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Lust, tranquillity and sensuality in French spa towns in the heyday of balneotherapy (the belle époque and the roaring twenties)

Marie-Eve Férérol
Traduction de Université Bretagne Occidentale
Cet article est une traduction de :
Luxure, calme et volupté dans les villes d’eaux françaises à l’âge d’or du thermalisme (Belle Époque et Années Folles) [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Lujuria, calma y voluptuosidad en las ciudades balneario francesas en la edad de oro del termalismo (Belle époque y años locos) [es]


French spa resorts had their heyday from 1875 to 1915. During this era, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie would flock to the spa towns. On the pretext of maintaining their health, this clientele was in fact mainly in search of hedonism, idleness and frivolity. There were two reasons for this. One was the expansion in bourgeois morality, and the other was the uncertain future at the turn of the 20th century (the advancing tide of modernity, presages of the 1st World War, etc.). Spa towns thus became ‘safety valves’ (Authier, 1997), another world, an escape from everyday life, where all sorts of transgressions were possible. In this article, we ask how these resorts became ‘destinations of desire’ and what was their level of eroticisation. The eroticisation of spa towns was due as much to their décor as to the uses made of them.

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  • 1 Please note all citations from French sources in this text have been translated.

1In the mid-18th century, the behaviour of the British aristocracy led to a rise in the number of a particular kind of spa resort called the ‘pleasure resorts’. These pleasure resorts (in Bath, Tunbridge Wells and Epsom, among others) were sought out by those openly looking for wellbeing, leisure activities and an excuse to simply do nothing. ‘In Bath, there was a decisive turnaround. Idleness was flaunted because it had made the place the success it was. The medical pretext, that is, the therapy, was an aggravating factor, and was no longer even advanced by a certain section of this society. They did not fear (or no longer feared) the public exposure of their type of idle lifestyle, which was focused on a collective quest for individual wellbeing. Frivolity, gambling and sex (including prostitution) was now the fundamental theme of the place1 (MIT 2, 2005: 32). The English model was very quickly exported to the continent, and spa resorts became essential stop-off points on the tours of the British and European elites.

2In France, from the Second French Empire (1852–1870) onwards, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie enjoyed staying at spa resorts because they were the places to be seen. On the pretext of maintaining their health, most were actually in search of hedonism, idleness and frivolity (Gerbod, 2004; Boyer, 2005; Venayre, 2012). The reason why this wealthy clientele so readily flocked to the spa towns during the summer seasons was because they were prompted to do so by their contemporary context. At the end of the 19th century, the bourgeois morality began to spread, and the uncertain future became a concern (advancing tide of modernity, presages of the 1st World War, etc.). The spa towns thus became ‘safety valves’ (Authier, 1997: 130), ‘seasonal outlets’ (Jarassé, 1992: 235), another world, an escape from everyday life, where all sorts of transgressions were possible. This appetite for life was to continue into the 1920s, given further momentum by the need to forget the atrocities of the War (Authier, 1997; Bucaille et Virieux, 2013).

  • 2 According to Carribon (2001: 590), ‘the belle époque saw the growth of humorous postcards suggestin (...)

3To attract and please this wealthy clientele, the resorts tried ingenious ways to outdo one another. Luxury, tranquillity and sensuality were the watchwords in the development of spa towns. While, since the 17th century, luxury had meant abundance, pomp and splendour, it also now meant excess and temptation with the end goal being… lust. In this non-quotidian environment that the resorts represented – these ‘artificial, utopian, ephemeral, seasonal spaces of illusion, exoticness and timeless enchantment’ (Toulier, 2004: 17) – the spa enthusiast would be enamoured by the delights of gambling and the pleasures of the flesh2. This singular context allowed them to do what they would never do at home. Following treatment, ‘there was a kind of false lethargy, a deceptive apathy, which was conducive to introspection and fantastical goings-on. A sudden vacancy of being freed them up for desires normally silenced by action. The resort thus lent itself to encounters, to misbehaviour, to the stirrings of the most repressed urges. […] After all, if the therapy was supposed to restore health, why not also the libido? […] This was at least what a Mandarin Chinese academic at the faculty of medicine in Bordeaux believed. In his hydrology lecture, he always warned his students that, in his opinion, some resorts had produced more cuckolds that cures!’ (Veilletet, 1997: 12, introduction to Authier’s work).

4Aside from the wealth that characterised the thermal spa population, they were a very heterogenous group, which included genuinely sick people, socialites, lovers and gaming enthusiasts. Although very difficult for researchers to determine accurately, most are agreed that the number of visitors genuinely seeking therapy was negligible, particularly in the more renowned resorts. This was also true for the roaring twenties: 33% in Bourboule, 19% in Evian, 16% in Aix and 12% in Luchon in 1938 (Jamot, 1988).

