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The Spa: A History in the Renewal of Body, Mind and Spirit

Dec 16, 2007
The Greeks and Romans did it. Ottomans and the Japanese practiced its health-enhancing benefits. Stretching back to Mesopotamia, spa-going is not a new phenomenon. It's been practiced for thousands of years and by an untold number of cultures.

There's some disagreement as to the derivation of the word spa. It has been suggested that the word originates from the Latin verb "spagere" - to pour forth, or as in the phrase, "Salus Per Aquam," meaning health through water, but these assertions are only suggestions. More likely, the term is derived from the name of the Belgium town, Spa, well-known since Medieval times as a source for healing illnesses caused by iron deficiency. Patrons there drank chalybeate, or iron bearing, spring water whose mineral essentials healed what ailed them. An Englishman who had been to the town of Spa, discovered a chalybeate spring in Yorkshire, England, where he built what became known as the first English resort for drinking medicinal waters. As time went on, the word "spa" referred less to resorts for water drinking and more generally defined a place offering external remedies.

No matter its word origins, the spa has served as a prominent place in many cultures. During the Classical Age, Homer and other writers reported how Greeks enjoyed a variety of baths, as early as 500 B.C. Emperor Agrippa, in 25 B.C., created the first Roman thermae, or large-scale spa. As emperors tried to outdo the efforts of the last, thermaes were built across the Roman Empire, from Africa to England. These sometimes extravagant complexes included sport activities, restaurants, and a variety of baths.

Although the Roman model of hot/cold baths, massage, exercise, and skin treatments was formative to today's spa experience, these traditions can also be as varied as the cultures who indulged in them. In 737 A.D., the first onsen, or hot springs, was opened near Izumo, Japan. Later, ryoken, or inns, were built to offer Japanese patrons accommodations, fine food, Zen gardens, and a various baths. In the Ottoman Empire, beautifully designed mosaic hammans are still admired today. The Baths of Roxelana, built in 1556, was a crowning example of the Ottoman spa, with a massive towering steam room, washing quarters, and expansive massage platforms.

In Europe, spas flourished around natural hot springs. Places like Bath, England and Baden-Baden, Germany became popular resort towns because of their natural thermal waters. These European spa towns were known as ville d'eau, or town of water. Taking the waters at places like Bath served as a fashionable means of leisure. As the only naturally occurring hot springs in the United Kingdom, it was a resort city for the wealthy during the Elizabethan and Georgian eras. Britain's Queen Victoria was an annual visitor to Baden-Baden and made the health benefits of this spa town well known during her reign. The Europeans also became scientific about their spa-going during this time. Regimens were developed by various individuals attempting to treat disease and create a holistic approach to living.

The healing properties of hot springs were being discovered by the Native Americans as well. Referred to as Valley of the Vapors, Hot Springs, Arkansas drew various tribes to its springs. By 1832, the Hot Springs National Park was formed, which granted protection of the thermal waters, giving Hot Springs the distinction of being the first national park to be designated for government protection. Nicknamed "The American Spa," visitors from around the world flocked to the natural hot springs. Today, this rich history is preserved in the faithfully-restored Fordyce Bathhouse, a museum and visitors center on Bathhouse Row. A variety of bathing facilities are open as well to visitors on Bathhouse Row and in hotels and spas downtown.

Meanwhile, New York's Saratoga Springs drew the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and Franklin Delano Roosevelt during its heyday. Its healing powers were originally well known to area Native Americans who introduced Sir William Johnson, a British hero of the French and Indian Wars, to the springs for his war wounds. The rich and famous also traveled to Mount Clemens, Michigan, to experience its magical mineral waters pumped from 1,400 feet under the city. Following the opening of the first bath house, "America's Bath City" reached its height of popularity in the early 1900s.

Elizabeth Arden, cosmetic maven, introduced thousands to the concept of the day spa when she opened the Red Door Salon in Manhattan in 1910. There, women indulged in manicures, facials, and the signature "Arden Wax." Arden also transformed her home in Maine into a health spa named Maine Chance. Her long list of celebrity clientele included Mamie Eisenhower. The world's first destination spa, Rancho la Puerta, was opened in California in 1940 by Edmond and Deborah Szekely. Long before organic food became en vogue, the Szekelys espoused the benefits of organically grown foods, which are so popular in spa resorts today.

From the ancient days of "taking the waters," to today's more scientific treatments such as hydrodermabrasion, spa-going has emerged as a part of a global awareness for prevention, healthy lifestyles, fitness, relaxation, and spirituality. What was once intended for the wealthy has now been embraced by popular culture. Spa boundaries are no longer just defined by a place or destination. Patrons of the spa can enjoy its influence in everything from fashion and cosmetics to home dacor and cuisine - all creating an overall sense of wellbeing and catapulting the spa to the fourth-largest leisure industry in the U.S.
About the Author
Geologix Inc. manufactures products using a proprietary formula featuring 34 natural minerals contained in the ancient sea water from the famous Michigan Basin -- a concentration of minerals higher than that found in any known body of water in the world. Mineral Essentials focuses on spa, skin care, and massage products to moisturize and provide anti-aging protection for great skin. Mineral Essentials, and Acheaway
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