Vintage Stress Relief Techniques

Photographer: Conrad Poirier

Helen and Ellen Campbell, relieving stress by swimming

This has been a nutty week already – and as I’m writing this, it’s only Tuesday. So for this post I decided to focus on something very present in my mind at the moment: stress. There are a lot of ways stress can enter our modern lives – technology, work, commuting, social obligations, relationships, etc. So I wondered, can I find inspiration in vintage stress relief techniques? How do you handle the stress in your life?

Let’s start out with the history of stress (yes, everything has a back story!). Starting with animal research, the duo of American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon with Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye showed that we do in fact generate a physiological reaction to external tensions. So by the early 20th century we knew – that strained emotion that people felt but couldn’t put their finger on – it’s real. This pair was well known within the scientific and medical communities. Cannon coined the term “fight or flight response” and Selye is credited as the first person to show evidence of biological stress.

Let your stress float away | The history of spas

There’s proof that these two dudes knew what they were talking about when they introduced the world to their stress research. But have no fear, there are a variety of age old remedies to the rescue: you can exercise, explore a new hobby, or dive into a book. But I think one of my favorite options (and one, I must admit, I’ve never done before) is the spa. We know that beauty fads have changed over the decades, but I wanted to dig into the history of spas. Have there been significant changes to this stress relief staple?

While there are now ten key factors that define a modern spa, in their purest form they have been popular since Greek and Roman times. In fact, Roman emperors got into a bit of a “spa-off”, each trying to outdo their predecessor. You can see their cumulative efforts in locations all over the world. (That empire was big, so spa culture traveled far and wide.)

So if you were to travel back in time and roll up to a Roman spa, you wouldn’t notice a huge difference. During ancient times you typically started with a little exercise to get the blood flowing, then you began the soaking process (in rooms with varying warm temps), and this was followed by an oil rub down. The massage marked the halfway point, you did a quick rinse, got your skin exfoliated, and ended your visit with a cold dip. Of course you were free to socialize or chill out with your friends after your session (I can imagine the conversation – “did you hear what happened to Caesar yesterday?”) This core combination of water, massage, and socializing hasn’t been hugely altered since togas were in vogue. Kinda cool, no?

Relaxing just to look at....

Roman Baths – stunning, no? Image by Rwendland

Early on these spas served both sanitary/health and social purposes. But by the early 20th century, attitudes and medical advancements made hospitals omnipresent and spas moved into the category of leisure activity. Despite that narrowing of scope, spas were still big business. Resort towns built around natural springs (called, unsurprisingly, spa towns) became the toast of the elite set. The European attitude toward “taking the waters” (a.k.a. going to the spa) was complex.

There were several rules in Victorian spa culture. Going to the best spas at the best times was almost foundational to the upper class social calendar. The waters may have been smelly but you better buck up because anybody who’s anybody is there! However, the moment the popularity started to peak and nearly everyone (even – gasp – working class people) showed up, it’s time to find the new hotness. Funny to think that the very thing meant to alleviate stress (and maybe even improve health) became a source of tension in its own right.

American spa culture, like its European counterpart, had a foundation in healing. Similarly, the elite set enjoyed the resort environment. In the States that included celebrities, sports stars, and politicians. However, I’m not sure if the quest for finding “the next best thing” was as ravenous in the US as it was in the UK. If anyone has any thoughts on this – let me know in the comments!

Mid-century stress | The war on women

The 1950s is one of my favorite time periods and as we discovered together in my piece on advertising, the male influence on women’s social (and even psychological) environment was in full force at this time. Advertisers were causing stress by making ladies feel forced into perfection. Their marketing embedded this desire to make award-winning pot roast with the newest stove, while modeling the latest fashion – creating an ideal version of femininity that remained unrivaled for years to come. Naturally, women’s magazines and “bridal guides” helped feed into this whole cultural mindset.

Pick out something tasty!

Getting the grocery shopping done…

I would be remiss to publish this article without mentioning this time period. I want to share that when I did a Google search for “how women relaxed in the 1950s” the first page was ripe with articles talking about “how to keep your husband relaxed.” Well that’s missing the mark entirely! Let’s expand on that in the comments, but in the meantime I’ve decided to turn this ship around. I looked at the retro rules in a new way, asking the question “how can women feel recharged and relaxed?” Here’s what I compiled….

Enjoy silence

The original version can be summed up as “don’t talk, let your man relax.” But I’m re-branding it to say “everyone likes some quiet reflection, so enjoy the silence.” This dovetails nicely with the tried and true remedy of curling up with a good book.

Treat yourself to something nice

Again, the retro focus was on looking nice for your hubby, but I say a little retail therapy does a body good (and when you shop vintage you don’t have much to feel guilty about). And who says those treats have to be tangible things? Go explore the world and take a vacation. Learning about different cultures is a great way to put your experience in perspective.

Dig into some great food

Nothing soothes the soul like a tasty meal. In the 1950s the wife was expected to keep her cooking game strong, but let’s kick those judgment calls to the curb and simplify – everyone deserves to savor something tasty. If those Snickers commercials have taught us anything, an amazing snack goes a long way.

Have fun

Go out there and make a new memory with friends and family. Sticking to the same old routine can bring its own set of stresses and emotions, so try something new on for size. With that in mind, I think I’m going to go to my first spa day – anyone have suggestions?

Cause A Frockus would like to thank the following resources: Museum of Healthcare at Kingston, The Huffington Post, the Feminist ezine, this awesome thesis by Vanessa Martins Lamb, and the images in the public domain.

For our readers: April 16th is National Stress Awareness Day – which stress relief technique will you use to mark the occasion?

Replies for “Vintage Stress Relief Techniques

  • Ellen Dial

    Your first spa day! You’ll be hooked….. advice – don’t skimp and look at the packages they offer, usually the best deal AND you can add on to them. If they offer a “hammam” type experience – try it out! It’s the original spa day and very relaxing.

    If you choose a destination/hotel based spa, you can usually stay the whole day, even beyond your last treatment – if they have a relaxation room and/or pool area – take a book, relax in blissful silence, enjoy a glass of wine and a nap…..


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