  • 3 ‘La durabilité des stations thermales françaises: le croisement de la tradition et de l’innovation’ (...)

5My study of thermal spas3 over the past decade or so has involved a particular focus on the history of balneotherapy and spa towns, which has led me to ask the following question: how were such resorts able to become these ‘destinations of desire’, and how eroticised (which we understand as ‘the creation of objects of romantic, sensual and sexual desire’ [AAC, ‘La Fabrique des Lieux de Désir’ conference, Geneva, June 2015]) were they? This theme has been little explored in a comprehensive way in the literature in relation to the spa context. Indeed, regardless of the topic focused on (prostitution, architecture, etc.), only a few sentences can be found alluding to the thermal spas. The contribution of this article is therefore to present a general overview of this theme in these singular tourist resorts. Its aims will focus on two very distinct eras, namely the belle époque and the roaring twenties. These were the periods during which the prosperity of the French resorts was recognised (Authier, 1997; Carribon, 2001; Gerbod, 2004) and an appetite for life and pleasure-seeking was most prominent.

6This article will mobilise the concept of re-creation, which Stock defined as the ‘set of practices, norms, institutions and representations that are characterised by a relaxation of deroutinising constraints and practices, in short a controlled liberation of everyday self-control’ (Stock, 2010: 290). As already mentioned, these resorts represented another world, an escape from everyday life. Spa therapy was the perfect pretext for very discreetly (well away from the people they knew at least) taking advantage of some naughty pleasures for a few weeks

7The exposition will be split into three phases. In the first part, I will analyse the erotic touristic conception of the spa towns that motivated certain people to go there. How was this conception created and conveyed? This will be followed by a study of how the spa resorts were turned into tourist attractions. To what extent was eroticism taken into account as a resource during their development? Finally, I will show how the resorts were also eroticised by the very practices of the men and women who stayed there.

I. The touristic conception of spa resorts: eroticism and sensuality

8In the non-quotidian environment that these resorts represented, spa enthusiasts and their companions would inevitably fall for the charms of gambling and the pleasures of the flesh, and demand increased when the spas were sold as an erotic touristic conception. By touristic conception, I mean ‘spatial conceptions that refer to the virtuality of a place as a tourist destination. […] Without touristic conception, which selects the most coveted, enticing or enchanting destination out of the wide range available, there can be no tourism project’ (Gravari-Barbas and Graburn, 2012). By erotic conception, I mean ‘the imaginative set of cognitive, affective and emotional constructs formed from images, words and scenarios, which are variously loaded with affect and emotion, that underlie concrete sexual excitement in connection with perceptions of enjoyment and sexual pleasure’ (El Feki, 2010: 30). What therefore were the components of this conception of spa resorts, and how was it conveyed?

1. A scandalous reputation

9‘The conceptions of a holiday spot or a tourist trip are formed from the slow sedimentation of images, which are sometimes created from the moment the touristic development of a place begins’. This observation from Gravari-Barbas and Graburn (2012) can be justifiably applied to the spa context. However, the erotic conception of spa resorts did not just begin to emerge during their touristic development. They were fed by written works and narratives passed down through the centuries from Antiquity. Here are a few examples of texts that have played a part in creating the scandalous image that spa resorts had.

10As far back as the 1st century BCE, Ovid wrote that ‘far from being cured there, many report a broken heart’. Some centuries later, the playful character of the resorts was at the centre of a work called Flamenca, an eponymous novel about a young woman who goes to meet her lover at the Bourbon l’Archambaut resort. Another Renaissance work by Poggio Bracciolini describes the thermal baths of Baden as meeting places where modesty was quite inappropriate. In the swimming pools reserved for the hoi polloi, men and women were therefore mixed. Moreover, while the baths in private houses were not mixed, small windows inserted into the partitions allowed the two sexes to observe one another and to chat (Gouédo-Thomas, 1992: 14). In the 18th century, the following observation from an ‘expert’ leaves no real doubt as to the singular atmosphere of the spa towns: ‘the waters are merely a pretext. […] People only go there to do business, have affairs, gamble, make love and spy’ (Casanova’s Memoirs, cited by Havelange, 1996: 217).

11The conception of spa resorts conveyed in these written works, which the elites would have been able to access, was compounded by their representations in theatre plays. In the 18th and more particularly the 19th centuries, these plays took over from the seventeenth-century sketches and anecdotes, which were already using the waters of Forges and Bourbon as their settings. The glorification of gambling, pleasure-seeking and frivolity was de rigueur in these theatrical works. This continued into the 19th century, most notably with the vaudevilles (cf. those of Labiche, Scribe and Malefille). The authors loved to poke fun at spa behaviour.

