A warm, soothing bath is an oft-used remedy for the stress brought on by a hard day at work. For thousands of years, however, a nice, long soak was seen as a remedy for far more intractable ills, among them kidney stones, infertility and even paralysis.
Many of the ancient Greeks who sought cures at temples of the healing god Asclepius were given a popular prescription: take a bath. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates also told his patients to take baths, varying the recommended temperature based on his diagnosis: hot for pneumonia and back pain, for example, cold for swelling and painful joints.
Bath treatments were even more popular in ancient Rome, particularly after a series of soaks rid Emperor Augustus (who reigned from 27 BC to AD 14) of a mysterious malady that no other treatment could cure.
In those days (and for many, many centuries to follow), baths weren’t taken in the privacy of one’s home; in the city and the country, bathing was a social affair.
In its heyday, the city of Rome boasted nearly 1,000 public bathhouses, and when the Roman Senate went into recess, the political elite retreated to Campania, where they soaked shoulder-to-shoulder in the rural area’s hot mineral springs.
But once these ancient empires crumbled and the rise of the Christian church began, public bathing (the communal, naked affair that it was) was denounced as the domain of the devil.
Outside of Europe, healing baths stayed popular and were prescribed for ever-more-specific ills. In the early Middle Ages, the Persian physician Rhazes prescribed hot baths for treating smallpox and measles. His compatriot Avicenna said consumption (as tuberculosis was once known) could be cured by a soak in sea water.
During the Renaissance, bath therapy reemerged in Europe. Often, pilgrims in search of cures drank the mineral waters they immersed themselves in: Leonardo da Vinci was fond of the vintage at San Pellegrino, and Michelangelo credited the waters at Fiuggi with breaking up his kidney stone.
By the 17th century, soaking in the healing waters of a “spa” (by some accounts the word derived from the Latin phrase “sanus per aquam,” or “health through water”) was wildly popular. The mineral-rich waters of Bath, England, were said to be particularly good for colic, paralysis, rheumatism and urinary disease. The waters at Vichy, France, were famous for curing paralysis, and those at Forges, France, for the help they offered the infertile.
The popularity of natural springs offered tempting opportunities for entrepreneurs. In 1695, an English doctor extracted the salts from the springs at Epsom, creating what would become a household pharmaceutical staple.
A century later, shrewd businessmen -- including a Swiss watchmaker named Jacob Schweppe -- began hawking artificial mineral waters they claimed were as good as those at the finest European springs. (Schweppe’s name, of course, remains attached to one of the world’s largest soft-drink makers.)
In the 18th and 19th centuries, European immigrants brought their taste for spa cures with them to the U.S., establishing restorative resorts at Berkeley Springs (once known as Medicine Springs) in West Virginia, Saratoga Springs in New York, and Calistoga in California (whose name derives from the phrase “California’s Saratoga.”)
Although European spas, to this day, serve a clinical purpose (in some countries insurance companies will even pick up the tab for a prescribed visit of several weeks’ duration), the U.S. version has evolved into something distinctly American. Most of the 10,000 spas in the U.S. today are non-medicinal “day” spas, places for a quick workout, massage, facial and a “spa” lunch. Often, they don’t even feature a place to soak.
One could say the soaking feature, too, has acquired a uniquely American bent. Since the 1960s, Americans have brought the “sanus per aquam” treatment into the home -- in the form of a whirlpool in the master bath or a hot tub out on the deck.