The naturist doctrine “is not the modern dreaming of a few enthusiastic visionaries”, explains Dr Joseph Poucel in his book “Naturist or the Health without Drugs” (1953). According to him, one could go back to Pythagoras (6th century BC), to identify its origins. By combining sports and spirituality, his educational system aimed to bring the body and mind of his fellows together. A teaching, which announces Hippocrates (460-377 BC), with the ancient hydrotherapy and the treatment of illnesses.
Heliotherapy has been used and its benefits been recognized since ancient times among the Greeks and Romans (Pliny the Elder). Neglected during the Middle Ages, it reappeared in the 18th century, thanks to the works of Pomme in France (1763), then in the 19th century under the lead management of Giannini in Italy, by Flyer and Carrié in Great Britain, by Dr Gillebert-Dhercourt, director of a heliotherapy centre at Nancy (1840), by Hahn as well as by Priessnitz in Germany. But the most emblematic of them is the Austrian Arnold Rikli, the “doctor of the sun”, author of the book “Natural Medicine and Sunbathing”. Around 1830, he opened an “atmospheric cure” institute in the mountains of Trieste, operated for more than twenty years. The German priest Seb Kneipp (author of “My Water Treatment or medical Hygiene for the Cure of Diseases and Preservation of Health”, edited in 1891), declares that he was cured of an “ever increasing languor of the limbs“ by bathing in the Danube two or three times per week in winter 1849.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Doctor Rollier treated bone tuberculosis with great success by sunbathing on the terrace of a mountain sanatorium in Leysin (Switzerland).
In addition to the hygienist trend, one can see, over the centuries, a trend of seeking simplicity and truth through complete nudity. Very different from
naturism as we know it, and without any influence on the rest of the society, the Adamites, “heretical” Christians, are, despite of their ultra-minority character, representatives of the persistence of this trend between the 3rd and the 19th century AC. They lived frugally, practicing religious rites being totally nude like Adam and Eve, in all mixed gender.
Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), a non-heretical Christian, found himself in this movement through his demonstration at the Place d’Assis, when he stripped naked to demonstrate his spiritual evolution towards the search for a way of life that he considered more authentic, whereas he was a son of a rich family. He wanted to “follow the nude Christ being nude himself.”
As to the word “naturism”, it was employed for the first time by Théophile de Bordeu in 1768 in his book “Research on the History of Medicine”, published at Liège, as part of his theses at the Faculty of Medicine of Montpellier in France.
This naturist medecine assumes that nature is not only the basis of life, but also that it governs its functioning much more deeply that it appears, for both with regard to diseases and what keeps us alive. This science makes the organs the seat of vital manifestations. It is about to take nature as a guide, hence the word “naturism”. Here, “nature” is equivalent to our inner nature, that means the force which keeps us alive. Nature works as a healing power such as the Hippocratic precept “vis naturae mediatrix” (mediatic force of nature).
This medical hygienic is as much a return to the Hippocratic traditions as it is a societal critic. During the 18th century, we moved more and more away from an artifice in opposition to the aristocratic code. Clothing is no longer the only bulwark against bad-smelling perspiration (miasma). The skin, freed from make-up and other powders, allows the release of vital forces to provide for its own survival.
Around 1853, with the Society of Medical Hydrology of Paris, the hydro therapists approached the promoters of hydrotherapy, thus creating a body of hygiene with a social aim, giving birth to physiotherapy. The different methods of the regeneration of the human being that are aero therapy (mountain air treatment), heliotherapy, climatotherapy and hydrotherapy, lead the scientific community to reflect on the properties of sea air.

This combination of therapies will give birth to the modern thalassotherapy to fight, initially, against chronic pathologies such as rickets, tuberculosis, pulmonary phthisis or lumps (scrofula).
These treatments always had a naturist predisposition in the sense that we sought to harden the patients in contact with nature and its elements, in order to stimulate their defences to evacuate the miasma. The best-known examples in France are at Berck, where Doctor Duhamel exposed children suffering from rickets to the sea air in 1857; at Arcachon, during the years 1860, which became a place of treatment for tuberculosis patients; at Hyères where in 1880 the Doctor Vidal creates a sanatorium of thalassotherapy and also at Marseille with Abbé Legré in 1907.
Hydrotherapy made people aware of the existence of the skin, once shamefully hidden under layers of clothing, and the need to wash regularly. This way we find in 1843, in the book “Therapeutics and Dietetics of Cold Water” by Dr Geoffroy, a pupil of Priessnitz, a severe criticism of clothing, overly covered beds, dilapidated and closed housings.
