History of Spa Traditions and Rituals

The history of spa spans over thousands of years and hundreds of places around the globe.  Apparently, our “new” couldn’t be more ancient when it comes to finding health through water.

Greek & Roman Baths

Seemingly more of a leisurely activity than the modern necessity we know it to be, the Roman bath houses are the source of the daily routine that has become such a staple in modern day society. Today, the Roman baths are often thought of as extravagant and architecturally stunning meeting places, but before Emperor Agrippa designed and created the first thermae of this scale in 25 BC, the smaller baths had been enjoyed by Romans for over 200 years. However, the Romans weren’t the inventors of the great baths. While less is known and documented on their side, credited with planting the seed are the Greeks, and though their baths never reached the colossal size or detail of the Roman baths, they were as important to the development of their society as the Roman baths had been.

The thermaes in Rome were more than just bathing areas, but rather were all encompassing recreational centers. Similar to modern day spa and health clubs, Mikkel Aaland says in 1997’s Sweat that “Most thermae walls enclosed sports centers, swimming pools, parks, libraries, little theatres for poetry readings and music, and great halls for parties–a city within a city.” Similar to modern day spas he goes on to assert that the baths themselves and the cleansing aspects were always the central focus. Not to be outdone the Greeks were known for being the first to incorporate the gymnasium into their baths. Many would work up a natural sweat from exercise as the Greeks believe this was a way to do away with “bad blood”. They would then sweat more in the heated rooms and finally cleanse themselves of it all.

As technology advanced so did the Roman baths. The Romans valued much of what the Greeks had in their baths, but took the structures and capacities to an extravagant level. The Diocletian could hold 6,000 bathers. Vaulted ceilings and the creation of the hypocaust heating systems allowed for such extravagancies. Mikkel Aaland also said “Roman engineers devised the hypocaust method to heat bath air to temperatures exceeding 210 degrees F. (l00 degrees C.) …so hot that bathers had to wear special shoes to protect their feet from the blistering floor. They accomplished this by heating the marble floor, raised on pillars, with a log fire.” Another necessary technological hurdle the Romans faced was transferring large amounts of water to the thermaes. Large aqueducts eventually brought cool running water throughout the empire. These technological advances helped turn the thermaes into a communal meeting ground only rivaled by a town’s forum.

The Greek baths never reached the social success of the Roman baths. However they were important and even Homer mentions in the Illiad the Greek’s fondness for bathing. As the Roman Empire dissolved, so did the thermaes. Christians had previously foreboded bathing on Sundays and holidays and when the Roman Empire had finally deceased the Christians finally said goodbye to what they had called “Cathedrals of Flesh”.

Russian Banyas

The country of Russia is truly diversified in its bath styles. Many types of sweat bathing pop up all throughout the country. Being so multifaceted it is no wonder that the Russian banya became one of the most intense and enthusiastic bathing cultures. From portable baths resembling Native American bathing styles to the uncanny resemblance between the Finish sauna and the Russian banya, the entire country of Russia is covered with buildings that show how important bathing was to Russians. Even impoverished cities where lumber was scarce built saunas and bathing houses out of clay or in a cave in a mountain.

Many accounts of the Russian bathing history point to the idea that ritualistically the banyas were often semi-violent. Lashing each others nude backs with long leaves while the baths had been warmed to an extreme heat was a common practice and as Mikkel Aaland says in Sweat: The Russian Banya History, “This was a daily ritual to cause such pain upon them. They made the act not just a washing, but a true torment.”

Another instance of violence in the Russian baths seems more like violence against one’s self. Many bathers, having already sat in the sauna for any given number of time, would run straight out of the steamed room and into the cold river, the snow, or even stand a top a cold rock and then would run back into the steamed room. Necee Regis describes in a Boston Globe article from February 5th, 2006 that “Peer pressure. That is the only explanation I have for why I leave my perch in a hot dry sauna to run through the frigid Russian countryside and jump in an icy well wearing only a bathing suit. Getting out, I roll in the snow, which feels warm by comparison, before hightailing it back inside.” The Russians took bathing very seriously. They thought that rolling in the snow after being whipped would cleanse the body and the soul, making the entire process even more important to the Russians. The banya began inspiring writers and artists to create works that showed the beauty and the greater aspects of the banya.

Something that will forever be strongly associated with the Russian bath is the idea of healing. Unlike some of the other cultures the Russians really took the idea of the cleansing of the soul to a new level. Pechora Monks had begun using banyas to heal the sick. Prince Vladimir, Baptizer of Russia, said banyas “an institution for the disabled.” The baths then became one of the first medical institutions in Russia and the Monks furthered their development of medical techniques. Soon, the baths even became a popular place to give birth and to die. Because of early Russian writings, the requiem banyas are remembered. A Russian soul had to be prepared for its journey to the next land, a pillow would be stuffed with birch leaves and the coffin would be sprinkled with birch twigs. Once the coffin was buried, the grave site was often visited. By bathing together after the funeral, mourners were comforted that the beloved soul would be warmed for its long journey. The communal bath also affirmed their own lives and helped them overcome their grief. Forty days after death, the banya was again visited by friends and relatives.

