Groundwater now supplies more than 50% of drinking water around the world, and almost 40% of irrigated lands.Footnote 1 This article explores how we came to depend on groundwater in the first place, and how this everyday access to large amounts of groundwater generated cultural assumptions and a lived experience of hydraulic opulence. This history of superabundance (Udall 1970) is much like those of many other cities in this regard, but in the case of Mexico City it was supported in its initial phase by groundwater provided by artesian wells. Beginning around 1850, thousands of wells were dug by private businessmen and landowners, provoking a soaring demand for water that would later be met by governments and public utilities. These artesian wells supplied newly built bathhouses with copious amounts of water that changed the everyday contact people had with the liquid, contributing to the durable yet mistaken assumption that water is plentiful and endless.

Artesian wells are those from which water flows without pumping, due to hydrostatic pressure in aquifers that drives the groundwater to the surface. Not all aquifers have the pressure to produce artesian wells, and the drilling technology to create deep wells was not available or utilized in Europe until the early 19th century. Artesian wells became plentiful in Mexico City after 1850, and the abundance of groundwater surging from them shattered existing limits to the supply of water in the city and reshaped the practices and social relations of bathing. While cities located near rivers and streams generally made use of those sources, Mexico City was built on a dried lakebed in a closed valley, and relied upon a limited number of springs to supply its residents with clean water. With the development of new drilling technology, bountiful, clean water was accessed in places not served by existing infrastructure, in quantities that enabled bathing with more frequency, with more water. Existing bathhouses abandoned their traditional saunas and installed immersion baths, and many new, lavish bathhouses were built. Groundwater filled pools in urban and rural settings, expanding the practice of swimming for fun and fitness that was until then mostly limited by access to natural bodies of surface water. The expansion of bathing in the late nineteenth century was backed by a new assumption that water was available in large amounts; a material and cultural experience of hydraulic opulence that emerged along with artesian wells and the growing infrastructure.

This article shifts attention away from the state as the principal agent of water development and towards businessmen who dug artesian wells, built bathhouses, and reshaped cultural practices of bathing. Debates in water history have swirled around state formation, politics and power at least since Karl Wittfogel’s 1957 treatise on hydraulic society, and even though most scholars reject Wittfogel’s thesis at least partially, it continues to orient research on water use and management (Ley and Krause 2019). In this article, however, I argue that in Mexico it was the appropriation of groundwater by non-state actors that generated lasting cultural expectations about human-environment relations that would only later be addressed by the state. Wealthy property owners in the late-nineteenth century, rather than government officials, initiated a great expansion of water use by perforating artesian wells. Later, in the twentieth century, those wells were complemented by, and fed into, massive hydraulic infrastructure built and operated by the state, but at the same time, the spread of electricity supported the proliferation of privately owned deep wells and pumps that were largely unregulated by the state (Moreno Vázquez 2006; Sada 2011; Wolfe 2017).

Hydraulic opulence was a fundamental cultural shift, from periodic contact with scarce, localized, collective sources such as fountains and bathhouses in the early nineteenth century to a quotidian, abundant water available to most people in their homes by the mid-twentieth century. Bathing was the activity in which people most directly experienced this shift to hydraulic opulence. In the Mediterranean world of antiquity, bathing involving immersion in tubs and pools of different temperatures as well as steam baths, and was associated with a wide range of connotations, from politics to religion, medicine, and sex (Jackson 1990). Despite shifts in the locus of power from Greece to Rome and then to the Arab world, there is a great deal of continuity in the form of bathhouses and bathing practices. While the medieval period in Europe marks something of a hiatus, social bathing came back strongly during the renaissance and enlightenment, informed by classical texts and the emergence of modern medicine and bourgeois leisure time (Anderson and Tabb 2002; Mackaman 1998; Porter 1990). Other parts of the world such as Asia and the Americas had indigenous bathing traditions, and as Europeans travelled across the globe after 1500 new combinations were wrought in colonial settings (Jennings 2006; Walsh 2018). These cultures of water endure despite the expansion of urban hydraulic infrastructure and the accompanying rise of sanitation during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Agostoni 2003; Gandy 2014; Geels 2005; Goldman and Narayan 2019; Goubert 1989; Melosi 1999).

In this article I direct attention to the cultural dynamics at work during an early moment of the creation of “modern water” (Bannister and Widdifield 2014; Linton 2010), when new infrastructures and newly accessed groundwaters helped reshape everyday experiences and ideas into a qualitatively different feeling of opulent abundance. Williams (1977) developed the concept of “structure of feeling” to capture the historical and material conditionality of our everyday cultural experiences. By showing how something as subjective as a feeling is structured by the material conditions in which people live, Williams helps us understand the way that the demand for superabundant water was generated in a specific historical set of environmental and technological conditions. To show how the assumption of plentiful water took root in popular culture, I focus on the bathhouses that were supplied by artesian wells in the late-nineteenth century in Mexico, and the new practices and experiences of bathing that this infrastructure enabled.