Document no 1: Engraving of the thermal baths at Bourbon l’Archambaut, dated 1569

Document no 1: Engraving of the thermal baths at Bourbon l’Archambaut, dated 1569​4443680/​R%C3%A9seau_routier_et_agglom%C3%A9rations_secondaires_%C3%A0_1_%C3%A9poque_romaine

12Finally, the iconography from ancient times also explains the spa towns’ reputation. For example, on an engraving of the thermal baths at Bourbon l’Archambault from 1569 (document 1), we can see men and women not only bathing together but also copulating. There was, of course, no longer this promiscuity in the baths in the 19th century, but the memory of these practices could have contributed to creating a permissive conception of them.

13While the erotic, sexual dimension of the touristic conceptions of spa resorts could be attributed to some very explicit historical written works, a more sensual aspect emerged from the posters that promoted the resorts. Generally speaking, in addition to intangible elements (legends, tales, speeches, anecdotes, memories), touristic conceptions are made up of shared representations, which are fed by – or associated with – material images (postcards, posters, films and videos, tourist guides, brochures, and so on) (Gravari-Barbas and Graburn, 2012).

2. Publicity posters: conveyors of the image of the eroticised woman

14There were no holds barred when it came to attracting wealthy clientele to the resorts. Guidebooks and posters were distributed in order to promote the urban and touristic resources. The image represented on the posters was intended to attract attention and, if possible, spark a dream. This is how the image participated in an erotic touristic conception.

15The French railway companies played a key role in the development of spa towns. To enhance their appeal, these companies (just like the local authorities and the thermal water companies) often commissioned famous artists to design posters for them, showing off the attractions of the resorts served by their trains. While personification was, of course, not systematic, with some posters choosing to focus more on the natural elements, women were nevertheless the most frequent representatives of the spa resorts. This female personification revolved around three main figures, the mother, the bather and the bourgeoise (Carribon, 2011). The latter two are of more interest to us here because the image of the mother referred more to her social role than to her status as a woman in her own right.

16The representation of the bather and the bourgeoise alternated between virginity and sensuality (document 2). In Plombières, for example, sensuality oozes from the model’s languorous pose, while in Luchon, it is the woman’s rather euphoric attitude that seems to proposition the male viewer, her cleavage clearly on display. Such clothing was not surprising for the times, however: ‘At the court of Napoleon III, while size-dependent, women’s clothing constructed a fantastical body superposed onto the real thing. Deep cleavage, which emphasised the nudity of the chest, was de rigueur. […] From the middle of this century, the erotic value of this part of the body became more pronounced’ (Corbin, 2005: 192). Finally, the images could often be a lot ‘cruder’, focusing the man’s gaze. In Salies de Béarn, for example (document 2), posters displayed a bare-breasted woman.

Document no 2: The representation of woman on spa tourism posters

Document no 2: The representation of woman on spa tourism posters

Google images et

  • 4 Carribon (2001) noted that the publicity posters for spa and seaside resorts barely changed from th (...)

17Selling the dream using feminine charms was not unique to the spa resorts during the belle époque and the roaring twenties4. It was also the main characteristic of seaside advertising (document 3): ‘The female image must above all charm the male tourist, who is the person with the money, by making him want to travel and visit a resort. What better then than a pretty, elegant, unclothed female bather to entice him to join the seaside aristocracy?’ (Birot, Bohuon and Pécout, 2010: 112 and 117).

Document no 3: Seaside tourism posters highlighting feminine charms

Document no 3: Seaside tourism posters highlighting feminine charms

Google images

18Selling the dream to potential clients was one thing, but it was essential they were not disappointed on arrival. The actors of the time, who were elected as private sector actors, did their best therefore to take eroticism into account when developing their resorts. This element was more easily incorporated when the spa towns claimed to be ‘ideal towns’ due to the amenities they offered and the luxury they oozed.

II. Taking eroticism into account in the development of spa resorts

19The fact that the clientele was wealthy and urbane forced the spa resorts to modernise their facilities. In so doing, they became ‘ideal towns’, often with the help of private, capitalist associations, showcasing a coherent, luxurious product (spas, hotels, casinos, theatre halls, tennis courts, golf courses). However, luxury was not the prerogative of all resorts. It was predominantly a feature of the resorts in which the leisure/medical treatment combination worked the best, which moreover had the greatest number of clients.

  • 5 The resorts welcoming more than 10,000 bathers in 1930 were, in decreasing order: Vichy, Luchon, Ai (...)

20Just before the 2nd World War broke out, there were 14 standout spa centres, receiving more than 14,000 visitors a year, which were located mainly in Auvergne (5) and the northeast of France (4) (document 4). These continued to be the most prominent resorts into the roaring twenties. Only those in Vosges, with the exception of Vittel, had faded away5.

