To complement “The Roots of Massage Therapy,” by Patricia J. Benjamin, Ph.D., L.M.T., in the November 2015 issue of MASSAGE Magazine. Summary: The words masseuse and masseur carry very different connotations today than they did in the early days of massage in the U.S. Here is how they were introduced, and how and why they evolved.
Editor’s note: Taking a look back in time can illuminate the very long and sometimes difficult professional path massage therapists have traveled to become the respected complementary health care professionals they are today.
The following is an excerpt from the new book, The Emergence of the Massage Therapy Profession in North America: A History in Archetypes, by Patricia J. Benjamin, Ph.D., L.M.T., published by permission of Curties-Overzet Publications.
This selection discusses the history of the titles masseuse and masseur, and the connotations that have developed around them as massage has evolved over the years.
Archetypes of masseuse and masseur
The archetypes masseuse and masseur supplanted the medical gymnast in popularity in North America by the end of the 19th century. The system of manipulative treatment developed by Dr. Mezger of Amsterdam, called massage, migrated across the Atlantic late in the century and promptly took over as the hottest trend in manual therapy. In time, massage became the generic word for manipulative methods in general. Massagist was a gender-neutral expression for massage practitioners, but masseuse for women and masseur for men turned out to be the preferred terms in common parlance.
The connotation of the labels masseuse and masseur was, at first, that the practitioners were educated in the medical sciences and had a highly developed skill set. The use of French terms gave the practice a European and upmarket flare. Doctors like Douglas Graham of Boston advocated for massage as a medical specialty, while society ladies sought general massage to help them keep up with their social duties. The occupation of masseuse became a legitimate and upright one for women in Victorian times, often linked with the nurse, providing a respectable means of livelihood outside of the home. Masseurs worked in a variety of venues, chiefly health-related and athletic settings.
Rubbers vs. masseuses and masseurs
Predictably, it was not long before old-fashioned rubbers—[those people who assisted physicians, worked on people in private practice or massaged athletes]—began calling themselves masseuses and masseurs, confusing the situation for doctors and the general public. There was no regulation of the occupation at this time; the quality of massage education varied widely, sometimes occurring in hospital programs, sometimes in private schools or by apprenticeship. Some individuals set up massage practices without any training at all. To add another layer of complexity, massage was beginning to be used as a cover for prostitution. This was the beginning of the eventual descent of the word masseuse into ill-repute. Professional societies were founded in response to such issues, creating forces in support of professionalization of massage practitioners.
Fostered at first by MDs, massage was eventually integrated with the Swedish movement cure. By the early 20th century it was recognized with other drugless healing arts as a limited branch of medicine.
Along with nurses, masseuses and masseurs were providing general massage as a restorative measure by the latter 19th century. This was a novelty in the context of manual therapy, which was typically applied locally or regionally for treatment of specific pathologies. It is not that the concept of rubbing and moving the body for its general health benefits was unknown in Western civilization—it was alive and well in the folk traditions of many countries, and in establishments like the Turkish baths that offered shampooing and rubdowns. The British in particular would have been familiar with practices in far-flung parts of the empire such as lomi-lomi in Hawaii and shampooing in India. However, in the practice of massage in the Mezger tradition general treatment was a departure from the norm.
The novel development was the idea that the scientific system of massage could be applied by trained operators for its more general healing outcomes, and as a revitalizing as well as remedial agent. General massage opened up a whole new avenue of practice for masseuses and masseurs in North America.
General massage for hygienic purposes, that is, for promoting health, became fashionable among society ladies and gentlemen in Victorian times. It was seen as a tonic—invigorating, restorative, and refreshing. Following the paradigm of Swedish gymnastics, massage was considered a type of passive exercise, “a great remedy to ‘tone up’ the system and to help the society lady to keep up her social duties.”1 General massage would help get people who were weak or overtired mentally or physically back on their feet, actually as well as figuratively. The Swedish system originally called for the gradual substitution of active exercises for passive movements as a patient got better, but general massage was ultimately deemed to be valuable in its own right as an alternative or complement to active exercises for those in good health.
The organization of a general massage as a hygienic measure was roughly the same as for medical applications, and included both soft tissue and joint movement techniques. However, performing massage with the person on a bed was replaced by staging it on a couch or padded table, both of which were standard pieces of equipment used for the Swedish movement cure. The massage table became an essential piece of equipment that evolved over time to meet the unique needs of masseuses and masseurs.