At first the artesian wells allowed entrepreneurs to build bathhouses that resembled those of Europe, where relatively wealthy clients came together to socialize and swim, take saunas and showers, soak in hot pools, and enjoy a wide range of services such as restaurants, barber shops and reading rooms. By the first decades of the twentieth century, however, the proliferation of bathhouses made modern hygiene and superabundant water accessible to people of lesser means, and the expansion of infrastructure brought bathrooms into individual houses, something that would become standard by the second half of the twentieth century. In central Mexico, the widespread access to, and experience of, abundant supplies of water shaped a culture of demand that has continued to drive the expansion of supply until the present day. This conjunction of material and cultural processes is one origin of the assumption of superabundance that continues to shape unsustainable hydrosocial relations today.

Artesian Wells

Artesian wells hold a special place in the history of water resource management, for their proliferation at the beginning of the nineteenth century was guided by, and in turn propelled, an intensification of the modern discipline of hydrogeology. Also known by the more descriptive term “flowing wells,“ these wells got the name “artesian” from the Artois region around Paris in northern France where as early as the 11th century residents tapped shallow confined aquifers to produce water (Jiang et al. 2020). In the early nineteenth century the percussion method of drilling enabled a proliferation of much deeper artesian wells (Garnier 1822). In Britain, geologist William Smith laid the conceptual groundwork for utilizing hydraulic head in aquifers, and his student John Farey pioneered artesian well drilling in the Thames River basin in the first decade of the nineteenth century (Mather n.d.). By 1840 they were common, although efforts to find artesian water often failed due to insufficient knowledge about aquifers. It was in the 1850s, however, when John Snow showed the link between a cholera outbreak and a shallow well in London, that deep artesian wells from confined aquifers were turned to as an ideal source of clean water for rapidly growing cities. At that same moment in Paris, two artesian wells of around 500 m were perforated to supply public fountains, and by 1869 a number of urban centers in Britain were supplied partially by groundwater (Arago 1834; Héricart de Thury 1829; Mather n.d.).

Water was scarce in nineteenth-century Mexico City. As it had been for centuries, the limited amount of water from the aqueducts of Mexico City was concessioned to wealthy property owners, or delivered to the public fountains. For the majority of the people in the city, fountain water was relatively scarce and costly, distant from their houses, and delivered in large jars or barrels by water bearers, or aguadores (López Mora 2021; Pineda Mendoza 2000). Water scarcity came to a head in periods of drought, such as that which occurred in the 1780s, which led reformist governors to describe public unrest over a “severe lack of water in the public tanks.”Footnote 2 These shortages in the public water system also drove residents to make use of the shallow public wells, drainage canals and rivers that were common in this city built on a former lakebed, especially on the outskirts. The plebian mass often drew from these sources to wash their streets, houses, animals, themselves, and their clothes. People liked to wash and bathe in the water of the shallow wells and drainage canals because it was “softer” than the city water: it has less dissolved solids and produced more suds. More importantly, it was free and often closer at hand than the city’s fountains (Lopez Mora 2021). But the quality of those waters was seen as dubious and the public bathing they supported was frowned upon by many.

After 1850, the perforation of artesian wells in the Valley of Mexico seemed to vanquish limits to the supply of good quality water. The Valley of Mexico is a geological formation that was suited to artesian wells, as there were altitude differentials in the subsoil water that created hydrostatic pressure maintained by impermeable formations of silt and clay. Figure 1 is a schematic representation of the aquifers of the Valley of Mexico, published by the scientists who pioneered the drilling of artesian wells in the Valley of Mexico during the 1850s. The image identifies three layers of confined water-bearing matrix (A, B, and C) that provided flowing water from wells, and correlated the pressure and height to which those waters would flow with the geological formations that produced them.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Geohydrology of the Valley of Mexico. Source: Rio de la Loza and Craveri, 1854

The last quarter of the nineteenth century was a time of rapid expansion of mining, industry and agriculture, and great accumulation of wealth among Mexican elites. This wealth spurred the growth of new neighborhoods in Mexico City and other cities, outstripping the centuries-old public water systems fed by rivers and springs. New drilling equipment and techniques enabled the perforation of hundreds of artesian wells in the Valley of Mexico during the last half of the nineteenth century, part of a global trend. In Mexico, Sebastian Pane began to tap aquifers in the 1850s, and by the 1860s many companies were operating drilling rigs in Mexico.Footnote 3 Pane led the industry, completing hundreds of artesian wells in Mexico City, as well as in numerous other Mexican cities (Barcena 1885: 266; Buenrostro 1875: 179). He opened a business office on the glitzy new Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City, and a few years later erected the famous Alberca Pane next door (Fig. 2), a dazzling bathhouse supplied entirely with groundwater (Del Valle 1859: 25 − 6). This new upscale neighborhood was distant from the central area of the city where the public water infrastructure was located, and Pane drilled artesian wells to provide water to many of its residents.

