The word spa in Latin is acronym of “salus per aquam” or “health from water.” Spa is also the name of a small Belgium village where hot mineral springs were used by Roman soldiers to treat aching muscles and wounds from a battle.
In Roman Empire social bathing was also an important networking tool as in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and old Greece.
Even before the Bath mineral spring was discovered, Roman citizens bathed daily in the now famous Roman Baths. During the reign of Caesar Augustus (27 B.C. to 14 A.D.), there were approximately 170 baths in Rome. Many of these were public baths were primarily built and used by the Roman soldiers.
By 43 A.D. citizens of Rome began to view baths as a way of providing rest, relaxation, and solace to all people, not just those weary of war. In 70 A.D., the Romans built a spa around the hot springs at Bath, England, and a temple nearby to honor the goddess Minerva.
By the year 300 A.D., there were over 900 baths throughout the Empire. The oldest Roman spa is still in existence today is located in Merano, Italy.
Baths were an important part of the daily life of both Roman men and women of all social classes and the ancient Romans managed to transform it into an art. While members of the Roman upper class frequently built private baths in their homes or villas, they still favored the public bathhouses. These large public baths were known as “thermae” and frequently spanned several city blocks. There was a fee for using the “thermae”, but it was minimal and could be afforded by most free Romans.
A visit to the bath would traditionally last several hours, and included exercise, bathing, and socializing. Roman baths often included gardens, a library or reading room, restaurant, bar, marketplace, museums or theatres. Bathers moved from room to room at a leisurely pace, enjoying the company of fellow Romans.
In the 11th century, the King’s Bath was built over the ruins of the temple of Minerva at Bath. By the Elizabethan Era, the popularity of the hot springs at Bath had increased greatly. At this time, the use of spas was becoming more widely accepted attracting many visitors who were searching for cures to various illnesses and ailments.
The growth and development continued into the 17th and 18th century when spas were also frequently built in secluded mountain towns providing visitors with majestic views.
It also became a practice for spas to be staffed by medical professionals who prescribed and carefully monitored the treatments provided for each visitor. The treatments of this time consisted primarily of either soaking in or drinking water. These spas were tremendously successful and they grew rapidly, eventually expanding to add restaurants and casinos.
In North America, native Indians were also enjoying the benefits of hot spring therapy as well. Native Americans bathed in mineral springs to enhance their physical and spiritual health.
In present-day New York State, the Mohawk Indians use hot springs for their healing properties. The oldest spring known to have been used by the Mohawks is the Saratoga Hot Springs, meaning “the place of the medicine waters of the great spirit”. In 1790, the Saratoga Hot Springs began offering both spa treatments and accommodations for visitors.
As America expanded westward, new mineral springs were discovered that prompted the development of an elaborate new classification system for developing spas, based on the study of geography, geology, mineralogy, and climatology.
By European standards, American spas are still in their infancy and the differences between American and European spas are many.
Traditionally, Europeans have viewed spas as a venue for the treatment of present illnesses and the prevention of future ailments. In addition, Europeans also placed special emphasis on the importance of spas in helping visitors relax by combating the stresses of everyday life.
In contrast, traditional American spas have maintained their focus on wellness, attracting individuals who are already healthy with programs in nutrition, exercise, and beauty. More recently, American spas have begun to adopt numerous new programs including meditation and spirituality.
While the origins of spas are rooted in the healing waters of natural hot springs, the focus of spas around the world, including in the United States, has shifted.
Advances in technology and medicine have developed new treatments that have all but replaced treatments that are more traditional.