Document no 4: Locations of the largest resorts at the beginning of the 20th century

Document no 4: Locations of the largest resorts at the beginning of the 20th century

1. The spa resorts: a dream setting, very often inspired by the Arabian Knights

21As previously mentioned, the word ‘luxury’ in the 17th century meant not only abundance, pomp and splendour but also excess and temptation. In the 19th century, the word had become more bourgeois, incorporating the values of comfort and the art of living (Bauer, 2007). The spa towns did not escape this evolution.

22Luxury markers could be found, first and foremost, in the large hotels, particularly in the luxury hotels that appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. These latter hotels stood out on account of their monumentality and their decorated facades. The buildings, which were often out of step with local architecture, offered all modern conveniences (electricity, lifts, drinking water, central heating). On the whole, the majority of private and public buildings were sumptuously fitted out, designed by great architects. This architectural richness magnified the thermal baths, for example, and the quest for perfection and beauty was also in evidence for entertainment venues (casinos, theatres) and urban features. The artistic (Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Exoticism) and decorative variations implemented knew no limits.

23In some cases, the spa town planners succumbed to the trend for orientalism (Arabic, Moorish and Byzantine styles), which was very much in vogue during this period. This is a significant point in relation to the theme focused on here. Orientalist extravagance was suited to escapism and fantastical projections. It is worth pointing out that, in the 19th century, ‘the ars erotica of India, the Arab world and the Far East spread among the cultured elites. […] The Kama Sutra and the writings of Sheikh Nefzaoui, made famous by Maupassant [an author who frequented spa resorts and was known for his libertinism], were constitutive elements in the enrichment of the erotic image’ (Corbin, 2005: 170).

  • 6 In both these cases, the decor was polychromatic.

24The spa towns became spaces of ephemeral pleasures by drawing their inspiration from the Arabian Nights-style luxury hotels, which were ‘evocative of a voluptuous hedonism’ (Toulier, 2006: 2). When visitors saw these oriental-looking thermal baths and casinos, images of Turkish baths and harems would have come to mind: ‘Multiple wives, perpetually in attendance to man’s every desire, ready to trade their flesh, bathed, perfumed, offering the paleness of their rounded forms softly draped across sofas and cushions. […] The harem suggests pleasures that are antithetical to those that might be found in group sex, or orgies’ (Corbin, 2005: 194). This orientalist trend first appeared on the exteriors of thermal bath establishments in the form of Moorish arches, minaret-style towers, domes, and so on, such as at Bourboule, Biarritz, Salies de Béarn and Vichy (document 5). Byzantine and Hispanic-Moorish art elements were also found inside the thermal baths, such as in those at Mont-Dore and Châtel-Guyon6. Finally, both public (casinos, cafes) and private buildings (particular villas) showed influences from the Middle East, such as at Bourboule and Evian (document 5).

  • 7 Both now disappeared.

25This enthusiasm for orientalism (which also impacted the seaside resorts, as evidenced in the Salins de Biarritz thermal baths and the casino at Arcachon7) ended just as the 1st World War was starting. While still detectable in a few resorts (cf. the architecture of the thermal baths at Léchère in the 1920s), it was moved aside in favour of other artistic movements.

Document no 5: Oriental-style thermal baths architecture

Document no 5: Oriental-style thermal baths architecture

MEF 2011, 2012, 2015

. The female model, an indispensable element in the decor of spa towns

26As with the publicity posters discussed above, it was the men (the financers and executors) who steered the planning and decoration of spa towns. It is not surprising therefore that the female body was showcased within the resorts. During the development of these towns as tourist destinations, sculptors and painters were very keen to celebrate the female form in order to stimulate male fantasies.

27The 19th century saw a general proliferation of sculptures. This led Degas to comment that there should be signs in every public garden prohibiting the removal of statues (Zerner, 2005). The spas towns were not spared in this movement, and many saw an efflorescence of female statues of exuberant sexual beauty erected in their squares and parks (document 6). Very often, these women were completely naked. This went against the rules of decorum of the time, which moreover associated the nude with the image of a brothel (Corbin, 2005). The absence of clothing on these statues revealed feminine curves and portliness, the discovery of which could have surprised nineteenth-century men and women. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, ‘a fat woman was an idle woman, that is, a lady from polite society as opposed to a peasant worker(Laneyrie-Dagen, 1997: 134). A buxom woman was synonymous with good health, while a thin woman reflected an unhealthy or even deathly state.

