Note: This article was originally published in the Marinscope community newspapers in December 2003.
It may have begun in the 1960s, when Al and Barbara Garvey built a small wooden soaking tub into a tree in their Fairfax home. But somewhere along the way, Marin County became synonymous with hot tubs.
Of course, it didn’t help that when John Walker Lindh, who was raised in Marin, was found among Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan in 2002, former President George Bush accused Lindh of being “some misguided Marin county hot-tubber.”
Whether by good press or bad, Marin is one of the places in California where hot tubs gained popularity. That may have to do with its proximity to Japan more than anything else, however.
The oldest known spa, or mineral bath, has been traced back to Merano, Italy, where residents organized regular use of a hot spring that’s still in use 5,000 years later. Egyptians are thought to have used therapeutic hot baths as early as 2,000 B.C., and the Greeks were using mineral and thermal baths by 500 B.C. Hippocrates recommended hydrotherapy for the treatment of rheumatism and jaundice.
The Romans, being the social engineers they were, were among the first to create bathhouses where hundreds of citizens could enjoy a hot soak at the same time. Large stone bathtubs were fed by aqueduct systems that carried hot, mineral-infused waters to private rooms, steam rooms (early saunas) or public bathhouses.
Romans brought their bathhouse technology to England when they conquered the country, and English royalty continued to use the waters well into the 20th Century. The waters at Bath, England, are 120 degrees Fahrenheit and contain minerals including calcium, sulfur, potassium and magnesium.
Although Native Americans enjoyed hot springs centuries ago, and many in the United States made use of natural hot springs for therapeutic purposes, it was World War II veterans who introduced the idea of a self-contained hot tub to the Americas.
Those veterans learned the habit while stationed in Japan, where the ofuro — a freestanding tub filled with hot water — has been a family custom for centuries. Tad Irvine, a soldier in the Second World War, had enjoyed the comforts of the ofuro and built one of his own in Stinson Beach in the 1960s to enjoy with his wife, Charlotte. But they had strict rules about who was allowed to use it.
“In 1966, we were invited through a mutual friend for dinner at their house,” Garvey recalls. “They told us about their Japanese bath, and so that was our first experience. In Japan they have communal bathing, but [the Irvines] didn’t believe in it. Only married couples could go in together. You couldn’t go in it with your girlfriend. And when you were finished, somebody else would go.”
Garvey liked the experience, but not the restrictions. “I thought it was a terrific idea, and fell in love with it immediately. So I decided to build myself one.”
He and his wife had recently returned from two years living in Majorca, Spain, although they had lived on a Sausalito houseboat in the early 1960s. After some house hunting, they found a place in Fairfax. Having the space to build his own hot tub was high on Garvey’s list of requirements.
And building it was one of the first things he did — even before moving into the house. Garvey found a company that made water tanks out of redwood, and consulted with the owner. “He thought I was completely crazy,” Garvey recalls.
But the tub was built to Garvey’s specifications — 4 feet in diameter, but deep. Garvey jury-rigged the plumbing and used an old water heater to provide hot water. “I figured out how I was going to fill it up and empty it out and heat the water. There was no idea of a filter system or recirculation system. It was as simple as possible,” he says.
As soon as the Garveys moved into their new house, they began inviting friends over for hot-tub parties. He estimates that, during the summer of 1966, hundreds of people used the tub. “It was incredible. Everyone flipped out over it,” he says.
“If I had any commercial sense at all I would have gone into the business, but I didn’t,” Garvey laughs. He built a dozen or so tubs for friends, all of whom had hot-tub parties of their own. And he taught another friend how to build them — and that friend went into business.
Soon, there were a few hot-tub builders in Marin, including Redwood Hot Tubs, which opened on Shoreline Highway in Mill Valley in 1973. Long-time hot-tub salesman Jim Henderson, owner of Marquis Spas in Novato, took a job at Redwood in 1976. “Work was hard to find; there was a recession,” he says. He took the hot-tub job because they needed someone who had a background in plumbing — Henderson’s family business.
“In those days, they were redwood barrels, and much more of a construction project. We had to build them by hand,” Henderson says. There were so few vendors, Redwood was getting contracts to build tubs as far away as San Jose and even Reno, NV.
At the time, the clientele was varied. Although some people bought the tubs for therapeutic purposes, most buyers were young homeowners who were seeking a means of entertainment and relaxation with friends, Henderson says. By then, tubs could hold 10 to 12 people and constituted a huge outlay of money — up to 10 or 15 percent of the value of the home.
Today, hot tubs cost about the same amount of money — anywhere from $2,000 to more than $4,000 — but are more like 1 percent of the value of a home. Although they’re still purchased primarily by young homeowners, it’s for a different purpose.
“Hot tubs have become a way for families to be together and for kids to learn about water safety,” Henderson says. “The people who are looking will often say they’ve been thinking about buying for a long time, and sometimes there is a specific medical reason, like spine or neck pain, or rehabilitation from an injury.”
Hot tubs now come in a variety of models and sizes, from simple, round tubs with a few jets to large, rectangular facilities with built-in reclining areas, dozens of jets and light shows. Some look more like sport utility vehicles than relaxation chambers. They’re named things like “Utopia” and “Paradise.”
Mostly, people come to the showroom to find something that will help them cope with day-to-day tension. “There’s a lot of stress in this area,” Henderson says. Buying a hot tub can be a bit like creating a home spa, “turning the home into a kind of vacation destination.”
Henderson’s showroom, one of the biggest in the Bay Area, includes a backroom with trial tubs “so folks can give them a test drive,” he says.
When asked about the stereotypes associating Marin with these tubs, Henderson recounts the story of the Irvines’ historic Stinson Beach soaker, as well as Cyra McFadden’s 1970s book “The Serial,” a satirical look at Marinites’ extravagant lifestyles. “She talked about hot tubs and peacock feathers. There was a little of that going on, especially in southern Marin and West Marin,” he says.
These days, there are more than a dozen hot-tub vendors in Marin County, from Henderson’s showroom in Novato to Stellar Spa in Corte Madera. For those who can’t afford to install their own — or whose homes don’t provide space for one — there are local spas like Joseph F. Smith’s Massage Therapy Center in Fairfax and Shibui Gardens in San Anselmo.
Despite one former president’s snide remarks, the pastime continues to be a favorite among Marinites. The association between the two is so strong, in fact, that when Lindh was captured, newspapers as far away as England focused articles on Marin’s liberal, party-going reputation.
Bush’s remarks “fed into the popular notion of Marin as a home for superannuated hippies, lying around in hot tubs listening to Grateful Dead tapes with a joint in one hand and a glass of chardonnay in the other,” according to the UK Guardian. Bush was so chastened that he wrote an apology promising to “never use ‘hot tub’ and ‘Marin County’ in the same sentence again.”
Some, however, are content to let the hot tub fade into history. The Garveys’ bath, which inspired so many, has since rotted away, and Al hasn’t been interested in buying a newer model. “I don’t care for the ones they started building some years ago, the commercial ones made out of plastic,” he says. “That took the life out of it for me. They’re just awful-looking things. I don’t recommend that for anybody.”