NEW - Nivati adds financial wellness tool! Learn More

April 14, 2015 Amelia Wilcox

The History of Chair Massage: The Surprising Backstory

The inventor of the chair massage should win a Nobel Peace Prize, or at least be nominated. That being said, who should we credit?

In our modern society chock full of office workers that are slaves to the computer and all the terrible postures that come with it, chair massage is a godsend. Chair massage without even having to leave the office easily brings this relaxing and restorative therapy to the masses. But we didn’t come up with the concept. So who did?

Massage dates back to the earliest records of human existence depicted on Japanese block prints and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

These people performed massage with the belief that if you can bring the body to a state of calm, relaxation, and harmony (also known as homeostasis), the body will be able to fight off demons, viruses, and infection.

History of Chair Massage in Egypt

This made bodywork the cure for most ailments. Massage was performed on a naked body with the use of oils and herbs massaged directly into the skin. A type of seated massage was performed just as much—if not more than—any other type.

History of Shiatsu

It seems to be the Japanese who began giving massages on a fully clothed client. This may have started in the early 1900s with the origins of the Japanese form of bodywork called shiatsu. Shiatsu is a form of body work that seeks to balance body energy to bring the body to a homeopathic state.

Related: Understanding Seated Massage

In 1912, Tokujiro Namikoshi, known as the father of shiatsu, wanted to provide a more modest and convenient form of healthcare. Shiatsu derives from the Japanese words “shi,” which means finger, and “atsu,” which means pressure. Using only the fingertips, and sometimes the palms, shiatsu uses pressure to adjust natural energy flow, allowing the body to heal itself. Namikoshi has worked with many well-known people during his time, including Helen Keller who he trained to be a shiatsu practitioner. His thumbs became so valuable he had each of them insured for $10k.

Shiatsu, being a type of body work known for its ability be done modestly in public, and quickly, made this very popular among an increasingly industrialized culture. Eastern ideas of healthcare have always centered around prevention of sickness first and foremost – with the understanding that a sick worker would cost the company much more money than it would to provide preventative care. Thus seated massage was industrialized.

Massage Comes to the States

After traveling through Asia to learn of the health practices of other cultures, J.H. Kellogg brought massage therapy to the United States. At the time, Americans viewed massage as barbaric and associated it with prostitution.

Kellogg professed that he learned the massage techniques in Sweden to make his findings more acceptable to the American public, and thus we get “Swedish massage.” Kellogg’s other contributions to healthy living include the breakfast cereal Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and a manual called “The Art of Massage,” which is still being taught in massage schools today.

Chair Massage Origins

In 1968, David Palmer, a massage therapist in California, created the first massage chair design called “a chair in a box.” It weighed 28 pounds and was designed specifically for performing chair massages safely and effectively without the client falling to one side, or the practitioner having to hold him up.

Palmer popularized the concept of chair massage with his article “A Brief History of Chair Massage” in Positive Health Magazine in 1998. As a massage therapist he began using chair massage to educate the public on the benefits of massage.

Related: Benefits of Workplace Chair Massage: Is It Really Worth It?

By using chair massage, all therapists from all walks of life, whether they be structural, sports, shiatsu, Thai, reflexology, Swedish, or many other types of practitioners are able to build a client base for a successful practice, all while bringing peace, relaxation, and homeostasis to mankind. And if that doesn’t deserve a Nobel Peace Prize, I don’t know what does!

Amelia Wilcox

Amelia Wilcox is the Founder and CEO of Nivati, a leader in corporate massage and employee mental health support since 2010. Her high-growth B2B company provides employee stress management tools that arm businesses with actionable data and positive employee experiences to improve wellbeing, boost morale, and increase engagement.

Amelia has exponentially grown her company from a solo living-room service business to an international technology brand.

Recently listed as a Forty Under 40, Fast 50, Inc 5000 Twice awarded National Woman-Owned Small Business of the Year

Licenses, Certifications & Memberships
Licensed Massage Therapist since 2002
Member of American Massage Therapy Association
Served on Utah Worksite Wellness Council from 2012-2015

Attended Utah College of Massage Therapy
Educated in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the University of Utah

Massage Magazine (AMTA's publication)