The History and Evolution of Spas
derived from The History of Spas Supplement,
Pool & Spa News, September 1998
It's Greek To Me
Contrary to popular belief, spas were not invented by spoiled Hollywood celebrities. Credit for that belongs to another group: spoiled Greek celebrities. Baths of mineral and thermal water can be traced back to 500 BC in Greece. That's BC as in "before chlorine.
Those early Greek baths existed near natural hot springs, often near volcanoes, where the Greek elite could treat physical ailments and ponder philosophical conundrums. The baths were immensely popular. Hippocrates (460-375 BC), believed to be the founder of medicine, reportedly pledged to do no harm there. He also recommended hydrotherapy for the treatment of disorders, including rheumatism and jaundice.
The Greeks were not alone in their appreciation of a nice hot soak. Never ones to be outdone, the Romans also enjoyed the mineral waters. They had neat names for the baths - caldarium, tepidarium and frigidarium which, as the nomenclature suggest, ranged from very hot to lukewarm to colder than Cleopatra on a bad hair day. The famous Roman baths became centers for health and hygiene, intellectual and recreational pursuits. Still, not even the emperor had a spa he could fit on his balcony.
Which leads to an interesting historical footnote, where the spa got its name.
Ah - The Spa
The word "spa" derives from the name of a town now in east Belgium, which at the time was part of the Roman Empire. Spa, the town, remains a popular resort known for its baths and mineral springs. The waters there are believed to be therapeutic, and the ancient Romans made frequent use of them. They so enjoyed the benefits of the rejuvenating waters, that they built baths, throughout the empire to resemble those found in the town of Spa.
Some time earlier, from about 800 BC, the waters of Bath, England, were used for healing purposes. British royalty continued to use the waters of this idyllic town well into the 20th century. Queen Elizabeth I insisted on bathing at least once monthly "whether she needed it or not," according to historians. The town established five baths, including the King's Bath and the Cross Bath, for therapeutic purposes. The King's Bath was a favorite of "gentlefolk," while the Cross Bath became a popular spa for lepers and rheumatics.
Early on, these destination spas had little in common with the luxury-laden resorts of today. They served as treatment centers for soldiers during war and were otherwise open to the public. As such, the spas were great equalizers among citizens of ancient civilizations. The bubbles were free.
Many of the original Roman bath resorts were destroyed during the fall of the Roman Empire. A revival of sorts took place during the Middle Ages, but poor hygienic conditions and the spread of infectious disease led to a sharp decline in their use.
Bath houses and spas of differing styles later achieved popularity in Finland, Germany, Spain, Turkey, Egypt and Japan, where hot-water bathing in wooden vessels was an important feature of the island nation's culture.
Mystical Mud Baths
In the New World, Native Americans enjoyed the health benefits of natural springs long before European settlers arrived. Along with the hygienic usefulness of the natural baths, native peoples conferred upon them magical and religious properties.
H.L. Kamenetz, in his 1963 page-turner, Medical Hydrology, suggests the oldest spa in the North American colonies was Berkeley Springs, in what is now West Virginia. It was later known as Warm Springs. Other nearby sites Sweet Springs, Hot Springs and White Sulpher Springs - enjoyed popularity in the Virginia territory of the Appalachian mountain range. Medical professionals touted the curative powers of similar springs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and before long it became clear that spas could prove a lucrative business in the New World.
Perhaps the most popular of the early colonial springs, Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, became a mecca
for hydrotherapy. Now home to a spa company by the same name, Saratoga, or Sarachtogoe - a Mohawk Indian word meaning "place of swift water" - was carefully guarded from European pioneers, settlers and colonists until 1767. According to legend, the Iroquois people had befriended a Sir William Johnson, who later became ill. His only hope for healing, thought the Iroquois, was an introduction to their "Medicine spring of the Great Spirit." Johnson recovered from his illness and spoke highly of the Saratoga springs. His tales attracted visitors to the area seeking remedies for all sorts of ailments. Ten years later, the community gained secondary renown as the site of a turning-point battle in the Revolutionary War.
One of the first water-therapy inventions to arrive in post-revolutionary America was the "floating swimming bath." Also known as "swimming cribs," the canvas-and-wood devices were staked into a river or lake bottom or tethered to the shore.
Spas At Every Pass
As America expanded, manifest destiny played its role in spa history. None other than Lewis and Clark, with a huge assist from their native guide, helped open the Western territories to expansion and, before long, spas sprouted up along the Appalachians and from Connecticut to Arkansas.
Like the Iroquois before them, Native Americans - particularly, the Pawnee and Lakota - introduced waves of white settlers to the benefits of the "Great Healing Spring" in the mountains of modern-day Arkansas. Eureka Springs became a thriving resort after the Civil War and continues to this day.
An interesting footnote to the history of spa and water therapy occurred many years later during the presidential administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president, who suffered from the debilitating pain of polio, made Warm Spring, Co., his "little White House." FDR, who received therapeutic baths, muscle treatments and assorted other benefits, spent a fortune on the place and later dedicated the facility as a treatment center for others with disabilities.