Most artesian wells served private properties rather than public water systems. In 1883 only 28 of Mexico City’s 483 registered wells provided water to the city’s government-managed infrastructure (Barcena 1885; Peñafiel 1884: 51, 153-4; Río de la Loza 1911: 220–221; Talavera Ibarra 2004: 301). About one third of all these artesian wells were located in the city’s Octava Demarcación, which included the new, wealthy neighborhoods to the west of the city center along the Paseo de la Reforma, from Bucareli to Chapultepec avenues (Peñafiel 1884: 191). The bathhouses and swimming pools that grew in popularity during the Porfiriato were mostly located in this area, and they too were served by artesian wells. Most of the wells were privately owned, and with those new sources the overall water supply in the city almost doubled by the 1860s, and almost tripled by 1883 (Peñafiel 1884: 50). Groundwater also flowed into the city’s public distribution system and by 1895 artesian wells provided about a quarter of the water that reached the fountains and buildings in the center of the city that enjoyed concessions (Orvañanos 1895: 221).

Bathing traditions in Mexico

Artesian wells and copious groundwater revolutionized water culture in Mexico between 1850 and 1900, marking the beginning of the age of hydraulic opulence, a structure of feeling that continued through most of the twentieth century. Writing about the twentieth century, Luis Aboites argues that the widespread optimism about economic growth and prosperity were rooted in the rapid expansion of state-led hydraulic infrastructure and the superabundance of the liquid (Aboites 2002; Aboites 2013). This optimism was in many ways connected to the hydraulic opulence generated by artesian wells in the late nineteenth century. Water managers and scientists assumed that the centuries-old limits to Mexico City’s water supply had been overcome, despite evidence that subsoil water was finite and its extraction caused land subsidence. Consumers quickly grew accustomed to practices that the water enabled such as frequent bathing by immersion and swimming. Plentiful cheap water restructured feelings about the relationship of people to their waters and set water managers on a path of increasing supply from which they have not since wavered.

Bathing was a crucial part of forging this culture of hydraulic opulence. How did Mexicans bathe in the nineteenth century? How did bathing practices change after 1850 with the plentiful supplies provided by artesian wells? Everyday bathing practices and their associated environmental values are hard to find in the historical record, but travel writers and novelists provide some idea. In 1842 Ignacio Cumplido portrayed the leisurely bathing practices of elite urban Mexicans from Guadalajara in a rural landscape specially managed for this activity. In the spring and summer months, its residents would travel to the Zoquipan river near the small towns of Zoquipa and Atemaxac, a mile and half from the city. There, local people built numerous bathhouses made of carrizo reeds with grass walls and roofs that afforded some privacy to those who did not wish to be gazed upon. It was an intensely social activity, with crowds of urbanites bathing, eating, and drinking, country people selling food and wares, and musicians playing songs for pay. Men and children bathed first, while groups of young women strolled on the river banks in their Sunday finery. In the afternoon, when the sun warmed the water and air, the women would take their turn, usually in the privacy of the improvised bathhouses. Local indigenous people organized the whole affair, erecting and renting out bathhouses, excavating pools in the river for swimming, preparing food, and tending the grassy embankment (Cumplido 1842).

Open-air baths such as those were common along Mexico’s rivers and springs in the nineteenth century, as evidenced in the writings of North Americans and Europeans travelling through the country. A year after Cumplido published his account, Alexander Forbes described a similar array of bathhouses in Tepic, “made of wattles, and thatched … situated at the river side, where the stream is tolerable deep… divided into different compartments, and much used by the better class of inhabitants” (Forbes 1851: 140). Social bathing was commonplace among well-to-do Mexicans, just as it was for their European counterparts who during the nineteenth century turned freshwater, mineral water, and seawater spas and resorts into mass leisure destinations. The seaside town of “San Blas,” Forbes continued, “is frequented by the Tepiqueños [residents of Tepic], who during the latter part of the dry season, come down for the sake of sea-bathing” (Forbes 1851: 204).

