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The University of Southampton
HistoryPart of Humanities

Research project: Natural health cures in France, c. 1918-1960

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My current book project investigates natural health cures in France in the middle decades of the twentieth century. The early research has focused on the thermal spa experience.

Wikimedia Commons front and back of a 1909 postcard featuring the thermal spa resort Aix-les-Bains.

By the 1920s and 1930s, the thermal spa industry contributed billions of francs annually to the French economy. Almost half a million French nationals and foreigners travelled every year to the hundred or so official thermal establishments in France. They sought relief for any number of health complaints, from poor digestion, arthritis and obesity to bad circulation and tuberculosis.

Most scholarship in this area tends to stop in 1914.  Yet in the interwar years, important transformations in state management of the sector brought thermalism into closer relation with both tourism and social welfare. Physicians continued to vie for authority alongside local mayors and commercial operators, but they now also competed against the growing number of self-help entrepreneurs – often medical doctors themselves – who offered sun, water and air therapies at their own cure centres.


Postcard 1909

I aim to delve deeper into how spa-based physicians negotiated these challenging relationships, and how – for their own professional livelihood – they sought to shape popular perceptions of health in an era that was equally marked by transformations in leisure activities and body culture.

One challenge I face is finding ways of accessing individual experience given the sparseness of the archival sources in this respect. To that end, I am interested in exploring the postcards sent home by men and women taking the cure. Words scrawled to loved ones on the back of commercially or privately produced postcards like the one illustrated on this page often reveal something of the patient’s subjective relation to their own bodies.

The very early stage of the project was supported by a British Academy small grant, which allowed me to mine the national libraries and archives in Paris for what they yield on state and medical investment in thermalism and other natural health cures. In the project’s later stages I intend to visit departmental archives in spa-rich parts of provincial France.

Collection " Villes De France " Aix-Les-Bains, Series 121. Oilette postcard view of an ancient stone archway and promenade in Aix-Les-Bains (unknown author)

Source: Visit collections website

Archival collection: Visit Leonard A. Lauder collection of Raphael Tuck & Sons postcards

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