A Brief History of Spa

Sir Sean Connery, in a James Bond movie, is ‘very busy’ relaxing at the spa!

With more and more people looking to spas for health, wellness, anti-aging and relaxation, spa going has been described as a new cultural trend. But in fact, spa going (ie. Social bathing in “healing waters”) has been practiced for thousands of years – from the Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Minoans, to the Greeks and Romans (the word actually originates from the Latin verb spagere which means to pour forth) and later, the Ottomans, Japanese and Western Europeans. The word spa means sanitas per aqua.

The Classical Age

Homer and other Classical writers report that the Greeks indulged in a variety of social baths as early as 500 BC, including hot air baths known as Iaconica. In 25 BC, Emperor Agrippa designed and created the first Roman “thermae”(a large scale spa) and each subsequent emperor outdid this predecessor in creating an ever more extravagant thermae. Over time they were built across the Roman Empire, from Africa to England, gradually evolving into full blown entertainment complexes offering sports, food and various types of baths. A typical routine may have involved a workout in the palestra, followed by a visit to three progressively warmer rooms, where the body was alternately bathed, anointed with oils, massage and exfoliated. The rituals would end with a bracing dip in the “frigidarium” followed by relaxation in the library or assembly room. Spa going around the World – from Japanese “Ryoken” to a Turkish Hammam. Although the Roman combination of hot/cold baths, massage, exercise, skin treatments followed by relaxation was formative in the modern spa experience, distinct spa treatments grew out of different cultures worldwide. In 737 AD Japan’s first “Onsen” (hot springs) opened near Isumo, and centuries later the first “Ryoken” (inns) were built offering find food, accommodations, Zen gardens, outdoor baths and indoor soaking tubs called “cypress ofuro”. Saunas began appearing along the Baltic of Finland as early as 1000 AD, inaugurating a rich Finnish spa going tradition – including a perscription of sauna induced sweating, icy lake plunges and plenty of beer and vodka – that continues to this day in a nation that offers one sauna per every two Finns! And of course the Ottomans were famous for their domed and beautifully mosaic Hammam, the crowning example being the Baths of Roxelana (built in 1556) with it’s massive towering steam rooms, private washing quarters, and sprawling massage platforms. Typical of the Hammam through out the Empire Roxelana became an important social center, particularly for Muslim women.

Europeans go to the source, study the Science of Spas

Not surprisingly, spa going, tended to flourish around natural hot springs. In Western Europe, Charlemagne’s Aachen and Bonaventura’s Poretta developed as popular bathing /healing gathering places around thermal springs during the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance Era, Paracelsus’ mountain mineral springs at Paeffers, Switzerland and towns like Spa, Belgium, Baden-Baden, Germany and Bath, England (advertised as the “premier resort of frivolity and fashion”) grew around natural thermal waters considered to have healing properties. But the spa/health connection also had a downside. In 1350 public bath houses were closed across Europe to prevent the spread of the bubonic plague. But then in 1522, the first scientific book (on the Czech Karlovy Vary treatment for disease) was published in which a regimen of hot spring baths and tonics was recommended. And later in 1538, France destroyed the bath houses in an effort to stem a syphilis epidemic.

In the 1890’s Sebastian Kneipp developed holistic herbal and water therapy in the German spa village of Bad Worishofen and espoused Naturopathic medicine with his five main tenets were: hydrotherapy, herbalism, exercise, nutrition and spirituality.

Americans Coin Day Spas, Destination Spas, Fitness Spas, Medical Spas and the first Spa Travel Company

The United States became a center of spa innovation beginning in the 1850’s when New York’s Saratoga Springs emerged as the fashionable retreat for luminaries ranging from Edgar Allan Poe to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who as New York Governor championed the town’s renovation in the early 1930’s). The first day spa, New York City’s Red Door Salon, was introduced by Elizabeth Arden in 1910, offering manicures, facials and the signature “Arden Wax” and also in serving as a finishing school for young ladies. A second generation American, Deborah Szekely, also created the first destination spa, Rancho La Puerta, located just south of the border in Baja California. In 1958, Sekely also opened the pioneering Golden Door spa in California, offering individualized weight loss and fitness programs. The first fitness spa, The Ashram, also debuted in California, in 1974, brandishing a grueling weight loss/fitness regimen that was toned down and popularized by Tucson, Arizona’s Canyon Rand in 1979. BY 1997, innovative US doctors began to introduce “medical spas”, combining Western and holistic medicine in a luxurious, spa inspired environment alongside spa services. In 1986 New York based Spa Finder, Inc. (the simply known as “Spafinder”) opened it’s doors, becoming the first travel agency specializing in spa vacations. Since that time the spa industry has grown from a fledging niche business into a booming $15 billion global industry.

Spa going hits mainstream, goes global

With the advent of these and other diverse spa offerings, the spa which by the mid-20th century had become the rarified domain of wealthy women looking to lose weight, reclaimed it’s relevance in a society increasingly focused on prevention, healthy lifestyles, fitness, spirituality and relaxation. With record numbers of people turning to the spa for some of their most important lifestyle pursuits, today’s spa experience covers medical and spiritual programs to outdoor adventures and exotic travel – with spas located in virtually every global region, including Africa, the Middle East, and South America. The spa aesthetic meanwhile, has broken out of the spa and into popular culture, influencing everything from fashion to cosmetics, architecture, home décor and cuisine.

At the largest spa information, marketing and publishing company, Spa Finder – the global spa resource – is the center of the spa phenomenon it helped galvanize back in 1986. Through its award-winning website, it’s popular spa consumer publications, and the world’s largest spa gift certificate program, Spa Finder connects millions of spa-goers to hundreds of the world’s finest spas. In so doing, the company has played a pivotal role in making “spa” the fourth largest leisure activity in the US generating more revenue than ski resorts, amusement/theme parks and even box office receipts.

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Sources: Luxury SpaFinder Magazine: “Spa Evolution, A Brief History of Spas” by Julie Register. The New York Times: “Bathed in History” by Alexia Brue (4/2001. Compiled by Mark A. McKenney.