Document no 6: Female statues frequently found in spa towns

Document no 6: Female statues frequently found in spa towns

MEF, 2004

28Men, both young and old, must have been excited by the sight of these sensual, carnal female forms. This statement is based on the observations of Laneyrie (1997) and Corbin (2005: 173): ‘The sexual desire of many adolescents at this time [19th century] would first have been stimulated by the sight of Venus’s nudity or the cleavage of the women represented’. It should be clarified, however, that these features were clear enough to arouse desire but nevertheless remained sufficiently vague so as not to offend decency. These statues were sometimes erected near fountains (document 6), which was probably not by chance. Using Zola’s novels as an illustration, Prioux (2009) showed that, in the 19th century, water flowing from fountains and waterfalls was to be interpreted as a symbol of sensuality and of pleasures of the flesh, which would inexorably lead to physical intimacy.

29Beyond the parks, men could be aroused by the nonchalant, attractive representations of women presented to them in the hotels, thermal baths and casinos. The following examples illustrate the latter two cases.

30* On the first floor of the Thermes des Dômes in Vichy, at the entrance to the male and female galleries, the walls are covered with paintings. In one, women are represented lounging by the edge of a stretch of water (document 7). Their veils are suggestive, allowing the viewer to make out the contours of the firm curves of their bodies. Moreover, two of the women in the bathing fresco are nude. Their strong hips and plump breasts are clearly identifiable. This representation is therefore far-removed from the bourgeois modesty of the time. Inside the Thermes de Luchon (document 7), we find the same female figures again on offer to the public. Eight thermal springs are designed in this way, offering their erotic body for all to see. Against a Pyrenean landscape backdrop and leaning on an upturned earthenware jar, women adopt lascivious poses, some with their backs and the tops of their breasts exposed.

Document no 7: Suggestive paintings from the Thermes des Dômes and the Thermes de Luchon

Document no 7: Suggestive paintings from the Thermes des Dômes and the Thermes de Luchon​archi/​dome.php?rub=architecture&page=7 et Midi-Pyrénées Patrimoine, n°36, 2014

31* In the casino at the Thermes de la Bourboule (now the town hall – document 8), the visitor’s encounter with the female form begins immediately on entry with the four beautiful caryatids, their naked breasts highlighted by the knotted fabric below. Then at the top of the main staircase, they are met by two life-size, cast-iron female figures brandishing cantharuses. Finally, the entrance doors to the first floor are surmounted by painted pediments representing bucolic scenes in which the women are once again prominently placed.

Document no 8: An omnipresent female representation in the most highly frequented spa resorts

Document no 8: An omnipresent female representation in the most highly frequented spa resorts

Extérieurs et intérieurs d’un des premiers casinos de la Bourboule (actuelle mairie)

MEF, 2015.

32In the end, there was a normalisation of a certain kind of voyeurism in the spa resorts. The female body, either entirely or partially undressed and striking poses that were particularly suggestive, was delivered up to the gaze of others. Just as in the publicity posters, woman, whether in the form of a statue or the subject of paintings, was clearly an eroticised object.

3. The erotic practices of the tourists/therapy-seekers

33To fill the vacationers’ (whether therapy-seekers or not) free time, a considerable number of high-society activities were laid on, with endless balls and festivities interspersed with high-quality plays and operas. Among the most popular sporting activities were golf, regattas, tennis and horse racing. The environment was completely intoxicating as a result. This spa atmosphere and the very systematised programming of the therapy days contributed to some very specific tourism practices. The eroticisation emanating from certain places would thus impact the experience of the spa town visitors. The sensory and sensual aspects were heightened even more when the spa town was synonymous with a certain ‘letting go’. This observation is echoed by that of Equipe MIT (2005: 271), who described the evolution that took place in, among other places, the seaside and spa resorts: ‘The history of tourism practices is one of an affirmation of pleasure in all its forms, including not only gambling, entertainment and socialising but also the wellbeing and liberation of the body’.

Spaces of sociability that were conducive to encounters and sexual excitement

34In the 19th century, the resorts were seen as meeting places, just as they are today. It is possible to identify two types of sociability spaces, namely treatment spaces and leisure spaces. In both cases, the codes of conduct were knowingly flouted. As a result, new expressions appeared, such as ‘seaside morals’, which described the behaviour and inappropriate dress of the people frequenting the spa towns (Jarassé, 1992: 240).

35In the thermal baths, mixed bathing was no longer practised. However, men and women would meet in the early mornings or afternoons around the pump room. As the historian Carribon (2011) observed, the early hour gave the therapy-seekers leave to be inelegantly dressed, which meant, for the women, not wearing a hat and leaving their hair uncovered. Vigarello (2004) showed that, during this period, hair had taken on a new force and was now very attractive to the male viewer. A bare nape of the neck could arouse desire. This point is supported by Corbin (2005: 191): ‘A woman’s hair is capable of overwhelming their male partner with pleasure. Hair ebbs and flows, like the waves. It winds round and gets lost in the lianas that surround Mucha’s women. Maupassant devoted one of his novels to its power to prompt a man to masturbation’.  

