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Pages from History: 
by Robert Noah Calvert

Swedish Massage

Peter Henry LingSwedish massage did not originate in Sweden, nor was it created by a Swede. Also, in Sweden there is no "Swedish massage"; instead, massage is referred to almost universally as "classic massage." And in most of Europe the term classic massage is much more prevalent than Swedish massage. But in America, the term classic massage is used very little, while Swedish massage is considered the classic and most basic of all massage methods.

And so the term "Swedish massage" is a misnomer in a number of ways. I don’t know of a massage textbook written during the last 100 years that does not attribute Swedish massage to Peter Henry Ling (1776-1837), a Swede. Setting aside the argument that Swedish massage is a misnomer and would be more historically correct if it were called classic massage, Peter Ling was not the creator of Swedish massage. This may come as a shock to many readers, but it is absolutely true. Peter Ling is not the "father of Swedish massage," because Swedish massage was not a part of Ling’s Swedish Gymnastic Movements nor the curriculum of the Royal Central Gymnastic Institute founded by Ling in 1813.

Swedish massage is defined in large part by the original strokes that compose its method: effleurage (stroking), petrissage (kneading), tapotement (striking), and frictions (rubbing), with vibration added later. The French terms - effleurage, petrissage, frictions (massage a’ frictions) and tapotement - were never used by Peter Ling, by any of his successors nor by the Central Gymnastic Institute. So where did these terms come from?

Dutch practitioner Johan Georg Mezger (1838-1909) is generally credited (by physicians such as Emil Kleen and Richard Hael, who researched the origins of massage and gymnastics) as the man who adopted the French names to denote the basic strokes under which he systemized massage as we know it today, as Swedish or classic massage. Somehow, the term Swedish Movement System was transposed to Swedish Massage System sometime during the second half of the 19th century. Ling’s system was the Swedish Movement System or Swedish Gymnastic Movement System. This may be how he has become incorrectly associated for so long with Swedish massage. When the first books were written about Ling's Swedish Gymnastic System, the writers used the French terms so prevalent since Mezger's use of them. Later writers evidently attributed the French terms to Ling because of this.1

George Taylor, M.D., writing in 1885, uses the terms "clappings, knockings, stroking, kneading, pullings, shakings and vibratings" as the passive movements used by Ling in his Swedish gymnastic system. However, he gives very little attention to describing those movements. This may be explained first because Ling provided no explanations and second by the following passage from Taylor: "But the employment of duplicated [passive] movements, it must be confessed, is attended with difficulties that will prevent their general use as a medical resource. An ordinary course of medical instruction does not confer the necessary qualifications for their successful application; the tact necessary to prescribe and apply them properly is only acquired by long and patient practice, and the labor is excessively severe."

Even so, by 1890 a number of physicians and non-physicians had published books describing in detail with text and illustrations the massage movements we now refer to as Swedish Massage. And Swedish, or classic, massage was used extensively in a number of sanitariums, including the great one run by John Harvey Kellogg, M.D., and other establishments in Europe and North America.

These writings and use of massage movements successfully ended the commingling of massage with any of the gymnastic or movement systems found so prevalent earlier in the century and brought about the advent of massage as a stand-alone therapeutic tool for the first time in its long history. And the first to stand alone were the massage methods systemized by Mezger and expanded upon ever since.

Footnote
1. Benjamin, Patricia, "Notations to the General Principles of Gymnastics by Pehr Henrik Ling." Lars Agren and Patricia Benjamin, trans., Journal of the American Massage Therapy Association, winter 1987.


Robert Noah Calvert is the founder and CEO of Massage Magazine. The material for this column comes from Calvert's book, The History of Massage published in February 2002 by Healing Arts Press.