In an eagerness of general protest, the followers of the Kneippism also opposed the modes of dress, which torment and deform the bodies. Similarly, the notion of temperance and the weighting with regard to food will be one of the themes widely developed by the Durville brothers and by Dr Poucel in the 20th century. This interpretation of a health depending on a healthy lifestyle is a turning point in the medical science of the 19th century and will be the basis of the naturist doctors of the 20th century.
Élisée Reclus, the Father of the modern Naturism
With the exception of Walt Whitman, who had a solitary country life in total nudity in Dakota as of 1836, let’s determine the basis of the naturist thought in Europe, with the French geographer and philosopher Élisée Reclus (1820-1905), whose example, lectures and writings weigh much more than the specialized therapists mentioned above.
Historically, it is therefore the complete nudity which characterized the beginnings of naturism. Élisée Reclus, the first high level theorist on this subject, for both the societal and hygienic aspects, also was a practitioner with family and friends and he never planned to wear underpants for swimming.
A genius geographer, his literary works are a mixture of scientific analyses tinged with poetry, marvellously describing the beauties of the universe, such as “History of a Stream” (1869) or also “The new universal Geography” (1875-1894).
An anarchist philosopher who opposed Napoleon III, his revolted personality, thoroughly turned to the freedom of men, could only choose a life free from all superfluous and false appearances. In his posthumous work “Man and the Earth” (1905), he gives his vision of a relationship between man and nature, which will serve as the basis for the naturist thought of the 20th century. Many consider him as being the “founding father of the naturist movement”.
Between modern medicine and the Pasteurian revolution
Reinforced by immunology, the theses of naturist medicine return back at the beginning of the 20th century. Consolidated by the fears arising from the industrial age, they join the ideal vision of a sunny society, bathed in clean air and light.
Gradually, hydrotherapy, as well as aero therapy, heliotherapy or physiotherapy, slides towards a hygienic conception of medicine, inspired by neo-Hippocraticism, where nudity takes more and more importance.
It was the naturist doctors, from 1911 with Demarquette and the “Train d’Union”, and the Durvilles with their naturist institute in 1913, who brought these concerns up to date.
Thanks to this work of raising awareness on hygiene and health, Léo Lagrange, first Deputy-Secretary of State for Sports and Leisure, declared in July 1936 in the magazine “Naturism”, appreciating “the precious utility of the naturist movement” and invites the Durville Doctors to contribute to the work he has undertaken concerning the organization of leisure activities.
We can therefore assume that, with the historian Arnaud Baubérot, that this new attention to the body has prepared the population to modify their eating and clothing habits, or at least to have a critical mind regarding the rules of etiquette imposed by the bourgeoisie.

To roughly summarize, let’s say that the hydro therapists and their clients paved the way for naturist hygienists, who could more easily argue about the exposure of the naked body to the free air.
Germany and its Free Culture
At the end of the 18th century and the early 19th, the German idealism (Kant, Fichte, Hegel), is based on the values of respect for freedom of conscience and individual freedoms very present in Protestantism, so to develop the concept of the autonomy of the individual reason. In his philosophy course, Hegel associates with the cult of reason being very important to the ancient Greece, which he calls the “Religion of Art”, and its splendid statufied nudities. The notion of the dignity of the body comes out, powerfully strengthened.
But the concept of Nature-Philosophy developed by Schelling, another German philosopher of this time, is often misunderstood (for example this major error appeared in Wikipedia, on 6th September 2020, at the article “Lebensreform”); there is neither a relation at all to what will become naturism, nor with the love of nature. In fact, it concerns a true regression of the scientific thought, a very surprising phenomenon among the apostles of reason. In short, this concept is opposed to the elimination, by the progress of scientific thought, of anything that may have a metaphysical aspect, whereas it is exactly this elimination that has allowed faster and faster progresses of the science. The followers of natural philosophy go that far as to even reject mathematics as a tool to understand and measure physics!
But in a dialectical movement, the great writer, poet and scientist Goethe (1794-1832), initially close to Nature-Philosophy, freed himself of it went so far as to contest its scientific value. On the other hand, Goethe preserves from his contemporary Hegel the taste for the Greek statue, and bathes naked in the rivers. He affirms: “The true Man is the nude Man”. In this sense, Goethe may be considered as a partial precursor of naturism.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the ideas of “Lebensreform” (reform of life) appeared in Germany and in Switzerland, which opposed to the excesses and nuisances of the beginnings of the industrial era and the poorly controlled development of live in the cities. This spontaneous movement is not based on any organized structure.
In 1888, the “Union of the German Societies for a Way of Life and the Healing in Accordance with Nature” is created.
The term “Naked culture” was invented by Heinrich Pudor in 1903, in order to make a
clear difference between nudity and pornography with the authorities.
The “Wandervögel” (migrating birds), a German youth movement, then apply this return to nature through nudity in common.
