The History of Spas

spa history
••• Nineteenth century spa towns like Carlsbad (Czech Republic) were places to socialize and take the waters. Culture Club: Getty Images

No one know exactly where the word spa comes from, but there are two main theories. The first, and most popular, is that spa is an acronym for the Latin phrase salus per aquae or "health through water."  

Others believe the origin of the word "spa" comes from the Belgian town of Spa, known since Roman times for its baths. They speculate that the town was so prominent that the very word spa became synonymous in the English language with a place to be restored and pampered.

 Modern spas have their roots in the ancient towns famed for the healing powers of their mineral waters and hot springs.

Hot springs were used by indigenous peoples, and the practice of bathing in hot springs and mineral waters dates at least to Greeks.  For the Romans, the baths were a place not just for cleansing, but for socializing, a tradition that spread to the east and transformed to the Middle Eastern hammam

The Roman bathing tradition fell with the empire, but people still valued hot springs and mineral springs.  At a time when Western medicine offered very little in the ways of cures, people would travel to the springs to treat their ailments.  Facilities were primitive and the rich and poor were not separated.

In the 19th century, Europe's great spas became destinations for the wealthy, who went there to "take the waters".  Water treatments are still considered the heart of the spa experience in Europe.

Today massages and facials are by far the most popular spa treatments in America.

The Great Spa Cities of Europe

But how did the magnificent spa cities of the 19th century, which attracted aristocrats, royalty and celebrities, became the faded grand dames that are so terribly out of fashion today? (Think of the abandoned grandeur of "The Grand Budapest Hotel," the quirky Wes Anderson movie starring Ralph Fiennes.)  What lead us to this current state of affairs, where spa, especially in America, means a place where you wear a robe and get a massage?

Some answers are found in The Grand Spas of Central Europe (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)  by David Clay Large, a spa enthusiast and academic who is senior fellow at the Institute of European Studies, University of California, Berkeley, and professor of history at the Fromm Institute, University of San Francisco.  

The Grand Spas of Central Europe explores the grand European spa towns in their 19th century hey-day, when they were "the equivalent of today’s major medical centers, rehab retreats, golf resorts, conference complexes, fashion shows, music festivals, and sexual hideaways—all rolled into one."  In the years between the French Revolution and World War II, the major Central European Kurorte (“cure-towns”) reached their peak of influence and then slipped into decline.  His sweeping story is easy to read, and he calls on his own personal experiences and observations as he visits the great spa towns like Baden-Baden, Bad Ems, Bad Gastein, Karlsbad, and Marienbad.  

One point he makes is that Western medicine didn't have much to offer at the time.  "Healing waters" were the best choice for symptomatic relief of arthritic, respiratory, digestive and nervous ailments.  "People went to the spas in hopes of curing everything from cancer to gout," he writes.

"But often as not 'curists' also went to play, to be entertained, and to socialize. In their heyday the grand spas were hotbeds of cultural creativity, true meccas of the arts. High-level politics was another grand spa specialty, with statesmen descending on the Kurorte to negotiate treaties, craft alliances, and plan wars." 

This military scheming was just one aspect of a darker side to the grand spa story, one rife with nationalistic rivalries, ethnic hatred, and racial prejudice. The grand spas, it turns out, were microcosms of changing sociopolitical realities—not the “timeless” oases of harmony they often claimed to be.ce of European society.

The Rise of the Modern Spa

The two world wars and the rise of modern medicine did much to reduce the fortunes of the great spa cities.  Europe still has a healthy bathing tradition, as can be seen in the great baths of Germany and the thalassotherapy spas of France, Spain and Italy.

In America, people began to see hot springs and mineral spas as antiquated and attendance plummeted, The rise of the new generation of spas began in 1940, when Edmond and Deborah Szekely opened Rancho La Puerta in Mexico as the first destination spa for "health nuts."  Deborah went on to start Golden Door in southern California in 1958.  Both spas are still among the finest in the country spas.  

They helped pave the way for The Oaks at Ojai in 1977, which inspired Mel and Enid Zuckerman to open Canyon Ranch Tucson in 1979.  The 1990s and beyond were a period of great growth, with resorts adding lavish spas, and an explosion of day spas.  In 2015 there were more than 21,000 spas in the U.S., the vast majority of them day spas, according to the International Spa Association.