Social communication, camaraderie and therapeutic benefits continued to make spas popular through the 20th century. Along the way, however, a dramatic shift occurred that would forever alter the way people enjoyed hydrotherapy - the dawn of the home hot tub. While spa vacations remain quite popular, most enthusiasts these days are content to be homebodies.
Although home spas may date back to those early teak wood tubs still favored by the Japanese, the inspiration that changed the ancient bathing ritual into a modern phenomenon comes from the fertile hills of coastal California.
Californians with a love of wine discovered they could really get stewed if they followed the lead of their Japanese friends and filled their empty wine vats with hot water for a soothing soak. But this was no champagne solution. What they gained in tannic acids, they lacked in effervescence. Bring on the bubbles.
Who Are You - Joe Jacuzzi?
Enter the Jacuzzi brothers. This Italian family - the water world's version of the Pep Boys - developed a product that ranks with Kleenex and Band-Aid as a brand-specific name that, however unfairly, came to define an entire industry in the minds of consumers.
The seven Jacuzzi brothers, led by Joseph Jacuzzi (that's right, Joe Jacuzzi), left Italy for the United States early in the century and settled in California, The necessity that would prove the mother of invention came in the form of an ailing relative. The Jacuzzis needed to provide hot-water therapy for a family member suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
In 1954, the Jacuzzis helped develop and patent a portable whirlpool pump. They later refined the pump, which, when coupled with jets using an air-injection system, produced a rather satisfying broth of bubbles. The swirling air-and-water mixture proved highly therapeutic and could turn virtually any vessel of water into a mini-spa. That invention spawned an industry and made Jacuzzi a household name.
Advances in technology, primarily the development of a fiberglass mold, helped move the fledgling home-spa industry into the public consciousness. People went, wacky over the thought of jumping into a fiberglass tub for a warm-water massage, courtesy of the Jacuzzi pump.
Emphasizing the therapeutic benefits of the home spa, eager businessmen hoped to carve out a niche in the expanding health market. James Kuehnle, founder of Holiday Pools, revealed the dreams of many a spa seller during a 1967 interview for Pool News (now Pool & Spa News).
"Today's market for the therapy pool is in clubs, hospitals and similar installations," Kuehnle said, "but a future potential market exists in residential installations." He predicted spas would someday surpass swimming pools in popularity because of their social and apparent therapeutic appeal.
Meanwhile. portable pumps helped transform those California wine vats into wooden alternatives to the new-fangled fiberglass contraptions. Favoring California's abundant yet cherished redwood, designers created handcrafted "hot tubs" which became the rage for swinging singles and fun-seeking skinny dippers. A business battle between Northern California's woodchucks and Southern California's plastic people ensued, and the battle line drawn between the hot tubs and the spas would last nearly three decades.
The Jacuzzis and their many competitors designed, refined and re-defined hydrotherapy through home spa use. Today the strong survive. Spa people may be relaxed, but they are resilient.
Evolution of Spas
Article derived from The History of Spas Supplement,
Pool & Spa News, September 1998
Back in 1954, Joe Jacuzzi and his brothers had no way of knowing their invention of a portable whirlpool pump would spawn a billion-dollar industry.
They simply sought to use hydrotherapy to ease the pain of a family member's rheumatoid arthritis.
Flash forward to 1998. Thanks to four decades of tinkering and testing, spa consumers now have the luxury of choosing a variety of high-tech options and features unimaginable 40 years ago.
Aside from the original concept of incorporating hot water and bubbles, no part of the spa's technology has gone unaltered. Inventors and entrepreneurs have changed the jets, surface, insulation, equipment and accessory items - even the product's name has undergone several permutations.
Bathing in the Bubbly
The original jacuzzi pump, when coupled with jets using an air-injection system, created a bubbly water-and-air mixture. As time progressed, a variety of manufacturers experimented with methods to propel the air/water stream into the spa.
At first. spas relied on a primitive bubbler concept that involved a vacuum cleaner-like motor operating in reverse,
blowing air into the tub the way a child uses a straw to blow bubbles in milk. Injection systems came to depend on a sophisticated understanding of hydraulic principles.
Designers soon began speaking of things like the venturi principle, in which water is pumped through a funnel-like device to create a vacuum that pulls in air. As the water flow and pressure increase, the jet draws in more air, resulting in more water agitation.
"A venturi system is a conventional approach," said Roy Jacuzzi, chairman, CEO and president of Jacuzzi Inc. of Walnut Creek, Calif., and inventor of the first jetted bathtub. "What I did was take air and water all around that so I was getting a 300/60 air-to-water mixture.
"I was actually taking the water and air combination ... and exploding that," he added.
The earliest spas, though, incorporated only enough jets to churn the water.
"When we first came out with spas, they had two spa jets on them, said Bernie Burba, founder of Baja Products Ltd. in Tucson, Ariz. "Now you see portable spas with 60 on them.
"You might say that's overkill, but it isn't," he said. "We've really learned about water therapy and that lots of jets - lots of water and air moving across your body - is a very satisfying, restful and helpful experience."
