Pages from History: 
by Robert Noah Calvert

Slabs, Couches and Tables

This is the first of installment in new column on the history of massage equipment, tools and products. The history of massage has been largely forgotten, and much of it is yet to be revealed. Learning about the past can instill pride and create traditions, as it has in many other professions. In an industry that is sometimes tainted by allusions to its relationship with prostitution and sexuality, it is important to understand that massage has a rich and long history that has nothing to do with these elements of human activity. In an industry striving for recognition, with a history virtually unknown and unappreciated, telling the story of its past can instill self-respect – and the knowledge that massage has a long and significant past.

The first so-called massage tables were used during the time of the Greeks and Romans, and were marble or wood slabs called plinths. These were used in the great gymnasiums of Greece from about 800 B.C. to 146 B.C.; and in the palatial baths of the Roman Empire from about 300 B.C. to A.D. 476.

1878 Massage CouchThe term "massage table" is less than 100 years in use, arriving sometime during the late 1920s. Prior to this, devices used for massage were called couches, and were truly pieces of furniture. These were used during the Victorian era of the late 19th century and were stuffed with horse hair, but were upholstered with velvet or similar material. They were quite cushy in their comfort, compared to the physician’s exam table, and fashionably colored in the warm, rich hues of the era.

The next generation of massage tables were medical examination tables. Usually made of solid oak, they had various adjustments and were designed for multiple uses, massage being one (physical exams and surgical procedures were two others). The padding on these exam tables was horse hair covered with heavy leather. Horse hair was the most widely used stuffing because it was resistant to insects or other damage, whereas cotton and straw were not.

Between 1910 and 1925 electric vibrating tables were manufactured for use primarily1910 Massage Table in sanitariums and physicians’ offices. These were solid wood with no cushions, except those that might be added for a thinner person’s comfort.

A stationary massage table used after World War I was made from common woods with cotton or straw padding under a thin plastic covering. The first portable massage table was developed around 1930 and was made of a wood frame with metal or wood legs. Portable massage tables of this period were quite sophisticated in their design and quality, especially those that had mechanisms to unfold the legs and fold them back again as the table was opened and closed.

Electric Vibrating TableThe Battlecreek Company, of Battlecreek, Michigan, manufactured the first light-weight massage table, an aluminum folding portable table introduced in the 1940s.

The stationary table presented by George Downing in his 1972 book, The Massage Book, was a homemade model copied by many practitioners until later in that decade, when commercially manufactured tables became more readily available.

Neither the first stationary nor portable massage tables contained face holes. TheFirst Face Hole Table face hole cut into the head of a stationary or portable table appeared in the late 1940s. The face cradle that attaches to the end of the massage table was first introduced in the 1980s.

Today’s models are ergonomically designed, with special alloy tubing or specialty woods and multi-layered padding that comes in a variety of colors and styles. Specialty tables, such as those with removal stomach-holes designed for working on pregnant women; extra-wide table tops for working on large clients or doing special types of bodywork; built-in spa-therapy water tubs; and those which fold to lie flat on the ground for Asian therapies, are among the numerous types available today.

Robert Noah Calvert is the founder and CEO of MASSAGE Magazine. The material for this column comes from two sources: the World of Massage Museum’s collections and Calvert’s book, The History of Massage, published in February 2002 by Healing Arts Press.

Pages from History: 
by Robert Noah Calvert