Still in 1903, the creation of the first gymnast centre was founded by Paul Zimmermann: the “Freilichtpark” would continue to operate till 1981. The previous year, the monthly magazine “Die Schönheit” (the Beauty) is the first naturist magazine in the world.
In 1930, Germany counts 300.000 registered members, France barely reaches 6.700. France receives its first gymnast centre only in 1928, with the “Sparta Club” of Kienné de Mongeot. At these times, France has the particularity to also have “non-gymnast” naturist centres, that means with the mandatory wearing swimsuit. The food and sports precepts of the naturist doctrine are applied, but without the collective nudity. In Germany, all the “Free Culture” centres are naturist.
A question of a not so obvious historical interpretation
Having a precise chronology of societal evolution, whose thoughts are characterized by their eclectics, is a real challenge. In order to avoid errors in matters of history, let’s avoid the definite statements, but let’s prefer the open debates. However, most of the works devoted to the history of naturism close the debate by affirming that Germany is at the origin of the naturist movement. This is regrettable shortcut.
The examples of Boucher der Perthes around 1850, at Abbeville, of De Duhamel at Berck in 1857, of Élisée Reclus in 1875, of the libertarian naturist communities of Normandy with Émile Gravelle (1895) and Eugène Dufour (1901), of Sirius gay in 1904 at Bois-Fourgon, of Théo Varlet at Cassis in 1905, of the Canon Legré at Marseille in 1907, without counting the French, Belgian and Swiss precursors of heliotherapy and the naturist medical thought at the end of the 19th century, prove to us that one should be wary of this statement. Without counting that the stories of immersion in nature with Jean-Jacques Rousseau take an “artistic” dimension across the Rhine, which will prove to be preponderant in the development of the “Freikörperkultur” (free body culture). France had its followers and its theorists long before we knew what is going on in Germany.
What was remarkable across the Rhine, is this nudity clearly assumed and displayed, while in France, physical exercises were often performed in underwear, with “Hebertism”, (which was already revolutionary for that time). On our territory, total nudity was forbidden. Even at the “Levant”, gymnast put on a slip, so that illustrating pictures would not provoke scandals.
For our German neighbours, nudity was already legal as of 1920. With us, this practice had to be integrated into a hygienic justification, in order to obtain the support of the authorities.
And the other countries?
In the UK the evolution of morals was made though sports, thanks to the slogan” To keep fit”. Regular practice of sports like tennis or swimming progressively allowed a certain easing up of the dress code. Towards 1900, one group was founded to practice integral gymnastics in Southern Ireland, while another group had naturist activities in Northern England (“Vivre intégralement, 15.02.1932).
These regroupings were carried out under the direction of Mr. Booth, who in 1924 had founded the Gymnosophical Society, but which was suspended by the authorities in 1927, and various small informal groups were created afterwards. In 1934, England hosts the first official naturist congress in a villa near London (Paris Soir, 4th September 1934). At this time, there were two thousand practitioners split in fifteen associations.
In Switzerland, a rich Dutch heir, Henri Ordenkowe, regrouped in 1904 German activists from the “Reform of Life” movement at Ascona, on a ground which he had purchased at the shores of Lake Maggiore. They founded the naturist colony of Monte Verità, an anarchist vegetarian community, which in spite of some internal tension, would exist till 1920.
In Spain, Nicolás Capo (1899-1977) founds the naturist magazine Pentalfa in 1926, which he directed until 1937, before fleeing the Franco regime to take refuge in France. Some groups were formed like the one in Timba in Upper Catalonia, stopped and dissolved by the police on denunciation in July 1933.
Until 1930, in the young Soviet Union, Russians bathed naked on several beaches, namely in Moscow and on the Black Sea, while sometimes being separated from women. In 1924, the movement named “Down with Shame” was created to denounce “bourgeois morality”.
The protesters marched all nude, shouting the slogan “We Communards don’t need clothes that cover the beauty of the body! We are the children of the sun and the air!”
Stalin’s seizure of power put an end to this hope of freedom, the historians of Stalinism point out the aggressive prudishness of the Little Father of the People.
In the United States, a naturist colony called Élysia had settled in the hills of Lake Elsinore, California in 1993, before moving to the Riverside County, where they renamed themselves “Olympic Fields”. Hobart Grassey, a psychology graduate, and his wife Laura ran this first naturist resort, much to the authorities’ surprise. It was the location of the sensational report broadcast in French cinemas in 1935: “The Valley of the Nude”.
We note in this short retrospective that the origins of our movement is more difficult to fix than it seems, it is its diversity which makes it so rich and it is our duty not to forget this past and to let it continue so that this freedom may live for the generations to come.