Let’s face it, most American holidays center around food and lots of it. Too much of a good thing is never enough, and celebrating American Independence often means a good excuse to overeat. I already had lunch today, so hunger pangs are not the focus of this post. This week’s post on the What’s Cookin’ blog focused on frozen desserts for the steamy outdoor July 4th celebrations. So as a counterpart, let’s briefly re-visit how Americans in the late nineteenth century recovered from their indigestion and where they went to escape the summer heat.

As is often the case of working in special collections, it is very easy to get distracted by original material, rare books, or other items in the stacks. While searching for another book, I ran across a wonderful advertising piece for the Roanoke Red Sulpher Springs in Salem, Virginia. Printed in 1898, the booklet contains dozens of first-hand testimonials about those who found comfort from their ailments by visiting this largely forgotten summer resort. Yes, there are plenty of other nearby resorts (Eggleston Springs and Montgomery White Sulpher Springs) to talk about, but this forty-something page pamphlet caught my eye.

coverLike today, there is fierce competition for tourist dollars and J. Harry Chapman, the manager of the springs, made it clear that the Roanoke Red Sulpher Springs has “The Best Dyspepsia Water in Virginia.” The springs opened each June and accommodated up to 300 guests. In addition to easing the upset stomachs of those who could afford to travel to Salem, the waters also healed “Hay Fever, Lung, Throat, Heart, Kidney and Female Troubles.” The springs thrived as a destination for Virginians as well as those from across the country. Like modern day travel guides, the booklet includes distances to major cities, including New York, Atlanta, and even Galveston (only 48 hours away).


The healing waters, the cool mountain breezes, and the chance to escape the drudgery of urban areas motivated many middle-class Victorians to find their way to natural springs like this one in Virginia. The book is littered with testimonials from past visitors who hoped to cure their maladies and enjoy the tranquility of the mountains. Visitors from New Orleans, Pensacola, Norfolk, Philadelphia, and even San Antonio gushed about the springs and became regulars each summer.


The testimonials make this small nook in the Virginia mountains sound like Xanadu, rather than a resort just nine miles north of Salem. An artist’s depiction of Roanoke Red Sulpher Springs from Edward Beyer’s, Album of Virginia (1858), which appeared on the front of the 1898 booklet, matched the idyllic description of the grounds.

Album of Virginia rendering

Like many items in special collections, the 1898 booklet is a snapshot of a particular time in the history of a place. The springs first opened as a resort in 1858 and went through several owners. The medical benefits of the springs made it an ideal location for battling one of the most troublesome disease of the period–tuberculosis. In 1908, the State of Virginia took over Roanoke Red Sulpher Springs and made it the state’s first tuberculosis sanitorium (Catawba).

The 1898 advertising booklet documents the high-point of Roanoke Red Sulpher Springs as a summer resort. In the late 1890s visitors came to the springs to recuperate and have a vacation. On this July 4th, 116 years later, many of us will do the same–travel to a far away location (a lake, a beach, or an amusement park) to relax, rejuvenate, and feel better. The restorative powers of such an escape may be even better for you than natural spring waters, and certainly better than eating warm potato salad. So travel safe, be healthy, and enjoy the waters.

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