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Waters, water and the hydrosocial politics of bathing in Mexico City, 1850-1920

Casey Walsh
University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA, USA; cwalsh@ucsb.edu

ABSTRACT: Before the emergence of microbiology in the 1860s, the relationship between health and water was understood to hinge mostly on its manifold mineral qualities; medical treatments often involved bathing in particular waters to take advantage of their curative powers. With the help of microscopes, those waters came to be seen as home to dangerous microbes and a cause, as much as a cure, of disease. But while biology placed water management on a new footing, ideas from chemistry about the diverse positive medical effects of mineral waters continued to justify the use of those heterogeneous sources for bathing in pools and spas. In this article, I trace this slow, incomplete transition from chemical to biological understandings of waters and health in Mexico City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Contradictory hydrosocial processes took shape as scientists, businesspeople and politicians sought to deliver biologically pure, potable public water to individual bathrooms and to, at the same time, promote the healing properties of social bathing in chemically heterogeneous waters.

KEYWORDS: Bathing, water, infrastructure, medicine, history, Mexico