Showering Has a Dark, Violent History

By Sarah Zhang

The 19th century was a time of great innovation in plumbing. Cities got the first modern sewers, with tunnels that snaked for miles underground. Houses got bathrooms, with ceramic toilets, tubs, and sinks that you would easily recognize today. And, not to be left behind in this period of infrastructure overhaul, psychiatric hospitals got hydrotherapy: the method of using water to treat madness.

If the showers at home offered comfort, maybe even fun, the technology took on darker overtones in psychiatric hospitals. Many of the treatments involved physically restraining patients, whether in a shower or a tub or wrapped in wet sheets. At the same time, physicians believed that their treatments were genuinely scientifically motivated. “There is this hazy borderline between what counts as therapeutic and what counts as control and discipline,” Braslow says. This tension is present in any therapy that treats mental illness — even modern ones. “We define psychiatric illness by failure to function in the world,” he says, “so it is not surprising our interventions both act as social control and psychological control and also for comfort and consolation.”

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