butt look bigger? However, let's start with a more basic line of inquiry. Chicago, notwithstanding its many virtues, isn't known for being on the cutting edge of beauty trends. Dew baths in particular seem ill-suited to a region where close communion with nature during much of the year is likely to result in frostbite. So first we need to establish whether dew baths were an honest-to-God fad or just some goofy artist's fancy. Answer: fad may be putting it strongly. But they were definitely big with that middle eastern south-side guru and his obscene nudist cult.

Let's start with the easy part. What we see here isn't an ad but the illustration for a feature story in the 1902 Tribune. (Yes, I've been spending a lot of time — and money — in the Trib's online archive. This helps the Trib dig itself out of bankruptcy and I get to frolic in a garden of delight.) The story begins as follows:

Chicago has a new fad which for genuine novelty and originality seems likely to stand unrivaled in a little class of its own for some time to come … This absolutely new thing in fads is the dew bath for the complexion and it threatens to outclass even the beauty doctors themselves. Some morning, if you happen to be up in time to commune with the sun as it slips up across the lake, and, looking over your back fence you behold a woman, young or old, kneeling in the center of a grass plot with her face in close proximity to the earth don't call the police. This is the fad. As a complexion producer it is said to surpass anything in the squeegee line yet introduced …

The squeegee line? Even allowing for humorous exaggeration, we're to believe that producing a complexion in 1902 in some way involved a squeegee? We'll investigate this later. For now let's go on:

These morning dew baths [involve] the unique discovery that green grass, freshened by morning dew, contains the skin invigorating ingredients  for which the beauty doctors charge money.

So much for dew bath theory; now for dew bath practice. Previously it had been secret, but then:

 The truth leaked out down in Elgin, Ill. Miss Evangeline Brusk, a young woman residing in that place, has enjoyed some local fame on account of the beauty of her complexion. Indeed, she has been the envy of her friends on account of this supposedly rich gift of nature.

The exposι, however, came one morning not long ago, when a neighbor arose early … He lives next door to the Brusk home, and as he was passing down his back steps he was considerably surprised to see the young woman crouching on the lawn and gesticulating in unseemly fashion as though saluting the sun. She would run her hands across the grass, and then bury her face in them and go through all the motions of washing. [When the man approached to inquire], the young woman jumped to her feet and fled to the house.

That's it, factwise. (There are another five paragraphs of arch speculation.) This is a bit thin. A dew bath fad suggests multiple back yards, multiple faces being caressed by grass-borne moisture, and multiple butts in the air. The evidence presented is of one yard, one face, and one butt. What's more, while Evangeline is certainly the kind of name you'd want attached to a trendsetter in 1902, the fact that she lived in Elgin puts one on one's guard. No stylish woman in Paris or London has ever yearned to hear of the latest craze from Elgin. One begins to think this purported fad was strictly the work of a reporter on a slow afternoon.

But maybe not. Further investigation has revealed the existence of the Mazdaznan, a Chicago-based cult that at the turn of the century worshipped the sun, found clothes an encumbrance, and took baths in dew.

The following from the 1908 New York Times gives the flavor:

BOSTON … Dew baths of the followers of the Mazdaznan, or Sun Worshippers, cult were described as part of the testimony [in a lawsuit] to restrain Mrs. [Helen] Shaw from giving her property to the followers of Dr. O. Z. Hanish of Chicago, the leader of the cult in this country.

While Mrs. Elsie Ditman of Chicago was testifying, [a plaintiff's attorney] rose and accused Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Ruth Hilton, high priestess of the Lowell Mazdaznan Temple, of attempting to hypnotize the witness to prevent her from continuing in her testimony. The court ordered a recess, and at its conclusion Mrs. Ditman explained how Mrs. Hilton had been gazing fixedly with her left eye in line with the left eye of the witness, following the laws of the Mazdaznans to get one mind under the control of another … Mrs. Hilton was ordered to take a seat further back in the courtroom.