Poor Mexicans built and operated bathhouses for the wealthy, but they also bathed. Visitors to northeastern Mexico commented that local residents were modest about their bodies, but lacked the prudishness of Europeans when in the water. In 1828 George Lyon described rural folk in northeastern Mexico “bathing in the [Panuco] river whole families at a time, which appears to be their morning and evening custom” (Lyon 1828: 94). “Such families as choose to,” he continued, “devote a little trouble and expense to decency, small spaces are staked off near the banks, and lightly covered with palm branches: but such niceties are not much attended to; both sexes bathe without scruple at the same time, and many of the young women swim extremely well” (63). Women did not shy away from bathing. Navigating the Río Bravo/Grande by boat in the 1840s, Corydon Donnavan spied “droves of joyous young girls disporting like mermaids” (Donnavan 1848: 22) and a decade later on the same river, Emmanuel Domenech noted that “a number of people of every age and each sex were bathing” (Domenech 1858: 272). At the same time, bathing was about cleaning bodies and clothes. Except for the wealthy, who had servants to do their work, people swam, bathed, and washed clothes at the same time. Alongside his reflections on elite social bathing in mid-century Tepic, Alexander Forbes also noted that humble people went to “pozos [swimming holes] … much used by laundresses and bathers … usually large holes dug just below the springs” (Forbes 1851: 139). On the river in the nearby city of Colima, John Lewis Geiger described the “numerous baths erected along its course, and the temporary laundry establishments,” all grouped together (Geiger 1874: 48).

In the cities, bathhouses attended to most people, apart from the very poor who could not afford them and so bathed in the city’s canals, rivers, and fountains, and the wealthy who enjoyed their own household water connections. These baths offered two kinds of bathing, a wood-fired steambath called the temazcal that had mostly indigenous Mesoamerican origins, and small soaking tubs called “placeres” (“pleasure-baths”), that were usually made of wood and filled with cold or hot water, at different prices. In 1793, an edict published by the reformist Viceroy, the second Conde of Revillagigedo, depicted a large number of bathhouses in the city center, far exceeding the 24 that were issued permits by the city government in 1741. Many of the unlicensed bathhouses featured temazcales, which were viewed with suspicion by Euro-American elites because of their role as social spaces for poor, indigenous people. Although they were more European in their form, the placeres were not looked upon with much more sympathy, as the tubs were often grouped together in large rooms with little attention to privacy, and were often used by multiple members of families from the plebian urban classes. Elite Mexicans sought to reform the popular bathhouses and bathing practices by reducing physical contact among patrons, a moral and sanitary project that would gradually materialize in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the copious water from artesian wells, new bathhouse entrepreneurs, and rapidly expanding hydraulic infrastructure (Macias-González 2012; Walsh 2021).

New bathhouses

The arrival of the artesian well in 1850 led to a proliferation of bathhouses throughout Mexico, increasing and diversifying the contacts people had with water. “You will find [bathhouses] everywhere in the large cities,” wrote one man in 1886, “and their appointments are first class” (McCarty 1888: 183). Travelers lauded the baths in Veracruz, Orizaba, Xalapa, San Luis Potosí, even the remote northern city of Durango (Geiger 1874; George 1877; Hale and Hale 1893). And while rural dwellers continued to utilize rivers and springs for washing, bathhouses were also increasingly common even in small towns in Mexico. In 1867, for example, James Elton wrote that “the Mexicans are in advance of many European cities with regard to their baths, for in every small town you will find at least one Casa de Baños…all of them being clean and neatly kept, and the tariff exceedingly low” (Elton 1867: 30). Twenty years later Fanny Iglehart noted “comfortable and luxurious public baths – warm and cold – for all classes exist everywhere” (Iglehart 1887: 230). Guadalajara was said to have twenty-six public baths at the turn of the twentieth century. Despite the expansion of water supplies, very few private houses had bathrooms before 1900, and so Mexicans in towns and provincial cities grew accustomed to bathing frequently in public baths. In the process of the expansion of bathing by immersion, the temazcal saunas that were once the primary form of public bathing were dismantled and forgotten.

