Vintage Photographs Inside Mental Hospitals From Decades Past

Decades ago, throughout the United States and Europe, mental institutions housed many secrets. From inhumane acts of brutality to healthy young women held in captivity, mental institutions were, in a word, frightening. Take a look back in time to a period in mental health history that cannot be forgotten.


Like Mother, Like Daughter



Tuberculosis is one of the oldest diseases in human history (it has even been traced back to ancient Egypt). Just a century ago, TB was a leading cause of death around the world. Before the introduction of antibiotics for the treatment of TB in the 1940s, patients were treated in a sanitorium where they would receive exercise, good food, and fresh air. This photograph shows a mother with TB out for a “bed” stroll with her daughter.


Bath of Surprise



Hydrotherapy, essentially, was a practice of continuous baths. The treatment required wrapping a patient up in wet cloths or spraying them with water. Other times, the patient would be strapped down into a bath, a sheet covering the tub and just their head poking out. Bath therapy could last several hours or several days. Hydrotherapy was used to treat insomnia or depression. This photo shows patients undergoing hydrotherapy is St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington D.C. in 1886.


Lost Souls



Franco Basaglia did not only ask Gianni Berengo to take photos of mental asylums in the late 1960s. He also approached photographer Carla Cerati to aid Berengo in creating images to examine in detail the impact of psychiatric institutions. This is one of the photos that Cerati took.


Against His Will



This photograph was taken by Henry Clarke in 1869. The photograph shows a man being restrained by ward workers at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield, Yorkshire. This institution was another example of a mental institution during the Victorian age. During this time, mental hospitals were designed to separate patients from the rest of society. These institutions were completely self-sufficient.