The word spa carries very modern connotations with it. When you hear it, odds are you imagine an elegant getaway where patrons can indulge in massages, skin treatments, and other luxuries intended to relax and beautify the body. But in their early existence, what we would now call spas were primarily treasured for their health benefits.
For thousands of years, people have sought the healing powers of mineral waters and hot springs. Their use is so ancient that we don’t know exactly when we first started using them – most likely when early humans first discovered them.
But how did our ancient ancestors’ discovery of mineral waters and hot springs give rise to the modern spa culture that we know today?
Possibly the oldest example of spa treatments are Finnish saunas, thought to have originated around 7,000 B.C., though documentation from this period is scarce.
The first culture well-documented to have practiced early forms of spa treatment appears to have been the Ancient Egyptians. Egyptian women are thought to have used steam to appear more beautiful. And Cleopatra herself would treat herself with wraps made from the mud of the Dead Sea.
But the first individual to advocate spa treatments for medical reasons was Hippocrates, the grandfather of modern medicine. He advocated for bathing in mineral springs as a means to treat and prevent disease.
Hippocrates would form the basis for the Greeks’ attitude towards baths. Considered to be not only necessary for good health, but the baths were also considered the height of leisure. Many of the archaeological sites they left behind prominently feature public baths. Olympia, one of the oldest Ancient Greek sites, features several.
The Romans, influenced by the Greeks, spread the concept throughout their empire. Going north into Europe, they would establish public baths in colonies like colonies such as Vichy, France, and Aachen, Germany.
The benefits of spas weren’t only known to Europeans. In Japan, the oldest still-standing onsen was established in the year 705 CE. And like the Greeks and Romans, they established public bathhouses and saunas.
Likewise, the ruins of the oldest known hammam, an equivalent of the Roman bath found throughout the Islamic World, date back to the 8th century.
The modern word Spa is thought to come from the Belgian village of Spa. During Roman times, the village became well-known for its warm mineral springs. Roman soldiers would stop there to rest their aching muscles and tend to wounds suffered in battle. Even Pliny the Elder remarked on the small countryside village.
The mineral springs would be rediscovered in 1326 and became a popular destination in the 16th century. This is where our modern conception of a spa was born.
The springs at the village of Spa would reach the peak of their popularity in the 18th century. And this popularity correlates with the opening of innumerable other spas around the world.
As hot springs and mineral baths had already been popular in Europe for centuries, colonists arriving in North America quickly began seeking them out to use for medicinal and therapeutic use.
When colonial doctors began urging their use to remedy a variety of ailments, it caused a full-on hot spring craze. Before long, inns and hotels had to be built near popular springs in order to accommodate the influx of guests. Along with European destinations like the original Spa in Belgium, these would represent the first spa resorts.
The spa industry would continue to grow at a tremendous rate past the American Revolution and beyond.
In the 19th century, seaside spas would become popular, coinciding with the introduction of a new concept called thalassotherapy. Taking its name from the Greek words thalassa, meaning sea, and therapeia, meaning healing, this was a type of therapy principally involving seawater.
The idea was that by bathing in the sea, trace amounts of sodium, calcium magnesium, iodide, and potassium are absorbed through the skin. Therapy could also include the use of seaweed, algae, or taking apparent cues from Cleopatra, marine mud. Even the seaside climate itself was thought to promote health, beauty, and wellness.
These new seaside resorts were just a part of the growing spa industry. As they became ever more popular, the concept of what a spa is would expand, and the role of the traditional spa town would diminish.
In Europe, two World Wars had done a lot to diminish the fortunes of many traditional spa locations. Those that were not directly impacted by the fighting suffered the ripple effects of a populace that had to prioritize reconstruction over a spa holiday.
Meanwhile, in America, hot springs and mineral baths began to be seen as antiquated. While remote resort destinations would never completely go away, they would never again be the primary purveyors of spa services.
At this time, more and more Americans were moving to urban areas. And with this move, they started to seek health and relaxation resources closer to where they lived and worked.
This is largely where the modern spa industry comes from. Instead of having to travel to a far-off mountain spring, you could find the same benefits in your own city.
This not only made spas more convenient but accessible to more people. Rather than having to take a week to travel there and back, you could have a full spa treatment in an afternoon. Hence the modern spa day.
Spas would also start offering broader ranges of services outside of their traditional roles. Many modern spas offer everything from traditional skin treatments to high-tech body sculpting.
The spa has had a long history. Its benefits have been recognized and remarked upon the world over. Its traditions have persisted long enough to see empires rise and fall.
It seems that there’s something intrinsically human in seeking a reprieve from daily life, and the spa has long been a popular solution. If you could use a reprieve from your day-to-day, a massage is a good place to start. Check out our post on how to prepare for a massage to ensure maximum relaxation.