The term spa is associated with water treatment which is also known as balneotherapy. Spa towns or spa resorts (including hot springs resorts) typically offer various health treatments. The belief in the curative powers of mineral waters goes back to prehistoric times. Such practices have been popular worldwide, but are especially widespread in Europe and Japan. Day spas are also quite popular, and offer various personal care treatments.
Origins of the spa
The term is derived from the name of the town of Spa, Belgium, whose name is known back to Roman times, when the location was called Aquae Spadanae, perhaps related to the Latin word “spargere” meaning to scatter, sprinkle or moisten.
Since medieval times, illnesses caused by iron deficiency were treated by drinking chalybeate (iron-bearing) spring water (in 1326, the ironmaster Collin le Loup claimed a cure, when the spring was called Espa, a Walloon word for “fountain”).
In 16th century England, the old Roman ideas of medicinal bathing were revived at towns like Bath, and in 1571 William Slingsby who had been to the Belgian town (which he called Spaw) discovered a chalybeate spring in Yorkshire. He built an enclosed well at what became known as Harrogate, the first resort in England for drinking medicinal waters, then in 1596 Dr Timothy Bright called the resort The English Spaw, beginning the use of the word Spa as a generic description.
It is commonly claimed, in a commercial context, that the word is an acronym of various Latin phrases such as “Salus Per Aquam” or “Sanitas Per Aquam” meaning “health through water”. This is very unlikely: the derivation doesn’t appear before the early 21st century and is probably a “backronym” as there is no evidence of acronyms passing into the language before the 20th century; nor does it match the known Roman name for the location.
The practice of traveling to hot or cold springs in hopes of effecting a cure of some ailment dates back to pre-historic times. Archaeological investigations near hot springs in France and Czech Republic revealed Bronze Age weapons and offerings. In Great Britain, ancient legend credited early Celtic kings with the discovery of the hot springs at Bath, England.
Many people around the world believed that bathing in a particular spring, well, or river resulted in physical and spiritual purification. Forms of ritual purification existed among the native Americans, Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Today, ritual purification through water can be found in the religious ceremonies of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus. These ceremonies reflect the ancient belief in the healing and purifying properties of water. Complex bathing rituals were also practiced in ancient Egypt, in pre-historic cities of the Indus Valley, and in Aegean civilizations. Most often these ancient people did little building construction around the water, and what they did construct was very temporary in nature.
Bathing in Greek and Roman times
Some of the earliest descriptions of western bathing practices came from Greece. The Greeks began bathing regimens that formed the foundation for modern spa procedures. These Aegean people utilized small bathtubs, wash basins, and foot baths for personal cleanliness. The earliest such findings are the baths in the palace complex at Knossos, Crete, and the luxurious alabaster bathtubs excavated in Akrotiri, Santorini; both date from the mid-2nd millennium BC. They established public baths and showers within their gymnasium complexes for relaxation and personal hygiene. Greek mythology specified that certain natural springs or tidal pools were blessed by the gods to cure disease. Around these sacred pools, Greeks established bathing facilities for those desiring healing. Supplicants left offerings to the gods for healing at these sites and bathed themselves in hopes of a cure. The Spartans developed a primitive vapor bath. At Serangeum, an early Greek balneum (bathhouse, loosely translated), bathing chambers were cut into the hillside from which the hot springs issued. A series of niches cut into the rock above the chambers held bathers’ clothing. One of the bathing chambers had a decorative mosaic floor depicting a driver and chariot pulled by four horses, a woman followed by two dogs, and a dolphin below. Thus, the early Greeks used the natural features, but expanded them and added their own amenities, such as decorations and shelves.