North America was ahead of Europe in embracing hygienic general massage. Graham complained about not being able to find a good massage while travelling abroad:
General massage for its tonic and sedative effects is almost unknown on the continent of Europe, except in the most ordinary form of rubbing. In the summer of 1889 I could find no one in Amsterdam to give me general massage to rest me from the fatigue of travelling. It has been used for this purpose, as well as to overcome fatigue from other causes, more or less skillfully in the city of Boston for the past thirty years.2
Masseuses who had trained in continental Europe and immigrated to North America in the early 20th century were seldom proficient in general massage, since the focus there remained on the treatment of specific pathologies. Nissen advised these newcomers “to learn general massage as quickly as possible, and also to learn how American patients are treated, and even to take a short course of study before they visit the physicians with their cards.”3 In his estimation, massage schools in the United States had become just as good as those overseas, with a broader perspective and a more practical approach. To masseuses from Sweden who scorned general massage Nissen replied, “But when the customer (I can hardly call her patient) prefers the massage as a mode of exercise which she enjoys and therefore finds it beneficial, I think the masseuses ought to be thankful that there are so many well-to-do women who are willing to employ them.”4
It was a watershed moment in the evolution of the massage therapy profession in North America when masseuses and masseurs embraced the practice of general massage, especially as applied for health promotion. This was a logical development within the context of the Swedish movement cure system given that practitioners were trained for both hygienic and medical applications of movement. So, general massage for health fell easily within the scope of practice of masseuses and masseurs coming out of schools that taught the Swedish system. And indeed, it would become the mainstay of masseuses and masseurs in decades to come in the guise of “Swedish massage,” a term used by many to denote general massage even today.
Masseuses and masseurs became more independent by the beginning of the 20th century. Besides working for physicians and in hospitals, massage practitioners were finding employment elsewhere; for example, masseurs were needed in the increasing number of men’s clubs, athletic associations, and Turkish baths. Entrepreneurs launched massage businesses in cities and small towns, attracting customers of their own. Massage establishments helped meet the demand created by the increasing popularity of general massage for overall health and by a rising middle class that could afford what was once considered a luxury for the rich.
The storefront massage establishment was acceptable, even for masseuses, at a time when business opportunities for women were still very limited. During the feminist movement of the late 19th century, women made inroads into traditionally male territory, including opening stores such as beauty salons and dress and millinery shops that catered to other women. The French word “parlor,” often adopted by masseuses for their businesses, was consistent with the language of the time and gave their establishments an aura of European stylishness. Much later “massage parlor” became inseparably associated with a house of ill repute, but in those early days it was just another name for a legitimate massage business run by women practitioners.
A broader scope
In the period before strict regulation, independent massage practitioners had a largely unlimited scope of practice. Masseuses, many of whom were also nurses, were sometimes hired by customers to give treatments outside of a doctor’s direct care. Massage specialists from the Swedish tradition had practices that ranged from treatment of pathologies to health and fitness; they were viewed by the public at large as health care providers and increasingly sought out for independent treatments of various types.
Masseuses and masseurs who worked independently were following in the footsteps of lay practitioners who had gone before, the most closely allied being the rubbers of the early 19th century. Indeed the terms rubbers, manipulators, and masseuses and masseurs were being used interchangeably well into the 20th century. Medical gymnasts had been working independently for decades and paved the way for masseuses and masseurs, especially for those coming through the Swedish gymnastic system.
- Nissen, H. (1920). Practical Massage and Corrective Exercises with Applied Anatomy, 4th edition. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company, Publishers. 138.
- Graham, D. (1902). A Treatise on Massage, 3rd Edition. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company. 48.
- (1920). 138.
About the Author
Patricia J. Benjamin, Ph.D., L.M.T., is a massage therapist and educator who has been researching and writing about the history of massage for three decades. A former American Massage Therapy Association National Historian, she seeks to enlighten and inspire with stories about the profession’s past, sharing this remarkable chronicle with massage therapists and others interested in natural health and integrative health care. The Emergence of the Massage Therapy Profession in North America is published by Curties-Overzet Publications. For inquiries or to purchase the book or ebook, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.