Steamy haiku

I was noodling round the internet yesterday looking for suitable illustrations for another project when I came across this lovely vintage tourism poster.

Issued by the NZ Railways publicity branch in about 1932. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library.

‘Taking the waters’ in Rotorua has been popular since the 19th century and in the early 20th century many of my extended family, yes travelling by train, would stay for a week or so and bathe to help relieve the pain of arthritis (a condition which fortunately seems to have petered out in more recent generations).

day spa
paying a stranger
to touch me

Marianne Paul, Wishbone Moon (Jacar Press, 2018)

The iconic Tudor-style Bath House opened as a treatment centre in 1908 and closed in 1966. At its height the spa gave 60,000 to 80,000 baths annually and about 30,000 special treatments. In 1969 part of the building opened as Rotorua Museum, which gradually took over all the space. The building was closed in 2016 due to a need for earthquake strengthening and is due to reopen in 2021.

bath house2 - Copy

The Bath House pictured during the 2016 Tulip Festival, before the ‘keep out fences’ went up. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I was in Rotorua only a fortnight ago, soaking at the Polynesian Spa and in a hot tub on the deck of my hotel room. It was a fine, but cold weekend (scraping ice off the car windscreen on Sunday morning) which made the hot pools even more of a treat – and even then we didn’t feel the need for the hottest of the lakeside pools (42°C), Priest’s Pool, named for a Catholic priest from Tauranga who was carried to Rotorua by Maori to soak in this spring. It so relieved his arthritis he was able to walk back to Tauranga (about 64km).

hotpools –
my breasts weightless
in your hands

Joanna Preston, the taste of nashi (Windrift, 2008)

Water from the Rachel Spring (a natural antiseptic due to its sodium silica content) is piped from the surface beside the historic Blue Baths in Government Gardens to the Polynesian Spa and used in several pools. We went to look at the art deco Blue Baths but they were shut with the attendant saying they were having trouble with the naturally heated water (it’s not mineral water here) – the pool should have been about 30°C, but was achieving only 15°C! And no one could figure out why.

The Blue Baths feature on this booklet cover by Leonard Cornwall Mitchell and issued by the NZ Tourist and Publicity Department in about 1937. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library

We were fascinated by the sign at the Rachel Spring: “Water from this boiling cauldron is alkaline and reaches 212°F [100°C]… Whangapipiro was renamed Rachel Pool after Madame Rachel, a notorious English cosmetician who promised youthful complexions because of the softening effect of silica water on the skin.”

Madame Rachel (I’ve since found out) was Sarah Rachel Russell (Levison), born in about 1814 to a Jewish theatrical family and dying in 1880. Madame Rachel operated a prominent London beauty salon at 47a New Bond Street from which she sold “fabulous preparations”, such as “magnetic rock water dew from the Sahara Desert”. She personally guaranteed her clientele everlasting youth if they used these products – which were, of course, made from quite ordinary things. She later became well known for blackmailing many of London’s upper class wives and was jailed for 10 years. Her date of birth is unsure because, unlike many women, she claimed to be older than she was, thus demonstrating the efficacy of her products!

New Year’s eve bath –
I fail to become
a swan

Fay Aoyagi, Chrysanthemum Love (Blue Willow Press, 2003)

Madame Rachel was the subject of a 2010 biography by Helen Rappaport, Beautiful for Ever. Read a review here. “This barely literate woman went from frying fish near Covent Garden to setting up shop in Mayfair and acquiring a country house at Blackheath.” Why is there no movie?


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