Main article: Ancient Roman bathing
The Romans emulated many of the Greek bathing practices. Romans surpassed the Greeks in the size and complexity of their baths. This came about by many factors: the larger size and population of Roman cities, the availability of running water following the building of aqueducts, and the invention of cement, which made building large edifices easier, safer, and cheaper. As in Greece, the Roman bath became a focal center for social and recreational activity. As the Roman Empire expanded, the idea of the public bath spread to all parts of the Mediterranean and into regions of Europe and North Africa. With the construction of the aqueducts, the Romans had enough water not only for domestic, agricultural, and industrial uses, but also for their leisurely pursuits. The aqueducts provided water that was later heated for use in the baths. Today, the extent of the Roman bath is revealed at ruins and in archaeological excavations in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
The Romans also developed baths in their colonies, taking advantage of the natural hot springs occurring in Europe to construct baths at Aix and Vichy in France, Bath and Buxton in England, Aachen and Wiesbaden in Germany, Baden, Austria, and Aquincum in Hungary, among other locations. These baths became centers for recreational and social activities in Roman communities. Libraries, lecture halls, gymnasiums, and formal gardens became part of some bath complexes. In addition, the Romans used the hot thermal waters to relieve their suffering from rheumatism, arthritis, and overindulgence in food and drink. The decline of the Roman Empire in the west, beginning in A.D. 337 after the death of Emperor Constantine, resulted in Roman legions abandoning their outlying provinces and leaving the baths to be taken over by the local population or destroyed
Thus, the Romans elevated bathing to a fine art, and their bathhouses physically reflected these advancements. The Roman bath, for instance, included a far more complex ritual than a simple immersion or sweating procedure. The various parts of the bathing ritual — undressing, bathing, sweating, receiving a massage, and resting — required separated rooms which the Romans built to accommodate those functions. The segregation of the sexes and the additions of diversions not directly related to bathing also had direct impacts on the shape and form of bathhouses. The elaborate Roman bathing ritual and its resultant architecture served as precedents for later European and American bathing facilities. Formal garden spaces and opulent architectural arrangement equal to those of the Romans reappeared in Europe by the end of the eighteenth century. Major American spas followed suit a century later.
Bathing in the 19th and 20th centuries
In the 19th century, bathing became a more accepted practice as physicians realized some of the benefits that cleanliness could provide. A cholera epidemic in Liverpool, England in 1842 resulted in a sanitation renaissance, facilitated by the overlapping hydropathy and sanitation movements, and the implementation of a series of statutes known collectively as “The Baths and Wash-houses Acts 1846 to 1896”. The result was increased facilities for bathing and washed clothes, and more people participating in these activities.
Also in 1842, a house in Cincinnati, Ohio, received the first indoor bathtub in the United States. Bathing, however, was still not a universal custom. Only one year later — in 1843 — bathing between November 1 and March 15 was outlawed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a health measure, and in 1845 bathing was banned in Boston, Massachusetts, unless under the direct orders of a physician. The situation improved, however, and by 1867 in Philadelphia most houses of the well-to-do had tubs and indoor plumbing. In England, hot showers were installed in barracks and schools by the 1880s. The taboos against bathing disappeared with advancements in medical science; the worldwide medical community was even promoting the benefits of bathing. In addition, the Victorian taste for the exotic lent itself perfectly to seeking out the curative powers of thermal water.
In most instances the formal architectural development of European spas took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. The architecture of Bath, England, developed along Georgian and Neoclassical lines, generally following Palladian structures. The most important architectural form that emerged was the “crescent” — a semi-elliptical street plan used in many areas of England. The architecture of Karlsbad, Marienbad, Franzenbad, and Baden-Baden was primarily Neoclassical, but the literature seems to indicate that large bathhouses were not constructed until well into the 19th century. The emphasis on drinking the waters rather than bathing in them led to the development of separate structures known as Trinkhallen (drinking halls) where those taking the cure spent hours drinking water from the springs.
By the mid-19th century the situation had changed dramatically. Visitors to the European spas began to stress bathing in addition to drinking the waters. Besides fountains, pavilions, and Trinkhallen, bathhouses on the scale of the Roman baths were revived. Photographs of a 19th century spa complex taken in the 1930s, detailing the earlier architecture, show a heavy use of mosaic floors, marble walls, classical statuary, arched openings, domed ceilings, segmental arches, triangular pediments, Corinthian columns, and all the other trappings of a Neoclassical revival. The buildings were usually separated by function — with the Trinkhalle, the bathhouse, the inhalatorium (for inhaling the vapors), and the Kurhaus or Conversationhaus that was the center of social activity. Baden-Baden featured golf courses and tennis courts, “superb roads to motor over, and drives along quaint lanes where wild deer are as common as cows to us, and almost as unafraid.”
The European spa, then, started with structures to house the drinking function — from simple fountains to pavilions to elaborate Trinkhallen. The enormous bathhouses came later in the 19th century as a renewed preference for an elaborate bathing ritual to cure ills and improve health came into vogue. European architects looked back to Roman civilizations and carefully studied its fine architectural precedents. The Europeans copied the same formality, symmetry, division of rooms by function, and opulent interior design in their bathhouses. They emulated the fountains and formal garden spaces in their resorts, and they also added new diversions. The tour books always mentioned the roomy, woodsy offerings in the vicinity and the faster-paced evening diversions.
