The history of massage therapy!

Where and When did massage come from?

When the subject of massage is brought up, few people really understand the impact that it has had on society and the world in general.  For instance, western civilization, more specifically the United States, has for the longest time, in the name of pharmaceuticals and modern medicine, pushed massage therapy to the dark corners of mysticism and skepticism.  Fortunately, the pendulum has swung back to shed a positive light on massage therapy and its many benefits for people.  The medical community is starting to come around to see massage as not only a complimentary service for many hospitals, but, as a stand alone treatment as well.  The drug companies, it seems, will doubtfully back something that competes with their many medications.  But, I digress, back to the history of massage!  So, where did it all start?  To be honest, no one really knows the exact start date of massage, that is because it has been around longer than anything from modern society, longer than the Statue of Liberty, London Bridge, the Egyptian Pyramids or Stonehenge!  Massage therapy has been around since the beginning of mankind, many thousands of years ago.  Now, as always, don’t take my word for it, see what the experts have to say!

A Brief History of Massage 
By Robert Noah Calvert

Note: 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 MagazineMassage & 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.

Massage…is a very ancient form of treatment, so ancient that one may consider its history to be as old as that of mankind and its beginnings prehistoric.
-Dr. Emil A.G. Kleen, Massage and Medical Gymnastics, 1921.


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 therapeutic tool.
  • 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.

Touch Part of Human Social System

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 therapies.

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.

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