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Re-enactors at Colonial Williamsburg.
Photo: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

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Colonial Williamsburg Has a Luxury Historical Spa

A brief history of bathing.

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If you were to travel back in time to British Colonial America, I suspect that it wouldn't be the smell of dung in the streets that would be most repulsive to your modern nose, but the scent of the people.

Thoughts about dirty bodies and bad smells, however, were not what was running through my mind as I twirled in the massive egg-shaped tub at the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg, a freestanding three-story palace of beauty and wellness located on the grounds of Virginia's history theme park slash open-air classroom. I was busy trying not to fall asleep in a hot bath after sleeping fitfully in my room at the historic Brick House Tavern, a real 18th-century colonial house with a perilously tall four-poster bed and rough floors, located right on Duke of Gloucester Street within the Williamsburg complex.

The Spa of Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Photo: Newport News Daily Press/Getty Images

An academic historian by training, I was in town during the January pause in most park activities to try the Century-Inspired Signature Experiences: luxury spa treatments informed by history. The spa stands a few minutes away from the main historical drag in Williamsburg, directly next to the Williamsburg Inn, an upscale hotel that has played host to monarchs and presidents since the 1930s. The spa is a necessity for a hotel of that caliber and also a source of revenue; profits go to the nonprofit Williamsburg Foundation, which helps fund park operations. Most patrons enter the building beneath arbors after passing through a garden arranged around a decorative pool with a fountain in the center. Despite visiting during the slowest period of the year, I encountered several other patrons, most of them chic seniors. I was told that during the winter holidays, the pre-treatment lounges nearly overflowed with women, men, and couples of all ages.

I never expected to find a world-class spa located on the grounds of a park that's popular with class trip groups, but it makes sense when you think about the moments when one desperately needs a spa day. Denise Haddaway, the spa director, told me that while the history-inspired treatments that brought me to Virginia are an important part of offerings for a spa at a historical park, the most popular service is a classic massage. Mothers, in particular, escape to the spa during vacations and the winter holidays. A 60-minute classic massage costs $110 plus tax and tip, but it also entitles one to linger at the facility to soak in the whirlpools, enjoy some time in the steam room, and even order in (for an additional charge) a light meal from the Williamsburg Inn for the entire day of the service. Patrons don’t have to be Colonial Williamsburg hotel guests; online reviews and spa staff confirm that locals also patronize the spa.

Something that receives little attention in mainstream history is the fact that the treatments I received at the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg better reflect the bathing practices of slaves and free people of color than white colonists. White people of the time rarely bathed in the modern sense. The removal of all clothes prior to treatments, exfoliation, massage, and submersion in water for the sake of getting clean were exceptional to Colonial Americans to the point that when they are noted in diaries and records from the time, they're discussed as a novelty, usually done by the rich and eccentric. Within my pristine bath egg, I enjoyed the sort of full-body, steamy soak Queen Elizabeth I only took once per month.

In the early modern period (roughly 1450 to 1789), very wealthy people fully bathed a few times each year, and some not at all. Even for people with servants and slaves, it was simply too much work to haul bathing tubs and water around frequently. A well-to-do Quaker woman, upon finally trying the shower box her husband installed in 1799, noted that it was the first time her whole body had been wet in 28 years. Daily cleaning focused on visible areas such as the hands, neck, and face. Pitchers and basins weren't standard features in middle-class American bedrooms until the mid-1800s. All the way into post-World War II Western Europe, people would bathe their whole bodies about once per week — until running water in homes and individual apartments became the norm.

While bathing in public baths was common in earlier eras, starting around the 16th century, early modern people focused on the cleanliness of their clothing rather than their bodies. Linen undershirts were used to absorb scents, protect the outer clothing, and serve as one's "public skin"; even modest wardrobes tended to include multiple undershirts. Between washes, outer clothes like bodices, jackets, and skirts would be powdered and brushed to clean them, much as dry shampoo is used between full hair washes today. Clothed bodies were the default due to ideas about the spread of disease and a cultural shift away from communal nudity. The idea of getting fully naked to have sex was considered so kinky that early modern houses of prostitution charged more for the transgressive service.

To mask odors — unpleasant even to some of the noses accustomed to the smells of the day — scented powders, waters, and perfumes were used almost everywhere by those who could afford the luxury. Back in Europe, the rulers of late Renaissance Florence used perfume in gloves, pendants, and belts; to scent their bedrooms; and even raised civet cats that supplied musk for perfumes.

Before the discovery of germs, bad odors were thought to be how diseases circulated, and fragrance was the antidote. Documents from areas struck by plague were either burned or "perfumed" before they could pass into unaffected areas. Paradoxically, it was fear of exposing and weakening the body to bad, disease-causing odors that contributed to the rejection of whole-body bathing.