  • 8 This calls to mind Corbin’s (1988) comments on the sensual effects of the ebb and flow of seawater.
  • 9 ‘Désir et plaisir: les secrets de la libido’ (desire and pleasure: secrets of the libido), a docume (...)

36Men and women were, individually, equally more predisposed to sex as a result of the sense of tranquillity and wellbeing that swept over them after thermal spa treatments. According to Authier (1997), the humid heat, the steam, the comings and goings in the thermal baths and the disturbed towels are all elements likely to awaken the libido8. Moreover, while it is difficult to measure the intensity of urges and sexual excitement, many researchers have noted that thermal waters have a very specific composition that makes contact with them a very sensual experience. This is clear from the passage that Maupassant wrote on Christiane Andermatt’s thermal baths in his novel Mont Oriol (1887 – 1988: 107). As a matter of fact, in a century in which women were tightly strapped into corsets, balneotherapy would have given them the opportunity to rediscover bodily sensations. In addition to the baths, massages were also sometimes prescribed by doctors. While the masseurs may have been of the same sex as their clients, their touch could be arousing: ‘One physical contact evokes another. If I touch or caress myself, not in an erotic but in a general way, it can trigger the desire in my body for another contact’ (W. Bartens) 9.

  • 10 ‘Désir et plaisir: les secrets de la libido’ (desire and pleasure: secrets of the libido), a docume (...)

37However, problems could arise when the resorts treated skin conditions. For example, in Aix-les-Bains in 1844, ‘a girl suffering from an illness that had caused her disfigurement was requested by the bath’s administrative commission not to continue with her treatment in the pool because her appearance bothered the other patients’ (Penez, 2005: 122). Indeed, researchers at Kiel University10 showed that the sight of skin lesions prompts a feeling of repugnance and explains a loss of sexual desire. Despite the anachronism, we can advance the idea that the reaction would certainly have been the same in the 19th century as it is today.

38As far as the leisure spaces were concerned, outside of the time they spent having treatments, the men would have had the opportunity to court the ladies, which they did, just like their emperor. Far away from families and friends and all the usual places they frequented, in the midst of strangers, all sorts of licentiousness became possible. Moreover, ‘the final decades of the 19th century saw the gradual spread of flirting, under the influence of the permissive young American passengers on the transatlantic liners who were fond of a little ephemeral banter, resulting from the increasing number of visitors to the spa towns and all the recreational activities that accompany a vacationer’s idleness’ (Corbin, 2005: 185).

39The primary meeting place was the park, where visitors would take a walk after having their drinking cure, or the square, where they would go to hear musical odes. These spaces were rather conducive to banter and contemplation. Men and women would weigh each other up either discreetly or overtly. It is important to remember that the spa town clientele was made up not only of men in search of a wife or a fling but also of mothers looking to marry off their daughters, with a good match if possible (Wallon, 1981; Gerbod, 2004; Penez, 2005). There was something for everyone in the spa towns. They were fertile ground for encounters.

40The men’s (and women’s) libidos would certainly have been woken up at the balls, which were thrown at the casinos or in the hotels. The waltz would have played no small part in this. A number of researchers have shown its role in increasing male and female desire: ‘the curve of the back marked the quality of the waltzer in this new dance, where for the first time the partners embraced one another’ (Vigarello, 2004: 143) and ‘With the thrills induced by the insistence of the gazes, the gentle rubbing against one another and the waltz hold, the kisses taught young girls and married women alike to allow their bodies to feel the thrill’ (Corbin, 2005: 186). There were other dances at the end of the 19th century that aroused pleasure, such as those that involved swirling skirts and exposure of the ‘pins’ (the French cancan, in particular, comes to mind). This made it easy for the men to enjoy the partially bare female body. Mention should also be made of another dance that was popular during this period, when the influence of orientalism was not just being felt in architecture and painting but also in dancing, or belly dancing to be precise. Staszak (2008: 134) described it as follows: ‘The suggestive veils, the partial nudity and the free, bold movements presented the body in a sensual way, a radical departure from the canons of the European dance tradition and bourgeois modesty’.

41Finally, the female forms became increasingly exposed to the male gaze as women gradually gained access to different sports, such as golf, cycling and tennis. Participation in them required clothing to be reduced or shortened. In the 19th century, this signified a departure from the dress codes of the old days, which dictated that a woman’s calves, and even ankles, should not be visible. This break with the old dress codes did not displease the men, as this account shows: ‘Let us weep! We will no longer see Mary d’Assy showing off, at our velocipede meetings, one of those suggestive outfits that she wore with such elegance’ (Vichy Season from 15/07/1893).