Mrs. Ditman said she first knew Dr. Hanish when he was a typesetter on The Deseret News in Salt Lake City ten years ago. He claimed to be a native of the Far East and a new Christ, she said. With him she went to Chicago, where temples of the Sun Worshippers were opened.  She characterized the teachings at that time as "profane and obscene" …

Mrs. Ditman [said] she saw Dr. Hanish burn charcoal and incense to cloud the intellects of the cult members and make them more susceptible to his teachings and influences. Asked why the Mazdaznans wore scant clothing, she replied that they believed the sun would cure all, and they made obeisances to the sun that they might be nearer to it and thus purify the body.

The Mazdanans' shocking rites included the singing of a hymn entitled "Peace, Peace and Abundance" and "embracing each other and walking back and forth." In addition, a witness testified, Dr. Hanish clasped the hands of Mrs. Hilton and kissed her. However, the story was careful to note, "this occurred only once" and no other women were kissed, lest you think these gestures precipitated an orgy.

Yet another witness said that Mrs. Shaw told him not to eat meats …

because if he did so he was eating the flesh of his aunts and uncles. She also told him that if he arose early enough he could see her take a dew bath.

Q. — Did you do so? A. — I did.

Q. — What did she have on? A. — A wrapper, which she removed.

He said he saw her many times take a dew bath. She would stop and pick sorrel and eat it.

Does this mean that if the male neighbor in Elgin hadn't foolishly interrupted, he might have seen the unwrapped Evangeline? We cannot know. Nor can it be said with certainty that all dew bathers were Mazdaznans. The Trib published a report of a soapbox lecture in New York at which a young woman named Vesta La Viesta testified as follows:

"I can tell you folks something about those dew drop baths … I have tried them. I have removed my clothing and have stood in the yard at the rear of my home in the darkness of the night and allowed the dew drops to collect over me until I was happy …"

There was much eagerness on the part of the unregenerate to learn where Miss La Viesta lived, but their curiosity was not gratified.  

No mention was made of the Mazdaznans.

In 1910, the Tribune devoted an entire page to a lavishly illustrated article by Helen Loewe, "Chicago Venus." The article bore the headline Every Woman Can and Should Be Beautiful and went on to say, "All She Need Do, Declares Miss Loewe, Is to Consult Old Dr. Nature, Whose Perfect System of Nude Sun and Dew Baths Guarantees Wonderful Results and Whose Line of Vegetable Remedies Is Infallibly Successful Particularly in the Spring of the Year." The article provided tips on "Preparation for a Dew Bath" and "How to Take a Sun Bath." (The gist: take off your clothes.) Again, no Mazdaznan connection is evident.

The Mazdaznans nonetheless continued to turn up in the news from time to time. Items of interest:

  • The full name of the cult's leader was Otoman Zar-Adusht Hanish, whose name suggests a middle eastern rather than far eastern origin, although I'd say there's a good chance he just made it up. The Trib claims Hanish was once "an accomplished barber"; no mention of the Salt Lake typesetting gig.

  • The Mazdaznan Temple was at 3016 Lake Park Avenue on the south side, a site presumably chosen because the temple's tower offered a view of Lake Michigan useful for sunrise ceremonies. At periodic conferences, delegates from Mazdaznan assemblies around the country would reportedly dress in flowing robes, perform the "triple salam," and consume "figs, nuts, and other things conducive to higher thought."   

  • The Mazdaznans were hardly the only organization in Chicago specializing in unorthodox spiritual activity. In a 1910 story entitled Freak Religions from All over the World Find Homes in One Chicago Skyscraper, the Tribune reported that many sects had rented rooms in the Burnham and Root-designed Masonic Temple, which stood at State and Randolph.

  • In 1917, if you can believe Wikipedia, the Mazdaznans shifted their headquarters to Los Angeles and ultimately Encinitas, California, which were no doubt more hospitable to scantily-clad outdoor activity. Dr. Hanish is said to have exited the physical realm in 1936; the organization lingered until around 2000, although it supposedly has now been resurrected in Canada.

Dew bathing has few prospects for imminent revival in Chicago — in addition to the problems already noted, sieving the grass in many neighborhoods is apt to leave you needing stitches and a tetanus shot. But I'm OK with the occasional triple salam, fig or nut. God knows there's little enough in this weary world that's conducive to higher thought.

— Cecil Adams

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