The Baden-Baden bathing procedure began with a warm shower. The bathers next entered a room of circulating, 140-degree hot air for 20 minutes, spent another ten minutes in a room with 150-degree temperature, partook of a 154-degree vapor bath, then showered and received a soap massage. After the massage, the bathers swam in a pool heated approximately to body temperature. After the swim, the bathers rested for 15 to 20 minutes in the warm “Sprudel” room pool. This shallow pool’s bottom contained an 8-inch (200 mm) layer of sand through with naturally carbonated water bubbled up. This was followed by a series of gradually cooler showers and pools. After that, the attendants rubbed down the bathers with warm towels and then wrapped them in sheets and covered them with blankets to rest for 20 minutes. This ended the bathing portion of the treatment. The rest of the cure consisted of a prescribed diet, exercise, and water-drinking program.
The European spas provided various other diversions for guests after the bath, including gambling, horse racing, fishing, hunting, tennis, skating, dancing, golf, and horseback riding. Sight-seeing and theatrical performances served as further incentives for people to go to the spa. Some European governments even recognized the medical benefits of spa therapy and paid a portion of the patient’s expenses. A number of these spas catered to those suffering from obesity and overindulgence in addition to various other medical complaints. In recent years, elegance and style of earlier centuries may have diminished, but people still come to the natural hot springs for relaxation and health. In Germany, the tradition survives to the present day.
Spas in colonial America
Some European colonists brought with them knowledge of the hot water therapy for medicinal purposes, and others learned the benefits of hot springs from the Native Americans. Europeans gradually obtained many of the hot and cold springs from the various Indian tribes. They then developed the spring to suit European tastes. By the 1760s British colonists were traveling to hot and cold springs in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia in search of water cures. Among the more frequently visited of these springs were Bath, Yellow, and Bristol Springs in Pennsylvania; Saratoga Springs, Kinderhook, and Ballston Spa in New York; and Warm Springs, Hot Springs, and White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia (now in West Virginia) in Virginia.
Colonial doctors gradually began to recommend hot springs for ailments. Dr. Benjamin Rush, American patriot and physician, praised the springs of Bristol, Pennsylvania, in 1773. Dr. Samuel Tenney in 1783 and Dr. Valentine Seaman in 1792 examined the water of Saratoga Springs in New York and wrote of possible medicinal uses of the springs. Hotels were constructed to accommodate visitors to the various springs. Entrepreneurs opeu rockwhere the travelers could lodge, eat, and drink. Thus began the health resort industry in the United States.
Bathing in 19th and 20th century America
After the American Revolution, the spa industry continued to gain popularity. By the mid 1850s hot and cold spring resorts existed in 20 states. Many of these resorts contained similar architectural features. Most health resorts had a large, two-story central building near or at the springs, with smaller structures surrounding it. The main building provided the guests with facilities for dining, and possibly, dancing on the first floor, and the second story consisted of sleeping rooms. The outlying structures were individual guest cabins, and other auxiliary buildings formed a semicircle or U-shape around the large building.
These resorts offered swimming, fishing, hunting, and horseback riding as well as facilities for bathing. The Virginia resorts, particularly White Sulphur Springs, proved popular before and after the Civil War. After the Civil War, spa vacations became very popular as returning soldiers bathed to heal wounds and the American economy allowed more leisure time. Saratoga Springs in New York became one of the main centers for this type of activity. Bathing in and drinking the warm, carbonated spring water only served as a prelude to the more interesting social activities of gambling, promenading, horse racing, and dancing.
Saratoga Springs in New York had extensive architectural development by the 1830s — a time when the buildings of Hot Springs, Arkansas, were small log and frame structures without particularly distinctive detailing — just basic envelopes to keep occupants from the weather. By 1815 Saratoga had large, four-story, Greek revival hotels. The availability of train and steamship service to that destination by 1832 meant larger numbers of more sophisticated clients. With the exception of specialized baths provided in boardinghouses or small bathhouses connected with the hotels, Saratoga’s development during the 19th century was based on leisure pursuits other than toilet. Although Saratoga and other spas in New York centered their developments around the healthful mineral waters, their real drawing card was the complex social life — that included pursuits from gambling on racehorses to seeing the latest Paris fashions. Going to the mountains for the summer was a major exodus undertaken by urban dwellers who could afford it, and Saratoga became a hub of summer activity. Private development there featured enormous hotels with great ballrooms, opera houses, stores, and clubhouses. In 1865 the Union Hotel had its own esplanade, with fountain and formal landscaping, and two small bathhouses. Yet, during the 19th century the bathhouses were auxiliary structures and not the central features of the resort.