Unlike baths in other cultures, nudity was commonly accepted in the Russian banyas. Giovanni Casanova wrote, “In May, Zaira had become so beautiful I decided to take her along on my trip to Moscow . On Saturday I went with her to the Russian bath. There were thirty to forty people there, all of them quite naked. But since no one looks at anyone else, one does not have any feeling of’ being observed naked. This lack of’ a feeling of’ shame comes from a kind of inborn innocence which these people have.” In today’s spas many people are anxious or nervous about being nude for any type of treatment. As Anitra Brown, a journalist for the likes of Spa Magazine and American Spa says “When it’s time for your spa treatment, the therapist picks you up in the “meditation room” and takes you to the treatment room. The therapist leaves the room, giving you time to hang up and your robe and slip between the sheets on the massage table. The therapist will knock before entering.” Today’s spas have definitely adapted to the political correctness of our culture and have come along way since the Russians bathed freely.

Russian ancestors were aware that health was based on body cleanliness. The Russian baths were believed to help maintain health and it was believed that it strengthened and turned one’s vital energy to the required channel. The Russian baths were a symbol of overcoming the evil that surrounded people in their earthly life. Later they became a personification of hospitality and home hearth. These ideas about hospitality still remain in Russian villages. Today if a guest knocks at the door he will be taken first to a steam bath and then offered food and a bed.

There are the White Russian Baths and the Black Russian Baths. The white baths let the soot from the heat exit the banya and the black baths had no means of letting this waste exit, so the banya would become black during a session. There are very few true experts of such Russian baths remaining today.

Russian baths spread very quickly. Many factors made the cultural trend accessible to neighboring countries because of war and travel. It appeared in more than twenty German cities, Paris , Vienna , and Prague . There was little competition from other styles of baths until rainbaths, or quick showers became popular. Industrializing societies had little time for a Russian style bath.

In the later 1800s hordes of Russians migrated to the United State , many of whom were Jews. They were thrown into a different lifestyle where baths were not the focus of society so many were forced to take low paying jobs in sweat shops. Over time and saving, many Russians earned the ability to open their own banyas in major cities like San Francisco , Chicago and New York .

Occasionally, the ideas of the Russian banyas were combined with the Turkish baths. Despite the originating country Russians would frequent any types of bath looking for the cleansing experience. The banya made a brief debut in the United States along the Pacific coast and Alaska . In the early 1700s, Russian settlements sprang up from the Aleutians as far south as Fort Ross , about midway down the California coast. Aleutian Eskimos were introduced to the banya by Russian traders and trappers and still use the Russian-influenced sweat house.

Russian baths are still running throughout the country of Russia and still have influences across the world.

Turkish Baths

In the present day, Turkish Baths seem to be more of a tourist attraction than apart of the former Ottoman Empire ’s daily routine. Little is known about the early bath houses in Turkey . The baths, which are better known in Turkey as hamams, became an integral part of the Ottoman and Turkish lifestyle; however, there were no strictly “Turkish” hamams and because many hamams were opened and closed by individuals, very few records of the first bath houses even exist. It wasn’t until religious implications and the mass influences from other countries began that the hamam truly took form and became a chronicled part of the Ottoman Empire .

Taking notes from surrounding cultures such as Greece and Rome the Ottoman Empire put a twist on the classic bath house by transforming them into social gathering places. Even more so than the Roman baths hamams were, “places of entertainment in a closed society where Islamic rules governed social life. We could even say that they eventually evolved into the equivalent of the bars and cafes of modern times” says Meli Seval, owner of Melitour, a Turkish tour business for Americans. However, the hamams seem much more elaborate than bars and coffee houses. One of the main focuses of the hamam was the barber. Seeming to offer more services and treatments than most other bath houses of this time the Turks could receive these treatments into the late hours of the night. It was one of the only places open to everyone. The barber would do the typical hair cuts and face shaves, but also went beyond that to provide massages and even cleanse the body. No different than the early barber shops in America , the hamam’s barbers would be the center of the town’s gossip and news.

This focus on the social aspect of the hamam is very similar to the current state of the spa industry. Many spas are offering packages that lean towards social gatherings. In Seattle , the Ummelina Day Spa  offers an innovative new way to incorporate social groups into the relaxing environment of a day spa by introducing a “Tea Spa”. The Tea Spa incorporates elements of the day spa with aroma therapy, herb knowledge concerning a wide selection of teas and their natural stress relieving ingredients all the while promoting an atmosphere where its ok to be social while you de-stress; and yes, you get to drink the tea too. This new wave of focusing on the social aspects of modern spa can be directly attributed to the Turkish hamams.