Encounters in less conventional places

42Beyond the treatment and leisure spaces, male/female meetings could take place in less conventional places. An image of debauchery and even of dangerousness had long been associated with the spa towns because of the demi-mondaines and particularly the prostitutes who came there. The number of brothels increased in the spa towns, and many courtesans would take their summer quarters there to ply their trade. At the end of the 19th century, the prefect of Allier complained to the mayor that, as soon as the season began, prostitutes would arrive from all over Vichy. The mayor responded by issuing a decree, regulating where they could live and requiring them to avoid the areas surrounding the spas and the spa spaces more generally (Penez, 2005).

  • 11 Ulysse Jouvet, 1862, Guide du touriste. Vichy, la vie aux bains. Des eaux minérales en général et d (...)
  • 12 On the Musée d’Orsay website, detailed presentation of the exhibition ‘Splendeurs et misère. Images (...)

43The spa resorts were also the playgrounds of choice for the demi-mondaines, like Liane de Pougy and la Belle Otéro. They would arrive either alone or accompanied by their lovers. This solitude and their (barely concealed) aim to ‘sink their teeth into’ a wealthy man earned them the nickname of ‘spiders11’, which referred to the animal in question’s stratagem to ensnare their prey in their web. During the roaring twenties, there were not many of these ‘tarts’ (as they were then called) left because their glory days had been abruptly ended by the 1st World War.12

44The women offering their bodies were not all professional prostitutes, however. Some country women (and also even boys) offered their services to the spa tourists/therapy-seekers vacationing in their village. In the case of Luxeuil, for example, a resort that specialised in female infertility, an academic from the faculty of medicine implied that the cure was effected more on account of the presence of the military than through the composition of the waters (Craplet, 1984: 207). A similar remark was made for the Pyrenean resorts but applied to the shepherds rather than the military.

45A section of the resort’s inhabitants were therefore also involved in the process of eroticising the resort. This worried the clergy in the most religious regions. For example, in Chaudes-Aigues in the Cantal department, the ecclesiastical body accused the railways of bringing to the resort, in the form of their spa visitors, the seeds of ungodliness and a taste for earthly pleasures. The village’s priest would not even tolerate young women and girls dancing because it was too sensual (Estève, 1992).

46This prostitution, whether formal or informal, did not come without its health problems. Corbin (2005) notes that tabes dorsalis (stage 3 of syphilis) would spread quickly and easily in spa towns. Ultimately, this reputation for debauchery that the spa towns had began to backfire, forcing actors in the tourism system to take steps for fear of losing ‘the good women’. The newspapers would henceforth avoid disclosing the love affairs and amorous antics of renowned tourists and therapy-seekers.

47During the belle époque and the roaring twenties, the spa resorts therefore represented an escape from everyday life. They were a world of theatres and luxury, where scenes of love and frolicking would be played out. However, behind this description of spa resorts during the heyday of balneotherapy lies a much more complex paradox, which we have not tackled here. The spa towns were always a difficult environment to define because they simultaneously mixed joy and suffering, beauty and infirmity.


48In conclusion, luxury, tranquillity, sensuality, seduction and lust were the constituent elements of spa resorts (an escape from everyday life, a place of carefree transgression), and women, as eroticised objects and a source of desire, were very often at the centre of this mechanism. The eroticism that emerged from the female presence contributed to defining the spa atmosphere. As the object of male fantasy, women served as decorative elements (in the form of statues, as the centrepieces in publicity posters or as the subject of paintings) and objects of pleasure. However, as with the seaside resorts, ‘the representation of these women was above all a fantasised male version that was far removed from the social realities of the time. While the images, through the nudity and suggestive poses they portrayed, personified a liberated, emancipated woman, this was not the case in reality because women remained subject to moral, religious and social codes (Birot, Bohuon and Pécout, 2010: 117) [although some women freed themselves of these constraints, most notably the demi-mondaines and the celebrities of the time]. The spa towns were quite openly enclaves in which bourgeois morality was flouted. An erotic conception had clearly been delivered, and it was conveyed in the resorts through fitting decorations and facilities.

49In the 1930s, a ‘quiet revolution’ was underway (Bucaille and Virieux, 2011). The new welfare laws saw the emergence of the middle classes. Less concerned with luxury and focused primarily on health, this new spa population preferred family hotels and boarding houses and less expensive leisure facilities. This change in clientele and practices thus suggested to Carribon (2001) that the roaring twenties represented an interim period, ‘a link between society balneotherapy and social balneotherapy’. In 1947, French balneotherapy made a return to the purely medical sphere, with treatment being reimbursed by state social security. In this new context, any reference to a recreational system or to wellbeing has been erased (Jamot, 1988). The heyday of the French spa towns, characterised by a scandalous reputation and an atmosphere of exhilarating festive chaos, was over.