Other leading spas in the country during this period were French Lick, Indiana; Hot Springs and White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia; Hot Springs, Arkansas; and Warm Springs, Georgia. French Lick specialized in treating obesity and constipation through a combination of bathing and drinking the water and exercising. Hot Springs, Virginia, specialized in digestive ailments and heart diseases, and White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, treated these ailments and skin diseases. Both resorts offered baths where the water would wash continuously over the patients as they lay in a shallow pool. Warm Springs, Georgia, gained a reputation for treating infantile paralysis by a procedure of baths and exercise. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who earlier supported Saratoga, became a frequent visitor and promoter of this spa.
Typical treatments include:
- Bathing or soaking in any of the following:
- Body wraps, wrapping the body in hot linens, plastic sheets and blankets, or mud wraps, often in combination with herbal compounds.
- Facials, facial cleansing with a variety of products
- Nail care such as manicures and pedicures
- Nutrition and weight guidance
- Personal training
- Skin exfoliation, including chemical peels and microdermabrasion
- Yoga and meditation
- Waxing, the removal of body hair with hot wax
By the late 1930s more than 2,000 hot- or cold-springs health resorts were operating in the United States. This number had diminished greatly by the 1950s and continued to decline in the following two decades. In recent past, spas in the U.S. emphasized dietary, exercise, or recreational programs more than traditional bathing activities.
Up until recently, the public bathing industry in the U.S. remained stagnant. Nevertheless, in Europe, therapeutic baths have always been very popular, and remain so today. The same is true in Japan, where the traditional hot springs baths, known as onsen, always attracted plenty of visitors.
But also in the U.S., with the increasing focus on health and wellness, such treatments are again becoming popular.
Resort or Place of Treatment
- Day spa, a form of beauty salon.
- Destination spa, a resort for personal care treatments.
- Spa town, a town visited for the supposed healing properties of the water.
Medication or Equipment
- Foot spa
- Hot tub, in United States usage.
- Soda fountain, in United States usage.
- Spa (mineral water), from the sources in Spa.
- Spas usually offer mud baths for general health, or to address a variety of medical conditions. This is also known as ‘fangotherapy’. A variety of medicinal clays and peats is used.
Types of spa
- Ayurvedic spa, a spa in which all treatments and products are natural and it’s often used as alternative medicine.
- Club spa, a facility whose primary purpose is fitness and which offers a variety of professionally administered spa services on a day-use basis.
- Cruise ship spa, a spa aboard a cruise ship providing professionally administered spa services, fitness and wellness components and spa cuisine menu choices.
- Day spa, a spa offering a variety of professionally administered spa services to clients on a day-use basis.
- Dental spa, a facility under the supervision of a licensed dentist that combines traditional dental treatment with the services of a spa.
- Destination spa, a facility with the primary purpose of guiding individual spa-goers to develop healthy habits. Historically a seven-day stay, this lifestyle transformation can be accomplished by providing a comprehensive program that includes spa services, physical fitness activities, wellness education, healthful cuisine and special interest programming.
- Medical spa, a facility that operates under the full-time, on-site supervision of a licensed health care professional whose primary purpose is to provide comprehensive medical and wellness care in an environment that integrates spa services, as well as traditional, complimentary and/or alternative therapies and treatments. The facility operates within the scope of practice of its staff, which can include both aesthetic/cosmetic and prevention/wellness procedures and services. These spas typically use balneotherapy, employing a variety of peloids.
“Balneotherapy treatments can have different purposes. In a spa setting, they can be used to treat conditions such as arthritis and backache, build up muscles after injury or illness or to stimulate the immune system, and they can be enjoyed as a relief from day-to-day stress.”
- Mineral springs spa, a spa offering an on-site source of natural mineral, thermal or seawater used in hydrotherapy treatments.
- Resort/hotel spa, a spa owned by and located within a resort or hotel providing professionally administered spa services, fitness and wellness components and spa cuisine menu choices.
- Mobile spa, a spa which provides services at home, hotels, or wherever you are.