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 (i.e., 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 spa actually originates from the Latin verb spagere - to pour forth), and later, the Ottomans, Japanese and Western Europeans.
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 laconica. In 25 BC, Emperor Agrippa designed and created the first Roman "thermae" (a large-scale spa), and each subsequent emperor outdid his predecessor in creating 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, restaurants, 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, massaged and exfoliated. The ritual would end with a bracing dip in the "frigidarium" followed by some relaxation in the library or assembly room.
Spa-Going Around the World - from Japanese "Ryoken" to Turkish Hammam
Although the Roman combination of hot/cold baths, massage, exercise, skin treatments and relaxation was formative to the modern spa experience, distinct spa traditions grew out of different cultures worldwide. In 737 A.D., Japan's first "onsen" (hot spring) opened near Izumo, and centuries later the first "ryoken" (inns) were built, offering fine food, accommodations, Zen gardens, outdoor baths and indoor soaking tubs called cypress ofuro. Saunas began appearing along the Baltic in Finland as early as 1000 A.D., inaugurating a rich Finnish spa-going tradition - including a prescription of sauna-induced sweating, icy lake plunges, and plenty of beer or 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 its massive towering steam rooms, private washing quarters, and sprawling massage platforms. Typical of hammam throughout 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. 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. In the 1890s, Father Sebastian Kneipp developed holistic herbal and water therapy in the German spa village of Bad Worishofen. But the spa/health connection also had a downside. In 1350 public baths were closed across Europe to prevent the spread of bubonic plague. And later, in 1538, France destroyed its bathhouses in an effort to stem a syphilis epidemic.
Americans Coin Day Spas, Destination Spas, Fitness Spas, Medical Spas - and first Spa Travel Company
The United States became a center of spa innovation beginning in the 1850s, when New York's Saratoga Springs emerged as a 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 30's). The first day spa, Manhattan's Red Door Salon, was introduced by Elizabeth Arden in 1910, offering manicures, facials and the signature "Arden Wax" (in addition to serving as a finishing school). 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, Szekely also opened the pioneering Golden Door spa in California, offering individualized weight loss and fitness programs (and purportedly introducing Jane Fonda to aerobics). 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's Canyon Ranch in 1979. By1997, innovative U.S. 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 SpaFinder, Inc. (then known simply as "Spafinder") opened its doors, becoming the first travel agency specializing in spa vacations. Since that time, the spa industry has grown from a fledgling niche business into a booming $15 billion global industry.
Spa-Going Hits Mainstream, Goes Global
With the advent of these and other diverse spa offering, the spa - which by the mid-20th century had become the rarified domain of wealthy women looking to lose weight - reclaimed its 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 the former Eastern Bloc. The spa aesthetic meanwhile, has broken out of the spa and into popular culture, influencing everything from fashion and cosmetics, to architecture, home décor, and cuisine.
As the largest spa information, marketing and publishing company, SpaFinder - the global spa resource - is at the center of the spa phenomenon it helped galvanize back in 1986. Through its award-winning website (Spafinder.com), its popular spa consumer publications, and the world's largest spa gift certificates program, SpaFinder connects millions of spa-goers to thousands of the world's finest spas. In so doing, the company has played a pivotal role in making "spa" the fourth-largest leisure industry in the U.S., generating more revenue than ski resorts, amusement/theme parks and even box office receipts.
1) Luxury SpaFinder Magazine: "Spa Evolution, A Brief History of Spas" by Julie Register
2) The New York Times: "Bathed in History" by Alexia Brue (4/2001)