It was Mexico City, however, that was the capital of bathhouses, and with artesian wells proliferating in the Valley, by 1867 “their number was legion” (Elton 1867: 30). The oldest baths were located in the city center, and these usually were supplied by the city water infrastructure. But new ones sprung up in the late nineteenth century on the outskirts of town, especially along the Paseo de la Reforma, which was planned during the French occupation (1862–1867) and often described as the Champs Elysees of Mexico. Santiago Pane, the entrepreneur who pushed forward the groundwater revolution with his drilling rig, was also a leader in the massification of bathing. In 1864 he opened a bathhouse on a vacant piece of land on the Paseo de la Reforma and supplied its multiple pools, showers, and baths with three artesian wells. The well that served the main swimming pool of the Alberca Pane could fill a water carrier’s jar ninety times a minute, commentators at the time said with wonder (Rivera Cambas 18801883, Volume 2: 286). Other similar establishments followed on its heels, including the Baños Osorio and Baños Blasio right next door, creating a new genre of bathing establishment – the balneario – that had swimming pools and was as much a waterpark as it was a bathhouse. The artesian wells gushed continuously, nourishing the baths before spilling into the drains, sewers and canals that led east to Lake Texcoco. These new luxury bathhouses sometimes had romantic names, such as “El Harem,” and they offered a wide array of aquatic experiences: “lukewarm baths, hydrotherapeutic baths, Russian baths, and Turco-Roman baths; the bathhouses had installations suited for practicing swimming” (Prantl and Groso 1901: 39). For residents of a city that had always endured water shortages, the opulence of water must have been stunning.

During the administration of President Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911), going to the new bathhouses was an activity laden with meanings of class, status, and European civility (Macias-González 2012). The Alberca Pane was a favorite social setting of the elite, most notably President Díaz himself, who at the advice of his physician and friend, Eduardo Liceaga, sought the fortifying and curative effects of taking the waters. “The Alberca Pane,” declared a railway promotional travel book in 1894, “is the largest and finest in every respect,” with “shower, swim, Roman, Russian and Turkish baths” (Rogers 1893: 143). From this account we see that while the popular temazcal had been largely eradicated by the end of the nineteenth century, bathing in steambaths and saunas was very much alive among the wealthy, reframed as a practice with roots in the antiquity of Europe and the Ottoman empire, rather than Mesoamerica. Much like a European spa, the Alberca Pane offered a wide assortment of cultural and social activities, including gardens, dining rooms, musical performances, swimming lessons, sporting events, hair dressers and barbers, and medical attention. The Alberca Pane’s “seductive oriental bath” was especially tailored for the wealthy, with its “beautiful garden and kiosks, carpets, walnut chairs, mirrors, shell-covered furniture” and elaborately tiled pool (Rivera Cambas 18801883, Vol. 2: 285). Composer, violinist and popular icon Juventino Rosas gained much of his fame playing Straussian waltzes for the wealthy at the Alberca Pane and the Baños Factor (Macias-González 2012). His song “Junto al Manantial” (“Next to the Spring”) was composed for the birthday party of the wife of the owner of one of the baths.Footnote 4 Long weekday afternoons and entire weekend days were spent bathing, eating, socializing, and performing other rituals of class distinction that consolidated the identity of the emergent national bourgeoisie.

Artesian groundwater became more plentiful as the century progressed, and these bathhouses brought together increasingly wider swaths of Mexican society into a hierarchical but still unified setting. “There are baths of true luxury” wrote Manuel Rivera Cambas, “and others for social classes with few resources; they are divided in categories aligned with the people that use them, and thus their cost” (Rivera Cambas 18801883, Vol. 2: 284). Middle-class Mexicans often took the “baths route” (circuito de baños) streetcar, operated by the Alberca Pane, paying 50 centavos for a ticket that included entrance to the Russian baths, 25 centavos for the hydrotherapy baths and lukewarm baths, or 12 centavos for the cold water baths (Paz 1882). Bathhouses such as the Alberca Pane brought together the middle and upper classes in shared spaces and activities that fortified a notion of belonging to a civilized nation, but they also provided baths for the poor. Such was the abundance of artesian groundwater water that one of the balnearios on Paseo de la Reforma offered baths for horses, and the Alberca Pane had a free tank of constantly flowing water outside the building for use by soldiers and the poor (Elton 1867: 35). In this way the experience of hydraulic opulence and the public rituals of hygiene and cleanliness trickled down to the more humble classes in the late nineteenth century (Talavera Ibarra 2004). When the flow of its artesian wells diminished in the 1890s, the Alberca Pane was awarded three concessions (mercedes) of additional surface water from the city government to support an expansion of its facilities and “a reduced price to poor people” that would provide a “benefit to public hygiene and health.”Footnote 5 And the baths were not just for men, although the rules of propriety ensured that men and women occupied entirely separate bathing facilities. In his novel Baile y Cochino, José de Cuéllar tells the story of three sisters of humble origins who bathed regularly at the Alberca Pane for hygiene, health, and, not least, to mingle with the well-to-do in these new spaces of leisure. It was ordinary to see parades of young women with their hair in towels, returning home after their baths on the “Baños” streetcar line (De Cuéllar 1889; Paz 1882).

