A Brief History of Massage
By Robert Noah Calvert
The late Robert Noah Calvert authored The History of Massage: An Illustrated Survey from
Around the World
(Healing Arts Press, 2002). He founded Massage Magazine
in 1985 and served as
its president until 2005, also founding the World of Massage Museum in 2000. With more than
25 years of experience as a massage therapist, publisher, researcher and educator, his work
appeared in numerous publications, including Body, Mind & Spirit Magazine
, Massage & Bodywork
and the Journal of Higher Education
. At the time of his death in April 2006, he was working on
three massage-related books.
These observations on massage were submitted to ABMP by the author just a few days before his death.
Touch Part of Human Social System
|Massage ... is a very ancient form of treatment, so
ancient that one
may consider its history to be as old as
mankind and its beginnings
— Dr. Emil A.G. Kleen, Massage and Medical Gymnastics, 1921.
The history of massage and the evolution of human touch are intertwined with human history.
Since prehistoric time, touch has been an integral part of the primate social system, initially
as an element of grooming behavior. During the long transition from primate grooming behavior to
human contact systems, touch took on other social characteristics. As human beings evolved to
develop organized civilizations, touch was transformed into a variety of behavioral modes and
touch methods. Touch became more complex, eventually becoming structured manual art therapies.
But before touch was formalized it was first a part of social interactions — between friends,
between mother and child — as well as simply basic healing of one's self and others.
Massage has been a part of a larger human context in nearly every culture on Earth. It has
been an integral part of a number of aspects of human activity, including religious and healing
rituals; healing arts such as midwifery, medicine, nursing hydrotherapy; athletics, exercise
and movement therapy; barbering, bonesetting, spas and the pleasurable pursuits of sensuality;
and in many cultures, daily family life.
Massage was not advocated nor practiced as a singular therapeutic tool until modern times. The
shaman rubbing evil spirits out of the body, the deaconess applying her hands to inspire the
healing power of the Holy Spirit, the midwife soothing a mother from the pains of childbirth,
the mother rubbing her child to bond and pamper, the trainer in preparation of an athlete
before and after sporting pursuits, the nurse applying a healing balm in battle at the bath
or the spa, the doctor treating an injury with a liniment or mechanical remedy, the woman
applying healing and soothing creams to her skin for beauty and health, a couple stroking
each other as part of the ritual of sexual behavior, and any person touching another simply
for feeling good and getting relaxed —massage was a part of the repertoire of each of these
activities before it broke free in the late 19th century. It remains a complement to them all
even though it is now recognized as a stand-alone therapeutic tool.
Golden Age of Massage
One author in the massage trade asserts that the period from 1880 to 1910 was the golden age
of massage in America. It is my contention that the golden age of massage in America and
around the world was the last 30 years of the 20th century. Although massage is as old as
humankind, massage began to emerge as an independent and widely used therapeutic modality
in the 1950s and 1960s, fully coming into its own in the 1980s and 1990s. During those
decades, massage was more widely accepted, recognized, used, developed, marketed and
organized than at any other period in its long history. And, it continues to develop into
the new millennium.
As technological society advances, the need for human contact also grows, and massage continues
to respond to that need. Massage is increasingly applied in more and diverse venues.
Introduction of the massage chair in the 1980s gave new meaning to the phrase "have
table, will travel." The publicity surrounding the use of massage in sports had a dramatic
impact on the popularity of massage. Massage also became further integrated into other forms
of therapy, education and spiritual endeavors. Massage schools dramatically increased in
quality and numbers. Professional associations and publications proliferated, generating
exciting and meaningful avenues of networking, information dissemination and political
and cultural involvement never before seen in the field. Regulation of the massage field
increased, helping the business and ethics of massage to become more evident. All of these
factors helped to alter significantly the public perception of massage, and the image of
massage often connected to prostitution is fading into the background. The field of massage
has moved from the fringes of many other human activities to become a world unto its own
over the course of a few decades — the golden age of massage.
More Places and Spaces
Perhaps the most significant change during this period has been the diversity of places
where massage can now be found and the applications of its healing techniques to a growing
variety of human conditions. Through most of the 20th century, the most prevalent place in
which massage was offered was in the home. However, in the last few decades the venues for
massage have expanded rapidly. Innovative and often bold entrepreneurial ventures, aided by
portable massage tables and chairs, moved massage from closed rooms to the office place of
corporate America, sports arenas everywhere, hospitals, birthing rooms, spas, hospices,
hotels, airports, health clubs, shopping malls, and even out onto the streets of American
cities. Massage has been an official emergency relief effort in most of the great natural
and man-made catastrophes for nearly two decades. In the 1970s, massage provided in one's
home constituted nearly 70 percent of all massage being done, whereas at the end of the
century in-home massage practice constituted only about 45 percent of all types of practices
with that figure continuing to decline as more opportunity is opened up by massage
entrepreneurs and an accepting public and private sector.
This is not to say that massage has emerged into a golden age completely on its own. The
human potential movement of the 1960s and 1970s brought more awareness to the use of
massage as a tool for relaxation and human connection. Alternative and complementary
medical practice was revived during this same time, particularly during the 1980s and
early 1990s with the release of studies showing Americans are spending billions of dollars
on these types of therapies, and massage is third on the list. This revelation primed the
complementary and alternative medical pump that continues to bring more and more attention
to massage as a primary healthcare modality that cannot be overlooked. Unprecedented
attention is now being given to massage research and its efficacy in relation to other
Unique in its Healing Qualities
Massage has survived and continues to evolve because it is the most fundamental means of
giving care, affection and aid between human beings. Its healing qualities differ from
those of other modalities because massage confers its benefits through the character and
healing intention of those who give and receive it. The true value of massage comes from
the intrinsic, inherent need of humans to have contact with one another.
Glossary of More Than 250 Entries on Massage Treatments
A Massage History Perspective
- The history of massage is much more than its association with medical practice.
Its history is richly connected with many other human activities and spans the entire globe
as well as all of the human historic record.
- Western massage is not new — it did not begin with Peter Ling of Sweden, as is
commonly believed, and it did not replace the ancient ways. Western massage began about
480 B.C.E. when Hippocrates of Cos changed the ancient shamanic ways of rubbing down and
out the body to one of rubbing up and toward the alimentary tract. Since then, both have
survived, often alongside one another, in practice.
- Prior to the late 19th and early 20th century, massage was commingled with a
variety of other healing methods. Only then did it finally emerge as a single stand-alone
- The history of massage is not something one can easily learn about from other
texts. It has been largely obscured from the annals of medicine, sports, nursing, midwifery,
barbering, shamanism, anthropology, archaeology and other specialized areas of study. Finding
evidence of massage in human history has been and continues to be a challenge.
- Finally, and perhaps most important, is that the history, study and practice of
massage are not all about technique. Their past, unraveling their entanglement with other
human activities, clearly reveals the application of caring human touch is an inherently
innate behavior for giving and receiving love, which all humankind wants and needs. The
real purpose of giving massage is to foster more depth of feeling for one another in
order to bring out the love that often lies buried beneath the pain of everyday suffering.
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