Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Samuel Bower in Perfect Nudity: Antebellum Health Reform and the Self

Subscribers to the Water-Cure Journal would have found an article in the November 1850 edition advising them of the healthful benefits of sunlight. The Water-Cure Journal was a monthly journal devoted to hydropathy, or the water cure, a means of preventing and curing disease by the use of water, or on occasion other natural remedies. By 1850 the periodical had a circulation of 10,000. The article, entitled “New Views on Health” written by Samuel Bower of Iowa, stated that full health could only be achieved by placing oneself within natural conditions. The sun, Bower expounded, was the chief cause of all living things, therefore, people should allow the air and sun to be in contact at all times with their entire bodies. In other words, Bower was advocating people should live naked. In Bower’s words, “Why does civilized man put on, at all seasons, over that natural garb which the all-provident Creator has given him [sic], clothing? . . . Not to preserve health, certainly. These practices minister to disease.”

Espousing living naked seems a radical supposition to many today. It is difficult to imagine that idea having had much merit in 1850, and many historians have described Samuel Bower as either a nudist or “queer.” But other health reformers of the Antebellum period were speaking of the healthful benefits of nudity, although their arguments were always moderated by the dictates of climate and social norms; none would prove as insistently radical as Samuel Bower. The movement which was named nudism in 1929 has achieved a world-wide following today of millions of people, flowering from a Free Body Culture movement which had its genesis in late nineteenth-century German health-reform and perfectionism which expressed similar ideals and motivations as those put forth by Bower. Samuel Bower was not a curiosity espousing “nudism” in the wilderness of antebellum health-reform, but rather the strongest voice among a few reformers who were making a connection between the concept of the body, our relationship to it, and our relationship to the biosphere we inhabit, pre-figuring concepts and ideas which would take root some fifty years later in Germany, achieve full fruition in Interwar Germany, and continue worldwide to this day.

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