Most of us do not realize how significant a role the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) has played in the history of the massage therapy profession.
The first YMCA opened in Montreal in 1851, followed a month later by a second one in Boston, and then by rapid spread throughout North American cities. It began as a kind of educational movement offering library facilities, Bible study, and lectures/classes to everyday young men, including immigrants, who might not otherwise have good access.
In 1866, physical education was added as the YMCA’s mission expanded to “supporting Christian values by promoting health in body, mind and spirit.” As what they offered progressed, workout activities, such as classes and games, were often led by medical gymnasts from the Swedish tradition. In addition to the physical activity itself, this tradition included passive movements, massage, hydrotherapy and therapeutic exercise components. As of 1915, workout sessions at the Y were being promoted as “ending with a bath and a rubdown.” By the 1930s, professional masseurs were employed to provide the massage treatment, which was focused on post-activity recovery and supporting fitness.
At a time when gender segregation was the norm in massage therapy, the YMCA was a major employer of male “massage operators” as they called their practitioners. It was also progressive in supporting racial integration in its fitness and massage services.
As the profession went through a difficult time in the 1940s-1960s, the YMCA remained a staunch supporter of massage, as well as a promoter of high standards. In 1942, its masseurs formed the Health Services Operators Society (HCOS) to foster their own continuing education and development as well as to “combat the abuses of commercial bath houses and the unethical conduct of ‘cure-all’ agents in the health field.” Their employer-supported training programs set high professional standards and expanded their range of treatments into injury rehabilitation.
In the post-WW2 “dark days” for massage, the YMCA was one of the few providers that was considered above suspicion by the general public. Massage continued to be a regular offering at the YMCA well into the 1960s.
This photo of a class of YMCA massage operators is from their archives.
by Debra Curties ’84
Ref: Benjamin PJ. The Emergence of the Massage Therapy Profession in North America. Curties-Overzet Publications, 2015