Spa Evolution: a Brief History of Spas

Today's spa is a center for healing and nourishing mind, body, and spirit. People go to spas for fitness, stress management, peace of mind, pampering and pleasure, and health and wellness. Spas offer a wide variety of techniques and services - traditional and modern, from the East and from the West - to meet the diverse needs of their clients: Swedish, Japanese Shiatsu, and Thai massage, European facials, acupuncture, Dead Sea salt scrubs, Moor mud wraps, thalassotherapy, aromatherapy, reflexology, microdermabrasion, endermologie, reiki, aura imaging, watsu, rasul, hypnotherapy, classes in nutrition, meditation, journaling, yoga and Tai Chi, state-of-the-art fitness centers with personal trainers, and much more. To understand and organize this overwhelming variety of spa offerings, the International Spa Association (ISPA) has defined the "ten domains of SPA" or segments of the industry as:

The 10 Domains of Spa 

1. "The Waters"
2. Food, Nourishment, Diet and Nutrition
3. Movement, Exercise and Fitness
4. Touch, Massage, and Bodywork
5. Mind/Body/Spirit
6. Aesthetics, skin care , Natural beauty Agents
7. Physical Space, Climatology, Global Ecology
8. Social/Cultural Arts and Values, Spa Culture
9. Management, Marketing, and Operations
10. Time, Rhythm, and Cycles

Not every spa includes every domain. Spas come in many shapes, sizes, and focuses - from day spas where you can get a single treatment to destination spas where you can stay for a week or more to medical spas that treat cosmetic and chronic health problems. Spas are everywhere. According to ISPA, the number of spas in the U.S. grew at an annual rate of 21% from 1995-1999 and continues to show strong growth. Aggregate industry revenues grew by 114 percent between 1999 and 2001.The size of the United States spa industry in 2001 was estimated at 9,632 locations; in 2000, that number was 5,689. Spa Mailing List contains approximately 7,000 spas. This site, About's Spa Site lists thousands of spas in over 100 countries and territories all over the world.


Although spas seem to have sprung up overnight, that's not the case. "The Waters" can be traced back to early civilizations. Like water, spa popularity has come in waves throughout history. Prof. Jonathan Paul de Vierville, Ph.D., spa historian and owner of the Alamo Plaza Spa at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, USA, notes that the popularity of spas has accompanied cultures with leisure time. Social bathing was an important cultural process practiced by Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Minoans, Greeks, and Romans whenever they sought health and relief from their pain and diseases.

According to Mikkel Aaland in Sweat, Homer and other Greek writers tell us the Greeks favored a variety of baths as early as 500 BC, from hot water tubs to hot-air baths, or laconica. From the small Greek laconica grew the Roman balneum and finally the extravagant Roman thermae (Greek word for "heat"). Before Emperor Agrippa designed and created the first thermae in 25 BC, the smaller, more numerous balneum had been enjoyed by Roman citizens for more than 200 years. Each subsequent emperor created thermae more spacious and splendid than his predecessor. The Diocletian bath could hold 6,000 bathers. They were built all over the Roman Empire from Africa to England. The thermae later became a central entertainment complex offering sports, restaurants, and various types of baths. A typical routine might begin with a workout in the palestra, followed by a visit to three progressively warmer rooms starting in the tepidarium, the largest and most luxurious room in the thermae. Here the bather would stay for an hour or so while being anointed with oils. This would be followed by a visit to the caldarium with small private bathing stalls offering a choice of hot or cold water. A visit to the hottest chamber, the laconicum, would follow. Here the body was vigorously massaged and the dead skin scraped off with a curved metal tool called a strigil. The bathing ritual would end with a cool dip in the pool of the frigidarium. Refreshed and clean, the bather then retired to the outer areas of the thermae to relax in the library or assembly room.As the Roman Empire fell, the Roman thermae fell into disrepair and disuse.

The bath gained and lost popularity in different parts of the world Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America through the present day. Baths were often built near natural hot or mineral springs. According to Prof. de Vierville, Charlemagne's Aachen and Bonaventura's Poretta developed as important social bathing and healing 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, grew up around natural thermal waters considered to have healing properties. The use of saunas and steam baths also emerged. As these springs and spas were discovered, forgotten, and rediscovered, the healing power of the water was often enhanced and formalized. In 1522, the first scientific book on the Czech Karlovy Vary treatment for disease was published in which a regimen of baths and drinking the waters of the springs was recommended. In the 1890s, Father Sebastian Kneipp developed holistic herbal and water therapy in the German spa village of Bad Worishofen.

With the medical discoveries of the early 20th century, scientific clinics and public hospitals replaced the spa. Existing spas responded by offering luxury accommodations, and many eventually turned into vacation locations or clinics that concentrated on weight loss, catering to the wealthy, with the spa origins obscured. In recent years, the value of prevention, healthy lifestyles, and relaxation has been rediscovered and the spa is again finding its place in modern society as a place uniquely qualified to address these needs. The wealthy no longer have exclusive use of spas. Spas now appeal to and are accessible to a much broader population.

Modern Spas

Today's spa is an interesting combination of ancient traditions and modern mechanical wonders. However, the heart of the modern spa, just as the ancient spa, is water and the rituals that evolve around it. According to Prof. De Vierville, the proper sequence of the typical spa ritual is cleaning, heating, treatment, and rest. The first step, cleaning, should be a visit to the shower to purify the body. The second step is to heat the body. Many spas offer heated whirlpools, saunas, and steam rooms. A short visit to each or any combination can heat the body (caution: this step should be eliminated for people with certain medical conditions). The third step is the treatment such as a body scrub and massage. The last and equally important step is rest. Today's ritual is very similar to the spa ritual used at the Roman thermae.

There have been many recent additions to spa water therapies in recent times. The Jacuzzi whirlpool, a central fixture in many modern spas, was invented in the 1950s, followed by Hydrotherapy Tubs, Swiss Showers, Scotch Hoses, and Vichy Showers. In addition to these mechanical inventions, new therapeutic ways to use still water have been discovered: Floatation Therapy, Watsu, Wassertanzen, Water Dance, Liquid Sound, and Dreams and Rituals in Healing Waters have been developed. The spa today embraces and celebrates its origins in water and is constantly looking for new ways to express it.


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