Despite being a social gathering place, the hamams were often religiously inspired. Being that body cleanliness is the first provision of Islam the hamams became widely popular for providing the necessary equipment to make that possible. Muhammad believed that the heat of the hamams would increase fertility and that the followers of Islam should multiply. Before Muhammad and Arabs discovered the joy of hot air bathing from the Greek and the Romans, Arabs only used cold water to bathe. However, as Seval later states “Over time, the washing aspect of going to hamams became secondary.”

To this day many of the Turkish hamams remain standing. Cagaloglu, a hamam in Istanbul that has been there for nearly 270 years, is an amazing tourist attraction that mirrors many of today’s spas. From footwear, to robes and even the assistance one receives, it is easy to feel like you’re in your hometown’s day spa. Upon entering the hamam, you will find yourself in a dressing room, or camekan, which is surrounded by private cubicles where you dress. Your attendant will give you a cotton wrap, or pestemal, and a pair of slippers, or terlik, along with a key to your cubicle. Once you have removed all your clothing and wrapped the cotton cloth around your sarong style like a skirt, you are ready to go.” Aside from the translation of words like pestemal and terlik, this description from Julie Earle-Levine, freelance writer for Weekly Financial Times and Travel + Leisure and Saveur, shows how oddly similar the Turkish bath is to the modern day spa.

In the modern Turkish baths we see a lot more western influence. Less religiously inspired than they had been before, many Turkish baths are merely tourist attractions, drawing in large masses of people who come to see the elaborate architecture and to relax during their long vacations.

Native American Sweat Lodges

Perhaps the most surprising culture to take part in bathing rituals is the Native Americans. From the days of the early settlers many foreign visitors wrote of the Native American bathing rituals. Used as means of healing, spirituality and as a luxury the portable Native American Sweat Lodge is the first documentation of a sauna in the United States .

There is no documentation of the sweat lodges until European settlers arrived and wrote about the Native rituals. The spirituality and sacredness of the sweat lodge offended the Christian dominated settlers and many believed that the daily practice of bathing was a strange custom for the people they referred to as “savages”. The Governments and Christian missionaries were responsible for denying the use of the sweat lodges by the subdued Native Americans based upon the threat they posed to the settlement. Some of the Native American tribes gave up on sweat lodges while some fought relentlessly to keep their traditions. The United States government eventually officially disapproved of the sweat lodges and they became even less common. Most of the time after the start of the 19th century there is little documentation of Native American sweat lodges.

However, recently there has been resurgence in the sweat lodges. Perhaps as an attempt to return to their roots, Native American tribes across the United States are channeling the rituals performed by their ancestors long before European domination.

Finnish Sauna

To find proof that the Finnish culture is one of the most active in the history of saunas we must look to the present rather than the past. Little is known about Finland before the Middle Ages although the Finns have always had some sort of sweat bath, and we can see in the status quo that they have continued their trend and have made the sauna a staple in their society. The fact that the country has five million citizens and is still home to over two millions saunas speaks to its interest in sweat bathing. The Nordic saunas really were multi-faceted culture centers where birth, life and death were brought together.

When nomads traveled through what would eventually become Finland they had a very primitive version of a sauna already in place. Similar to the Native Americans they would dig a hole into the ground and place a tarp over the hole to keep the heat in. Often they would light a fire at the base of the hole and climb in after the fire had dispersed. This primitive style of heated bathing eventually led to the smoke sauna, which is the most common style of sauna. Fire was used to directly heat stones and to release the heat water would be poured on top of the stones. Technology really helped the progression of the Finnish sauna. The smoke bath went out in the 1920’s after far more convenient forms of heat were invented. Electric heaters replaced the fire; however the stones were kept as a form a retaining heat. The smoke-less sauna proved to be even more of a convenience because without the soot from the smoke, cleanup became a far less tedious process.

While most European countries were succeeding to pressure from the heart of central Europe, Finland held strong. Countries like Norway and Sweden caved to pressure from the Christian church and lost their standard of daily sauna visits. Instead, the ritual became a purely Christian one and lost most of its popularity in the culture. Finnish villages, however, ignored the pressure from the Church and the popularity of the sauna continued to grow. Church, however, was not entirely left out of the saunas. An old Finnish proverb says “people should behave in the sauna as they do in church.” Folklore and spirituality often surrounded the saunas. Parents would tell children a common folktale to encourage children to enjoy the sauna and teach them of its importance. Aaland, in Finnish Sauna: History of the Nordic Bath, details the tale of a farmer who after years of attending the sauna can endure and enjoy the highest heat the sauna can offer. After sitting in the sauna at the most extreme temperatures he is visited by the Devil who offers to take him to a particularly hot sauna. The man agrees and follows the Devil into Hell. After trying to reach the farmer’s breaking point the Devil is defeated as the farmer merely asks for more heat. The man is banned from Hell and coincidentally guarantees himself a spot later in his life in Heaven. The tale is so significant in its correlation between the sauna and the culture’s religion that it is no wonder that the sauna remains an integral part of Finland .