The baths were a year-round attraction, as they offered indoor and hot-water bathing, as well as steambaths, that were appealing during the cold-weather months (Rivera Cambas 18801883, Vol. 2: 284). During the spring and summer the pools and bathhouses of Mexico City were thronged with people. On June 24th, the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist, festivities were held that disseminated mass bathing practices and a feeling of hydraulic opulence. On this warm summer day Mexicans traditionally celebrated the Catholic association between purification and water by visiting a bathhouse, a nearby river, or springs, and this custom grew more elaborate, and more secular, at the new bathhouses (García Cubas 1904: 374). Bathhouse owners adorned their buildings with plants, banners, flags, and other decorations, and offered gifts of soap and small scrubbing pads make of cactus fiber (estropajos, made of ixtle) to their clients. In addition, all sorts of food was available on the streets outside the bathhouses and pools. “The energy in the baths,” García Cubas remarked, “was incredible” (García Cubas 1904: 374). It was a scene reminiscent of that portrayed by Cumplido in the countryside near Guadalajara 40 years earlier, but by the 1880s baths were built wherever there was a suitable aquifer, surpassing the limits of surface water sources and ancestral infrastructure that restricted bathing before the proliferation of artesian wells.

Bathing the civilized nation

Mass bathing in late-nineteenth century Mexico fomented a sense of the nation rooted both in traditional customs such as those of St. John’s day as well as new practices of civilized cosmopolitanism. Copious supplies of groundwater allowed sumptuous practices of immersion, once a symbol of European culture and a privilege of the elite, to soak far down into Mexican society. Bathing establishments remained mostly segregated along class lines, but the availability of bathhouses at all price points made it possible to imagine that all Mexicans were unified as a nation that bathed together. This vision placed Mexico on the same level as Europe, and was bolstered by an evolutionary narrative that seized upon bathing and cleanliness as the pinnacle of progress. As one intellectual from the time stated, “baths with the luxury and dimensions that the ones on Bucareli and Reforma already have in Mexico, are an undeniable proof of advanced civilization” (Rivera Cambas 18801883, Vol. 2: 284).

Bathing and bathhouses were potent symbols that indexed the place of Mexico among the civilized nations of the world. Like their European counterparts, bathhouses in Mexico evoked the splendor, opulence and refinement of the classical Mediterranean civilizations of Greece and Rome, and writers at that time claimed this ancestry as their own. While in the 1840s Ignacio Cumplido described the rustic baths of Guadalajara as desirable for their simplicity, and derided the baths of ancient Rome as decadent, by the 1880s Rivera Cambas cast this classical opulence in a positive light, stressing the continuities with modern Mexico. “Although our civilization has not refined its sense of taste to the degree that it was in the era of Cicero, we nevertheless have beautiful medicinal and recreational baths,” he wrote (Rivera Cambas 18801883: Vol. 2: 284). “Someone once said, and was right,” declared Prantl and Groso, that the level of culture of a people is manifested in the number and quality of its bathhouses” (Prantl and Groso 1901: 39). The “Coliseo Nuevo” (New Coliseum), founded around 1850 by an expatriate Italian general, was renamed “The Harem” soon after (De Valle Arizpe 1949: 412). In 1887 the Alberca Pane installed a “Turkish-Roman” bath they called El Hammam (the Arabic name for the classical Islamic bathhouse) that offered a sumptuous Roman sequence of water encounters: the tepidarium, the caldarium, the laconicum, the alipterium, the lavatorium, and finally a cold plunge bath (De Valle Arizpe 1949: 425). The “Turkish bath,” introduced around 1900 to Mexico City, offered a hot steam treatment quite similar to that of the temazcal before it, but for an elite clientele, and with very different connotations (García Cubas 1904; Macias-González 2012). Alongside classical antiquity, baths appealed to orientalist imaginaries of the Arab and Ottoman world.

Mexican intellectuals also claimed the heritage of the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica when establishing the country’s arc of progress. The French intervention (1862–1867) in Mexico generated renewed interest in the anthropology, archaeology, and history of complex indigenous societies in the country, established museums and reinvigorated universities and professional associations. Mexican intellectuals increasingly portrayed their nation as the product of two great civilizations – European and American – both within their country and on an international stage. Bathing, so central in the imaginary of Europe’s classical roots, was also employed in the work of imagining civilization in Mexico, but rather than incorporate the actual indigenous bathing tradition of the temazcal, elite intellectuals constructed a fantastical world of Aztec immersion baths and swimming pools.

