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The History of Massage Tools

The use of tools - other than one’s hands, feet, or other body parts - applied to the human body in conjunction with or to supplement massage is an ancient practice. The oldest massage tool yet to be discovered is supposedly a Neolithic jade ritual blade from the Longshan culture of China, dating back to the Shang dynasty (circa 2000-1500 B.C.E.). The stone is believed to have been used either hot or cold for placing on tired and sore muscles. But the ancient stave or strigil was used more than 1,000 years before this time by the people of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Later, the strigil was used extensively by the Greeks and Romans to scrape oils from the body and produce friction as part of the process of massage, cold or hot baths, exercise or competitive games.

strigilThe athletes' strigil, a device used by Roman athletes or their alliptae ("rubbers") circa 175 B.C.E. to scrape the skin of dust, oil, and sweat after physical exercise. Modern rendering, from written accounts.

Along with the strigil, the ancient Greeks and Romans used pieces of cloth made of wool or cotton to apply friction to the body. Sometimes the treatments were harsh and drew blood from the recipient due to the course cloth and extensive friction. Ferules, made of ebony, wood or bone, were straight tools used for tapping—or what today we call tapotement.

Utilized in association with hot or steam baths, flagellation is a form of tapotement delivered by beating the body with twigs or leaved branches, usually of birch or green nettles. Flagellation is thought to be helpful in cases of atrophy and emaciation. One 20th-century writer claims it is also used "for its erotogenic [sexually exciting] effects."

The use of heated or chilled stones is not unique to any particular part of the world, but the Chinese seem to have used this method extensively. In the World of Massage Museum (WOMM) we have a 1,000-year-old jade massage knuckle that was used to rub the body. It may have been heated or cooled, just as river rock and other stones were used. Jade, marble, basalt and many kinds of exotic stones that are dense and maleable were the most commonly used.

Jade massage knuckleThis Chinese Jade massage knuckle, about 1,000 years old, was used to rub the body.

About the same time the Chinese came up with tools carved from wood—or, more often, animal bones—used to apply pressure to points or replace the fingers for digging into trouble spots, the English were using tools as well. The Chinese created wooden needles or bats, while the English carved bone tools used for treating gout.

Chinese wooden needleA Chinese wooden needle was used instead of the fingers to dig into the body's pressure points.
Chinese batThis Chinese bat was a portable tool for massage, replacing the fist or hand and used to pat on a limb or the body.

Tools used by ancient peoples were usually made of natural products indigenous to their particular environment. For example, the guava tree that grows in the Pacific islands lent itself to the shape of a device called a Laau lomi-lomi stick, as well as rounded lava rocks called lomi-balls. Polynesians also utilized walking sticks to support and balance themselves so they could do a walking massage on their subjects.

Laau lomi-lomi sticksWooden Hawaiian Laau lomi-lomi sticks are used for self-massage of the back, and applied to specific pressure points. Originally the balls were lava rock used to clean or scrape the skin after a lomi-lomi session. (Image courtesy of San Anselmo, from Lomi-Lomi Hawaiian Massage.)
massage toolsThe instruments carved and used by the British admiral Henry in 1787 for self-massage: (1) a corked-head hammer covered in leather; (2) a wooden paddle for beating the heels and soles of the feet; and (3,4,5) carved bones for rubbing various parts of the body, with knobs to work among the tendons.

In the 19th century, the development of massage tools increased - and so the next installment will begin at this prolific era for tools of the trade. Continue to Part Two






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