My spa visit began with being escorted down to the changing room and sauna area on the basement level. There, visitors can lock away their personal belongings and enjoy the steam room, a rain-head shower, and whirlpools (the whirlpool was out of service the day I visited). An elevator took me from the lower level up to the second floor pre-treatment relaxation lounge, where padded chaise longues, a display of spoons filled with almonds and dried edamame, and teas along with what I think of as spa water (plentifully iced water in a glass urn with visible slices of citrus fruits) awaited. With the exception of the nosegays displayed in tiny vases outside each treatment room (a nod to the old practice of carrying flowers to deal with bad smells) and the custom tea blends, the interior has the look and feel of a luxury spa that could be located anywhere.

Inside the Colonial Williamsburg Spa.
Photo: Tracy E. Robey

The service that convinced me to visit Colonial Williamsburg, a place I didn't even like as a history-obsessed middle schooler, was the African Traditional Bath & Strengthening Massage ($285). Having just encountered The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within US Slave Culture by Vincent Woodard, the thought of receiving an African-inspired treatment at a luxury spa in a former slave state was frankly stomach-turning. At the same time, in recent years, Colonial Williamsburg has forcibly condemned and moved to symbolically obliterate obvious signs of racism on the grounds. An official blog post details how doorstops in the shape of racist caricatures were recast into a plaque bearing words from Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech and given to the historic local First Baptist Church, founded secretly by slaves and free blacks in 1776. Rarely do we see such powerful damnatio memoriae in the modern era.

My African Traditional Bath & Strengthening Massage began with a glass of cold spring water, a ritual hearkening back to the days when "taking the waters" meant mainly drinking mineral water for health. Afterwards, I was escorted to a dimly lit room with side-by-side massage tables in one section of the room and the aforementioned large bathtub in another. The massage therapist proceeded to mix up a batch of dry herbs minus rosemary, to which I'm allergic. The mixture was rubbed into my skin and then brushed from it onto the floor. After the dry brushing, I entered the tub via highly polished, freestanding stairs. The bath was already filled with warm water and arnica oil, and I soaked in candlelight with the sound of spa music in the background while drinking more water and applying a cool compress to my forehead as instructed. After about 25 minutes, a knock at the door let me know to dry off and slide under the sheet on the massage table in preparation for a shea butter massage so relaxing I kept falling asleep.

The African Traditional Bath & Strengthening Massage room.
Photo: Tracy E. Robey

I wanted to know if the treatment I received bore resemblance to the bathing and beauty practices of African-born and -descended people in the 19th century. I contacted a former professor of mine, Steeve O. Buckridge, Ph.D., an expert on African and Caribbean history with a research focus on material culture, gender, and dress, to learn more about slave and free person beauty practices. According to Buckridge, slaves in the Caribbean would gather after the conclusion of work at natural springs, where they would cool off, relax, socialize, and rinse the day's dirt, oil, and sweat from their bodies. At a time when even pitchers and basins were uncommon in white colonialists' bedrooms, slaves' — many of whom came from West Africa, with a strong culture of bodily cleanliness — accounts note their horror at the lack of bathing by white owners. Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative points out that among his Igbo group in what is today Southeastern Nigeria, the washing of hands before meals was instilled in children and considered a religious necessity.

Acknowledging the bathing culture of slaves in no way suggests that slavery was any less cruel and inhumane than we already know it to be. In the Caribbean, some of the most famous natural springs were discovered by escaped slaves, according to Buckridge. In the mountains, escaped slaves would wash their bodies and cleanse their wounds in the water from natural springs they found; the healing properties of the mineral water were discovered when the former slaves' wounds healed faster than usual.

The day after my African-inspired treatment, I had a 20th-century Recovery Soak Bath in the very same tub. While the return to my bathing egg was welcome (and in keeping with modern American bathing practices across races and social statuses), the delicious 18th-century syrup of ginger and orange sugar body scrub and shower — based on syrups consumed orally for digestive purposes — bore little relation to the realities of early modern bathing. Then again, it would be difficult to sell spa-goers looking for a luxury experience on a $200-plus treatment involving switching out one’s undershirt and maybe washing one’s hands. Maybe.

Running a luxury spa that turns a profit and somehow aligns with the historical mission of Colonial Williamsburg can’t be easy. The treatments I tried seemed more or less connected to something in the history of Colonial America, some more than others. But most spa patrons don’t seem to really want authentic; they want a break from the authentically stressful experience of dealing with modern family life, and that’s where the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg shines. As a historian, I’m as lukewarm as reused bath water on the authenticity of some of the treatments. As a beauty writer, I think you should plunge in as if taking your annual bath.


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