Fig. 2
figure 2

“Baños de Chapultepec.” Michaud, Jules. 1874. México, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Archivo Fotográfico Manuel Toussaint, Colección Julio Michaud, CMICH7

These Aztec roots of civilized bathing in Mexico were on display in the Bosque de Chapultepec, a large leafy park at the terminus of the stylish Paseo de la Reforma. The Bosque was widely known to be a hunting ground and park for the Aztec rulers, and its famed springs, the pools that collected their water, and the aqueduct that delivered it to the city center were all associated with the Aztecs, who first built the water system. The oldest and smallest spring-fed pool was the source of water for the aqueduct. Travelers and locals referred to it as “Moctezuma’s Bath” and “Montezuma’s Pool” and believed that it “was probably used by him” (George 1877: 128; Haven 1875: 224-5). In truth, pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica people “bathed” in temazcales, and the pool was actually built as a holding tank for the aqueduct that served the city center. A similar prehispanic irrigation tank in the hills near Texcoco earned the moniker “Nezalhualcoyotl’s Baths,” more evidence of how inhabitants of the nineteenth century interpreted waterworks in terms of immersion bathing.

Regardless of the origins of the pools in Chapultepec, in the late nineteenth century they became increasingly popular destinations for swimming. By the 1860s the owners of Chapultepec’s Alberca Grande (also known as the “Alberca de los Nadadores”) had built a bathhouse to serve the public (Pineda Mendoza 2000). This was the best-known and most-frequented swimming pool for city dwellers of some means until the Alberca Pane and its neighboring bathhouses opened a short distance down the Paseo de la Reforma. As one can see in Fig. 2, the architecture of the bathhouse was neoclassical, decorated “in the style of Pompeii” with a large swimming pool fed by the springs and smaller, private pools and rooms that received the water from the Alberca Grande (Rivera Cambas 18801883, Vol. 2: 319; Gray 1878: 59). There were gardens with sandy walkways shaded by enormous ahuehuete (cypress) trees, and a “rich and endless spring almost overflowing the pool that bounded its transparent water” (García Cubas 1904: 373). A foreign visitor wrote of “a swarthy son of Aztecs” swimming in this pool, reinforcing the popular narrative about the classical Mesoamerican origins bathing in Mexico (Gray 1878: 59). This pool and bathhouse operated from the 1860s until about 1880, when the profusion of artesian wells around the springs reduced their water levels so much that the city stepped in to purchase the title to all the spring waters and channel them to the aqueduct that led downtown. So much water was extracted from the subsoil in Chapultepec that the ancient ahuehuete trees – also associated with the Aztecs – began to die, prompting caretakers to ask the city for a concession of springwater to irrigate them.Footnote 6 By the time García Cubas wrote his memoirs in 1904, the pool was dry and already eulogized as the remnant of a noble and hygienic indigenous civilization. “Montezuma’s bath still stands,” wrote Crawford in 1899, “a charming bit of ruins” (Crawford 1889: 179).

The assumption of hydraulic opulence outlived the boom and bust of artesian wells. There were signs from the beginning that groundwater was finite, but few people saw them, or wished to recognize them. Artesian wells on the west side of the City began to dwindle just a few years after they were sunk, losing hydrostatic pressure as the confined aquifers were drained. This reduction was also seen in the flow of the Chapultepec springs that supplied the aqueduct and the fountains in the historic center of Mexico City (Orozco y Berra 1855; Peñafiel 1884: 50). Some officials blamed the artesian wells, but scientists such as Leopoldo Río de la Loza and Ernesto Craveri dismissed the “common doubts of those who fear that these waters are not permanent”, saying that it would be “very strange” if the main aquifer (the 3rd one down – see Fig. 1) were to go dry (“Noticia Geológica” 1858: 27; Talavera Ibarra 2004). City engineer Francisco Herrera argued that any shortage was due to clogged springs.Footnote 7

