Fighting ignorance since 1973 Its taking longer than we thought
Is (or was) the dew bath the latest
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
"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
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:
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:
So much for dew bath theory; now for dew bath practice. Previously it had been secret, but then:
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:
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
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:
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:
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.
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