The History of Chair Massage The Surprising Backstory - cheerful girl with hands on moms shoulders|painting of ancient Egyptian massage|Tokujiro Namikoshi, known as the father of shiatsu|painting of practicing Shiatsu|Portrait of John Harvey Kellogg, brought massage therapy to the United States|man waiting for an in-office chair massage

The History of Chair Massage: The Surprising Backstory

Kristen Peairs
August 10, 2022
October 9, 2022

This blog post was written by Kristen Peairs, Nutritionist and Meditation Guru. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here

Before there was chair massage, there was just massage, and massage has been around for a very long time. Let’s pause and reflect upon the idea that as long as hands have been a part of human bodies, there has probably been some form of massage. It’s natural! When an area of the body hurts, massage can help. Add a generous dose of compassion, many hours of training, and rigorous certification standards, and we arrive at the doorstep of the Licensed Massage Therapists we have today. Read on to learn more about the history of chair massage.

Currently, the chair massage services provided by Licensed Massage Therapists are an important part of wellness programs offered by businesses to their employees.

For quality massage to be provided within an office environment, it’s helpful to have an easily transportable, compact, and ergonomically designed item for tired workers to rest in while the Massage Therapist does their work. That item is the massage chair. Before the massage chair was invented, massage typically occurred on a table, on cushions, or on the floor, which was effective, but not a good fit for most offices.

Additionally, with the invention of the massage chair, massage became visible to more people. No longer was massage relegated to occurring in dim rooms with low music and client disrobement. Now, massage was being offered in bright environments, with people passing by, and clients remaining dressed.

Before we go any further in exploring the history of chair massage, let’s take a brief look at the history of massage.

Archeological Evidence for Massage

Cultures throughout history have included massage in their healing practices. It was important enough that they created art depicting it and they wrote about it in their texts. In the Pyrenees mountains of southwest Europe, cave paintings from 15000 BCE show a healing practice that looks like massage. In India, Vedic texts penned between 3000 and 150 BCE mention massage. Japan, China, Thailand, Greece, Egypt, and Ancient Rome all have artistic and written evidence that massage was a valued modality in daily life. Homer even spoke of massage in his poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Tui Na: Step One Toward Chair Massage

Drawing our focus toward variations of massage that did not require lubricants such as oils or lotions and was applied to clients who were clothed, let’s look at a technique that was being used in China as early as 1700 BC. This technique is called Tui Na. While it has gone through many changes over the centuries, it still involves basic massage techniques such as squeezing, pinching, tapping, and rolling the body’s soft tissue to support a specific result. A Tui Na practitioner may use their hands, elbows, knees, or feet to effectively manipulate the tissue.

A characteristic of Tui Na that is unique from massage is that it carries within it energy principles from traditional Chinese medicine. It recognizes chi as the life force that flows within the body and includes attention to balancing the patient’s chi as integral for their optimal health.

Shiatsu: Step Two Toward Chair Massage

Shiatsu, a massage technique that originated in Japan in 1912, uses principles from Tui Na, while also integrating knowledge from western medicine. As in Tui Na, Shiatsu patients remain fully clothed throughout the treatment. Differing from Tui Na, a Shiatsu therapist only uses their hands (as opposed to knees, elbows, and feet) to deliver the treatment.

Massage in the United States: Step Three Toward Chair Massage

The History of Chair Massage The Surprising Backstory - cheerful girl with hands on moms shoulders

In the United States, starting in the early 1700s, massage services were provided by “rubbers,” hired by surgeons to help patients recover after surgery.

In the 1800s, medical gymnasts, trained in Sweden, became popular in the United States. They used soft tissue manipulation along with movement to help patients recover from aches, pains, and injuries. Compared to “rubbers,” gymnasts were much more knowledgeable about anatomy and physiology.

By the early 1900s, the terms “Masseuse” and “Masseur” were being used to describe manual therapy (massage) professionals. Licensing was introduced to the profession in 1916 when Agnes Bridget Forbes became the first Licensed Massage Therapist in North America.

The Advent of Chair Massage

In the early 1980’s, David Palmer, a Massage Therapist running a massage school in California, realized that there were not enough massage jobs to employ his graduating students. Considering the problem, he realized that massage needed to be more accessible. Shorter sessions and elimination of travel time were key factors in his plan to increase the profile of massage.

Through trial and error, David created a fifteen-minute massage protocol designed to be performed on a seated client. He began marketing his traveling massage service to companies and Apple computers was one of the first who said, “Yes!”

Quickly, he and his team began running into problems keeping clients supported during the massage. In their relaxed state and comfortably seated on a padded drummer’s stool, the clients would list precariously to one side or the other and the therapist would need to use their own body to keep them safely upright. It was hard on the therapist and challenging for the client.

David decided he needed a new kind of tool that would support the client and the therapist, so he approached Serge Bouyssou, a carpenter, and asked him to build special chair for clients to sit in while receiving a massage. The result was called “a chair in a box.” It weighed twenty-eight pounds, folded up like a suitcase, and was designed specifically for performing chair massages.

By 1986, David was partnered with a manufacturer, had patents in place, and was ready to present his product at a massage professionals convention. The professionals loved his idea and chair massage became a staple in the massage industry.

Today, David Palmer is the person we thank for the ubiquitous opportunities we now have to receive massage in offices, everywhere. Now you know the history of chair massage!

To watch of video chronicling David Palmer’s invention of the massage chair, check out this link: About David Palmer (

For more information about the benefits of chair massage, check out these articles:

If you’re interested in bringing chair massage services into your office, get in touch with us!


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Kristen Peairs
Kristen Peairs
Kristen Peairs is a Registered Dietitian, Licensed Massage Therapist, and Professional Educator. Throughout her 20-year career, she has worked with many people suffering from a diversity of chronic health conditions. Understanding how food affects the brain and the whole body has been a key factor in the success of her healing strategies. At Nivati, she has researched, written, and filmed over 100 health and wellness videos for their content library. Kristen is currently writing a cookbook for people living with food allergies and intolerances.