Rather than question the assumption of hydraulic opulence – that large amounts of water could be expected everywhere, all the time – the government of Mexico City sought to fulfil the assumption by again increasing supply, setting the course for state officials to build and operate monumental works throughout the twentieth century. In the 1880s, the government bought water concessions and repaired the infrastructure of the Chapultepec springs (Río de la Loza y Craveri 1854: 89).Footnote 8 More importantly, the City joined the groundwater frenzy, and drilled more wells. Three of the wells sunk by Sebastian Pane in the 1850s – at Los Migueles, Bucareli and Cordobanes – provided water to the public fountains in the city center Peñafiel 1884; Talavera Ibarra 2004; Río de la Loza 1911 [1854]: 220–221). In 1863 Pane signed a contract with the city’s Comisión de Aguas to open eight new artesian wells in different plazas in the historical center of Mexico City, and in 1869 the city ordered another three wells drilled for neighborhoods that did not have adequate water service (Talavera Ibarra 2004: 301; Peñafiel 1884: 153-4). In 1871 two more were sunk near San Lázaro and in 1872 twelve more public wells were drilled, with five of those to the west of the city center on the Paseo de la Reforma (Talavera Ibarra 2004: 301). Increases in supply failed to meet increasing demand, for both the Chapultepec springs and the plethora of artesian wells were dependent on aquifers that were fading precisely because of the groundwater revolution. To sustain hydraulic opulence, in 1884 Antonio Peñafiel set his sights on a bigger prize: the springwaters of Xochilmilco, 25 km away on the southern edge of the Valley of Mexico (Aréchiga Córdoba 2004; Banister and Widdifield 2014). The works were built by the City government, the first of many such public projects that have vastly increased the consumption of water in Mexico City over the last hundred and forty years.


In 1850 rural bathhouses and open-air bathing sites fed by rivers and springs were well attended throughout Mexico, and swimming was a popular occasional pastime for many Mexicans. For their occasional baths, urban residents made use of public fountains, as well as temascales, and bathhouses when they could afford them. But with the perforation of artesian wells, new sources of groundwater facilitated a grand expansion of urban immersion baths. In Mexico City, swimming pools and bathhouses opened in posh new neighborhoods along the Paseo de la Reforma, where bathing took on a modern, cosmopolitan air. Chapultepec Park, at the end of the Paseo de la Reforma, also had a swimming pool and bathhouse. Supplied with copious groundwater from private artesian wells, social bathing for fun and fitness grew in popularity and many new businesses offered new watery experiences such as European-styled saunas and swimming pools. In a process that Mintz (1985) called “extensification” the masses actively adopted these elite practices and symbols of bathing when they could afford to, and they became central to the popular national imagination of Mexico as a civilized country. Hydraulic opulence was construed of the material availability of water, of the new practices and experiences of bathing, and of expectations about water, self and society; expectations that became increasingly commonplace as new infrastructures and practices of bathing expanded. It became a deep “structure of feeling” of superabundance confirmed by the built environment.

As ever-wider sectors of Mexican society incorporated bathhouses and immersion bathing into their lives with more frequency, elite Mexicans reinforced social distance to the masses by altering their bathing practices. The massification of bathing by immersion was accompanied by a cultural resignification of cleanliness that linked hygiene to concepts of civilization and progress. The temazcal was cast aside as a tradition practiced by actually-existing poor and indigenous people, and bathing by immersion in Roman- and Aztec-inspired baths were privileged as modern and desirable. However, as the humble residents of the capital flocked increasingly to those bathhouses, the rich turned to private bathrooms in their homes in the new bourgeois neighborhoods such as the Colonia Roma and the Colonia Condesa. Domestic plumbing was accompanied by a new bathing practice – individual showering – that raised the standard for hygiene and cleanliness beyond the reach of plebians sharing the collective waters of the bathhouses. Once again, groundwater enabled this turn to domestic and individual bathing: the Colonia Condesa, for example, was supplied by artesian wells when building began around 1905 (“La ’Colonia de la Condesa’”). In the 1920s Mexico City’s bathhouses served a mostly popular clientele, as the opulence of water, confirmed by the new aqueduct from the Xochimilco springs, trickled down through society. By the 1970s, the bathhouses were mostly replaced by individual, household bathrooms in a rapidly growing metropolis that required a vast, extended infrastructure drawing water from the Lerma and Cutzamala basins.

The boom of artesian wells was relatively brief: 1850 to 1900, more or less. Nevertheless, they fed a business of bathing that contrasts with that of cities in the United States and Europe, where municipal bathhouses were built (Williams 1992; Wiltse 2007).Footnote 9 Even after the artesian wells trickled out, the assumption of superabundance lived on to motivate the ceaseless twentieth-century drive by governments to build ever-more-encompassing works to supply frequent, individualized household baths. Hydraulic opulence both propelled and was confirmed by the ever-larger extraction of groundwater with electric- and diesel-powered pumps. While today only a small fraction of all the water used is for bathing, hydraulic opulence is a widespread cultural assumption that drives consumption in all sectors. In Mexico and across the globe we have gotten used to a steady, secure, and prolific supply of the liquid, and have barely any memory of, values for, and interactions with the limits of water supply. This is now changing as the water crisis deepens and hard limits of supply are increasingly obvious at regional and global levels. The cultural history of water – which is a profoundly material history of water – may help us to develop new expectations about our supply and interactions with water.