In addition to the integration of theology, Finnish saunas also became a place known as a rite of passage. Significant events in life that were emblematic of transition or simply of life would often take place in the saunas. Women often used the saunas before marriage as a part of a purification ritual, and old people would often go the saunas to die. As it was one of the only places where the structure and water were clean, women also would often give birth in their town or village’s sauna. In The Finnish Sauna by John Virtanen details a woman giving birth in the cold of winter. “Once again the sauna would provide the warmth, the quiet, the peaceful though primitive environment in which to give birth.” This further solidifies the sauna as a central focus of society. Its uses had become so varied by this point that it was far beyond what any of Western Europe ’s other bath houses.

While still being noted as being similar to many other European saunas, unlike the Romans, Greeks or even the Turkish, Finnish saunas never saw exuberant architecture or decorations. In fact, with the popularity of sweat bathing spreading throughout the culture many turned to small home saunas instead. As Mihael Cankar highlights in History of the Finnish Sauna, in Finland “1.2 million (saunas) are in private apartments”. These numbers are not matched anywhere else in the world. Thanks to technological and architectural advances a sauna is one of the main elements in a Finnish bathroom and nearly all apartments are built with a sauna. This is a true testament to the saunas importance in Finland .

From being one of initial cultural traits of the nomads who had made Finland their home, to being a widespread phenomenon that links an entire country together, it is an absolutely remarkable journey that the Finnish sauna has made. In a world where fads and trends come and go this is one that has etched a cultural significance into society and become one of the biggest influences on the modern day spas we see in the United States .

The Spa and Sauna in America

While the Native Americans had portable sweat lodges, the first actual sauna didn’t appear in America until immigrants from Finland and Sweden built one in the Delaware River Valley . Even today in Philadelphia a plaque stands in memory of that first sauna. The idea of the sauna and the modern day spa can be traced back to many European cultures, and the same can be said for the first sauna and day spas here in America . The hamam, banya, sauna and bath house all found their way to America with the help of immigration, however, it wasn’t easy.

All the cultures struggled once they arrived in America . For the Russians it was a hard struggle trying to find the money to continue their motherland rituals. It was an even harder struggle for the mass amounts of immigrants in the early 1900’s. Luckily many Russians in the larger cities were able to save up enough to open many Russian baths. However, the Russian immigrants felt that even if the baths weren’t authentic Russian Banyas that they were still a good place to experience the rituals they were used to. Even the Turkish baths were frequented by Russians. Before Alaska was sold to the United States , the Czar had successfully spread the banya throughout the territory. However, under U.S. rule the bath quickly became a thing of the past.

The Russians were known for bringing the banya over to the big cities in America , yet the banya way of bathing was often too hot for the typical American and many didn’t understand their appeal. The same was true for the Finnish. When finish settlers arrived in the United States in the late 1800’s. They settled in states like Wisconsin , Minnesota , and the upper part of the west coast. They brought with them many of their rituals from Finland and tried to create a sense of familiarity here. However, the most influential thing that held them back was their language. In The Sauna In America, Mikkel Aaland notes that “Unlike other Scandinavian languages, Finnish has no words in common with English, limiting Finns to menial jobs, poor neighborhoods and giving them little chance to promote their own culture. The Finns sensed that trying to communicate their bathing habits would cause embarrassment since heterosexual bathing could be construed as being immodest, immoral or at least sexually suggestive.” Children raised in this time often abandoned the idea of sweat bathing due to ridicule from classmates or neighbors. America couldn’t understand the idea of communal bathing. This mentality can be seen in day spas today. Almost all treatments are left to the client and the specialist. This coincides with the American’s drift from placing importance of baths from bathing to massage and cosmetics. The one thing that has stayed in tact is the pursuit of relaxation.

The spa industry really took off in the United States in 1910 when Elizabeth Arden introduced America ’s first Day Spa, the Red Door Salon in Manhattan . The first destination spa, Rancho La Puerta, was started by an American, but it opened in Baja California , just south of the border in Mexico . The same woman who opened that spa also opened the famous Golden Door spa in California , which was the first to offer personal weight loss training to its clients. Also in California was the 1974 debut of the first ever fitness spa, The Ashram. From then spas spread across the United States and it was in the mid nineties that we started seeing medical spas pop up around the states.   Today the spa industry is one of the biggest leisure sectors in the world.  With the popularity continuing to spread the industry continues to take the basic concepts that date back to ancient European cultures and add groundbreaking procedures fit for a postmodern world.

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