Shaker diaries and journals show that over the years brethren and sisters experimented with numerous treatment forms such as humoural medicine, Thomsonianism, hydrotherapy, Grahamism, medical electricity, sea air cure, and taking the waters at various medicinal springs. Yet despite the informal and often inconsistent use of these therapies, one invention appears to have inspired an official commitment between the Society and the “world” (non- Shakers): the “medicated vapour bath.”
This commitment was recorded in an 1826 letter between Union Village (O.) and South Union (Ky.). Like many Shaker Ministry communications, it opened with a report from New Lebanon that detailed the general health of its members and introduced the recent “gift” of washing feet. However, following this missive came a note from Eliab Harlow and Garret K. Lawrence, physicians at the lead society. They stated that they had “been in the possession of a Medicated Vapour Bath, obtained of a man by the name of Charles Whitlow from England.” Moreover, in union with the Ministry and elders at New Lebanon, these two brothers had procured the patent rights for this invention on behalf of all the Shaker communities in the United States.
This announcement begs several questions: what exactly was the medicated vapour bath and why did this system so impress Harlow and Lawrence? For which conditions was it used and how was it employed? Equally as interesting, who was Charles Whitlaw and what was his relationship to the Shakers? In this paper, I will aim to answer these intriguing questions. Furthermore, I will illustrate that although the Shakers’ use of this healthcare device was intimately tied to nineteenth century therapeutics, it was also strongly grounded in a medical understanding that had spanned the previous two millennia.
American Communal Societies Quarterly
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