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1 Please note all citations from French sources in this text have been translated.

2 According to Carribon (2001: 590), ‘the belle époque saw the growth of humorous postcards suggesting, with varying levels of frivolity, that the pleasures of the waters were carnal’.

3 ‘La durabilité des stations thermales françaises: le croisement de la tradition et de l’innovation’, TRAST conference, Université de Bordeaux, 16-18 April 2015 (chapter in a collective work edited by V. Vlès, 2016); ‘La revitalisation des stations thermales du Massif Central Français par la Route des Villes d’Eaux: entre mémoire et innovation’, in L. Bourdeau and P. Marcotte (eds), Les Routes Touristiques, Presses de l’Université de Laval-Québec, 2015, pp. 239-254; ‘La difficulté des stations thermales à se repositionner sur le tourisme de luxe’, Mondes du Tourisme, HS, 2014, pp. 95-108; ‘Naissance et développement de La Bourboule: ville thermale neuve française exemplaire’, Espaces et Sociétés, no 151, 2012, pp. 49-67; ‘Le tourisme haut de gamme, positionnement stratégique au sein d’une métropole: le choix d’Evian vis à vis de la métropole transfrontalière franco-valdo-genevoise’, Information Géographique, no 3, 2009, pp. 23-45.

4 Carribon (2001) noted that the publicity posters for spa and seaside resorts barely changed from the belle époque to the roaring twenties. The only alterations to be found were in the aesthetics and the graphics, which were prompted by the appearance of Art Deco and a more pared-down style. However, one (sometimes background) element survived, namely the train, which was to be rivalled by the car towards the end of the period.

5 The resorts welcoming more than 10,000 bathers in 1930 were, in decreasing order: Vichy, Luchon, Aix, Cauterets, Châtel-Guyon, la Bourboule, Vittel, Evian, le Mont-Dore, Royat and Dax (Jamot, 1988).

6 In both these cases, the decor was polychromatic.

7 Both now disappeared.

8 This calls to mind Corbin’s (1988) comments on the sensual effects of the ebb and flow of seawater.

9 ‘Désir et plaisir: les secrets de la libido’ (desire and pleasure: secrets of the libido), a documentary aired on the Franco-German television channel, Arte, Friday 13 March 2015.

10 ‘Désir et plaisir: les secrets de la libido’ (desire and pleasure: secrets of the libido), a documentary aired on the Franco-German television channel, Arte, Friday 13 March 2015.

11 Ulysse Jouvet, 1862, Guide du touriste. Vichy, la vie aux bains. Des eaux minérales en général et de celles de Vichy en particulier, 124 p.

12 On the Musée d’Orsay website, detailed presentation of the exhibition ‘Splendeurs et misère. Images de la prostitution 1850-1910’ (splendour and misery: images of prostitution 1850-1910). URL:

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Table des illustrations

Titre Document no 1: Engraving of the thermal baths at Bourbon l’Archambaut, dated 1569
Fichier image/jpeg, 572k
Titre Document no 2: The representation of woman on spa tourism posters
Crédits Google images et
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,0M
Titre Document no 3: Seaside tourism posters highlighting feminine charms
Crédits Google images
Fichier image/jpeg, 240k
Titre Document no 4: Locations of the largest resorts at the beginning of the 20th century
Fichier image/jpeg, 656k
Titre Document no 5: Oriental-style thermal baths architecture
Crédits MEF 2011, 2012, 2015
Fichier image/jpeg, 4,8M
Titre Document no 6: Female statues frequently found in spa towns
Crédits MEF, 2004
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,7M
Titre Document no 7: Suggestive paintings from the Thermes des Dômes and the Thermes de Luchon
Crédits​archi/​dome.php?rub=architecture&page=7 et Midi-Pyrénées Patrimoine, n°36, 2014
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,6M
Titre Document no 8: An omnipresent female representation in the most highly frequented spa resorts
Légende Extérieurs et intérieurs d’un des premiers casinos de la Bourboule (actuelle mairie)
Crédits MEF, 2015.
Fichier image/jpeg, 6,8M
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Marie-Eve Férérol, « Lust, tranquillity and sensuality in French spa towns in the heyday of balneotherapy (the belle époque and the roaring twenties) », Via [En ligne], 11-12 | 2017, mis en ligne le 14 mai 2018, consulté le 16 décembre 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/viatourism.1763

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Marie-Eve Férérol

Doctor (Clermont II) and qualified lecturer in geography. At the time of writing, temporary lecturer (ATER) at the Bayonne Institut Universitaire Professionnalisé (university-based professional institute) (LACES [EA 4140]/Maison des Sciences de l’Homme d’Aquitaine)

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