A History of Spa and Spa Cultures
Much of the content of this chapter was provided by spa historian Jonathan Paul de Vierville, Ph.D., LCSW-ACP, LPC, TRMT, professor of history and humanities, St. Philips College, San Antonio, Texas; director of the Alamo Plaza Spa at the Menger Hotel; and founder of the Hot Wells Institute. The authors gratefully acknowledge his expertise and insight.
While many people may think of spas as a modern development of the Western world, the essentials of spa have their roots in human history as far back as the beginning of time. People have always sought out the places where water springs from the earth in order to experience water’s healing properties and restorative qualities. Other aspects of spa, in particular the human touch of massage and the use of natural ingredients like mud, seaweed, herbs, and plant oils, have also been used in many civilizations over the centuries. By studying the roots of spa cultures and traditions throughout history, spa professionals can better understand and appreciate the richness of the modern spa environment in which they live and work.
This chapter explores the origins of spa and spa practices from antiquity through the middle of the twentieth century, which many spa historians identify as the beginning of the modern, or contemporary, spa era.
The First Civilizations
Along with nomadic Stone Age and Bronze Age societies, the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, Crete, and China all used water for religious rituals as well as individual and social healing rites. The earliest written sources of history include accounts of the sick using purification baths in healing waters along with drinking from medicinal fountains. Within ancient springs, wells, and stone bath works, archeologists have found votive tablets and sculptures along with an abundance of artifacts that evidence wide use of the waters for health, regenerative, curative, and therapeutic practices. With all this evidence, scholars have gained an impression of ancient spa cultures and their different types, forms, and methods of purification baths and ritual bathing.
Western Civilizations and Spa Cultures
The spa cultures of Greece and Rome during classical antiquity and the development of hot and cold bathing and water-based therapies throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance form the foundation of many spa practices of today.
New World Spa Cultures
The tradition of European spa cultures is lengthy; so is America’s. Mayan and Aztec archeological sites in Central America and Mexico have unearthed ruins of sweat bath houses called temazcalli, the oldest of which date from 1350 B.C.E. They were used as medical facilities, treating a variety of medical conditions under the guidance of a trained healer called a temazcalera, who selected herbs and determined the levels of heat and humidity needed to treat her patients. When Friar Diego Duran wrote a history of Mexico in 1567, he included a description of the temazcalli, which bear many similarities to Finnish saunas, Turkish hammam, and American Indian sweat lodges.
In the 1600s, in what became the United States, English, Dutch, and French colonists built their stone huts and wooden tubs near wilderness healing springs frequented by Native Americans. During the 1700s, natural philosophers like Drs. John De Normandie (1721 to 1805) and Benjamin Rush (1746 to 1813) traveled to various colonial mineral springs and thermal sources and pools to analyze the waters for their chemical and medicinal virtues. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson rode his horse to the distant Warm Springs Valley, the farthest West he ever traveled, and wrote descriptions and details on the healing mineral springs and pools in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson also studied Palladio’s ancient Roman drawings and used them to design the historic Sweet Springs Spa in West Virginia.
The Beginnings of the Contemporary Spa
While the medical view of spa therapy and health resort medicine was on the decline, a new era in the world of spa began to develop in the 1940s, with an emphasis on physical fitness, personal development, self improvement, and wellness—not focused on the eradication of disease, but on the optimization of good health. The contemporary spa began to take shape, but still retained ties to its ancient and global heritage. Modern spas in many forms began to develop into what people today recognize as spa, incorporating and expanding on the practices and traditions of the rich history of the world’s spa cultures.
The modern spa era saw spas shift from their ancient medical and spiritual emphasis to today’s corporate model that primarily focuses on beauty, fitness, and wellness. While wellness and relaxation have always been the cornerstones of a spa’s holistic experience, the historical European model had come to emphasize taking the waters and retreating to pastoral and natural setting for weeks and even months at a time. Food was luxurious and abundant, and doctors routinely recommended spas as a way to cleanse and heal the body away from the rigors of everyday urban life.
In the early part of the twentieth century, medical discoveries started to replace clinical interest in spas and their powers of natural healing. Public hospitals started replacing spas and the medical establishment became guarded about spa treatments as a health response for many years. It wasn’t until the last decade of the twentieth century that the public once again began to recognize the medical, health, and healing values of spas.
In the United States, many spas followed the classical European tradition of taking the waters. Such historic spas as the Greenbrier, Saratoga Springs, The Homestead, Glenwood Hot Springs, and French Lick and West Baden Springs were all centered around mineral springs. As traditional medicine developed more treatments, drugs began to replace traditional water cures, leading to the waning of spas in America.
The renaissance and renewal of wider public interest in spas, especially in the United States and Canada, can be directly linked to the emergence and development of the health movement and fitness boom of the 1960s and 1970s. As the fitness fascination took hold, some spa professionals began to notice that there were “fit” people who were not “well.” This shifted the paradigm from merely being physical toward a focus on wellness and emotional well-being, which in turn, opened and broadened the way from fitness clubs to the contemporary spa.
One of the central figures in this shift from fitness to spa was Sheila Cluff, a professional figure skater and high school physical education teacher. Cluff introduced “cardiovascular dance” to the world in the 1950s. Later her methods were refined by fitness practitioners, including Dr. Kenneth Cooper and Jacki Sorensen, and would come to be called aerobics. Cluff went on to found The Oaks at Ojai in 1977. This American fitness movement would lead many people to see and think about spas in a new and wider light than the classical European model with its primary focus on the waters.
Today’s Spa Industry
An increasingly hectic daily life with ever increasing pressure to earn more and more money has spurred the growth of the spa industry. Specifically for women, pressure was at a zenith in the 1980s with baby boomer women breaking out of traditional roles in droves and pursuing careers as well as family life. The “I can have it all” attitude of the time, which persists today, was a lot to sustain, and combined with the information overload of the 1990s, created a “perfect storm” of stress in the daily lives of millions. The antidote: Spa.
Relaxation and stress reduction always have been and continue to be the primary drivers of spa visits. As technology grew exponentially, and people became constantly accessible and available, stress and the need for relaxation increased. People began feeling less human and more like numbers or bytes of data. The high-tech world needed to be balanced with high-touch. This remains the foundation for the relevance of spa today and into the future.
Proliferation of Spa
As the twenty-first century dawned, the term spa was more clearly understood than ever, the spa lifestyle was more incorporated into the mainstream culture and the idea that the word “spa” could add value to nearly any business concept resulted in a proliferation of the word “spa” in many unlikely applications.
Spa had come to connote luxury, enhanced value, pampering, nurturing, and health. The term spa began to show up in surprising places. Legitimately, dental practices, airports, hospitals, malls, residential communities, private clubs, and other businesses all began to incorporate elements of the spa experience into their business models.
Branding the Spa Experience
Branding is the natural hallmark of a maturing industry. The spa industry is no exception. As it developed and grew, certain brands naturally evolved. There was also increasing interest on the part of investors and owners to brand the spa experience to increase market share and profitability. The first recognized spa brand was The Red Door, which evolved from the original concept Elizabeth Arden established in the early 1900s. Other brands, such as Canyon Ranch SpaClub and The Golden Door, grew out of the strong name recognition they had earned as popular trendsetters.