Today, jets provide pulsating massage action all over the body, from stiff necks to ticklish toes. Spa makers now offer specific jets to caress shoulders, arms, wrists, thighs, knees, calves and ankles. At least one manufacturer, Bullfrog Spas, now boasts a system in which jet configurations can be interchanged throughout the spa, like the cushions of a couch.
Scratching the Surface
When the innovative spa builders sought out a more portable unit, they knew they needed a lightweight substitute for the gunite used for in-ground models. Manufacturers experimented with chopped glass, epoxy, resin and gelcoat. The advent of fiberglass altered the industry.
In the late '60s, a number of spa builders, including Len Gordon, Herb Quindt, James Kuehnle, and the crew at Marlin Fiberglass, all played a role in producing viable fiberglass molds. They coated the fiberglass with a gelcoat finish to make the surface less porous.
Builders applauded the introduction of fiberglass spas because these units, which cost less than their gunite counterparts, allowed for more uniform production. Spas could be mass-produced in molds, which provided greater consistency in the unit's hydraulics.
Fiberglass with a gelcoat finish, however, did not solve all of the builders' problems. Installing these units was difficult and before long, homeowners began complaining about "The Black Plague."
Spa owners across the country grumbled about the stubborn black stains appearing in their quickly dilapidating tubs, which faded in the sun, absorbed water and generally fell apart. Despite a flurry of explanations, no one had a definitive answer - or solution, kind the search for a new material was on.
In 1972, Baja Products, a manufacturer of acrylic-fiberglass diving board stands, introduced a vacuum-formed acrylic spa shell, which was reinforced with fiberglass.
"We started out by putting some in the harsh Arizona sun
for a year and putting some others up in the upper Midwest where they had freezing climates to ensure that they would work before we started selling them," Burba said. "And those first ones really are still there, still working, and looking as good as when they were first put out."
Acrylic soon became the industry standard. Today, the major players in the acrylic industry, including Aristech Acrylics of Florence, Ky. and Cordova, Tenn.-based ICI Acrylics, continue to experiment with spa surfaces. The firms have modified the hot tub's colors and textures to create a fashionable though sturdy product.
While acrylic surfaces line the majority of portable spas, alternative polymer surfaces and soft-sided spas have also forged a niche in the marketplace.
Many of the first spa builders considered the units to be an offshoot of the pools they were accustomed to building. These builders delivered the hot water and bubbles using the products they had at hand.
While these jerry-rigged spas functioned adequately, they did not always fit the bill.
"The major problem with the portable was the limitation of use - as they were sold as a true portable that could be plugged into a 20-amp circuit," said Jim Brat, president of Brett Aqualine in Huntington Beach, Calif. "The problem was when you used them with the jets, the heater had to be turned off due to the higher amperage, and the spa temperature cooled off very quickly."
After dealing with heaters that burned out and pumps that overtaxed the system - coupled with increased competition - manufacturers began offering smaller, more compact equipment.
In the race to provide better equipment, Brett Aqualine introduced in 1977 what would later be termed the first "spa pack," an all-in-one component system that united the pump, heater, control, blower and plumbing.
Also at that time, Jeff and Jon Watkins formed Watkins Mfg. Corp. and built a self-contained and insulated portable spa. The company would later receive the industry's first UL listing for it's portable spa.
Spa side controls brought the unit to the next technological level. The controls allowed the user to adjust the water temperature, circulation, jet action, air blower and spa light with the touch of a button.
Len Gordon, widely considered the "Father of the Spa Industry," engineered some of the first air-switch controls at his Las Vegas firm.
Bathers could adjust functions by pushing a button that sent short bursts of air through tubing running from the control panel to the spa machinery.
By 1982, innovative spa manufacturers incorporated high-tech electronics for portable spa use. Solid-state computerized systems and temperature-control devices entered the scene. Additional companies, providing custom-built controls for spa manufacturers, soon came on the market.
Two years later, Balboa Instruments, a Costa Mesa, Calif., electronic design and development firm, created an electronic switch suitable for use in the hot water industry.
Spa manufacturers considered these electronic controls, which featured solid-state components, more efficient and eye-catching than previous controls - and many hot tub makers incorporated them into their products.
With increasingly complex spa designs and options, these controls are helping reduce the impression that spas are too
complicated, said Jacuzzi. "A lot of them now are becoming more consumer friendly.
The advances in spa manufacturing spurred innovation in the accessory and water-care markets.
These products, which include the tapered spa cover, introduced to the industry in the '80s by San Marcos, Calif.-based Sunstar Enterprises, and chemical packages designed specifically for spa use, created a lucrative after-market.
Spas have come a long way since the introduction of the hydrotherapy tub in the '60s. Still, plenty of room for innovation remains. The quest for the ultimate insulation continues, and labor-free sanitation remains an elusive goal.
Today's hot tub retains hints of its history, while reveling in the possibilities of its future.
"Today, the spas that we have are absolutely unbelievable," Jacuzzi said.