by Sheri Boggs

It starts with a small pink jar of something called "Lucille Young Bust Massage" cream. I've been on my best reporter behavior up until now, but the sight of this antique beauty product is threatening to unravel my composure. It gets worse at the "Pompeian Massage Cream" wall, which is generously covered in old print ads and posters touting the benefits of this miraculous unguent, including such faux advertorials as "Women Prettier To-Day; Expert States Causes." I'm beginning to giggle, and I'm fascinated by a series of old print ads designed to tap into a consumer's bottomless insecurity about one's looks. "She hated to tell him..." and "Maybe his wife was right," the ads whisper, describing someone who was about to lose an important account, or maybe the love of his life, because of using the wrong skin lotion. By the time we get to a wall of movie stills, all it takes is the sight of very young Bill Cosby getting a rubdown with a rocket-shaped vibrator in some long-forgotten movie called Mother, Jugs & amp; Speed for me to lose it entirely. Oh behave, a little voice inside my head smirks.

Robert and Judi Calvert, co-founders of the new World of Massage Museum on East Sprague, laugh too, but then for them, as lifelong ambassadors for the benefits of massage, this is serious business. Together, they founded Massage Magazine - which is currently based right here in Spokane -- in 1985, and Robert has written a book on the ages-old history of therapeutic touch, The History of Massage.

"I've been in this business for 25 years and I just started collecting without really knowing why, but I knew as I was seeing all this material that it was going to be important," says Robert Calvert. "About 15 years ago, I realized that this stuff was really accumulating and that's when I started to go after things systematically. Ten years ago I got real serious and started to think in terms of a museum and collecting things from all over the world."

Calvert is also accustomed to people behaving a little funny around exhibits devoted to "lubricants," "vibrators," and "rollers and rubbers." When confronted with the inevitable giggles, he merely smiles, then explains that massage practitioners are always trying to distance themselves from the more salacious connotations of the massage business.

"This here is the massage parlor, but it's closed," he says. "We're not going to have it open for the grand opening because it's adults-only," he explains. "We have big posters, poker chips, ashtrays and lots of little items from the massage parlors. It's not something we want to show off, but it is part of massage's history."

That's not to say the World of Massage Museum is without a sense of humor. Massage-themed comic strips decorate one wall, and the museum's collection includes a Scooby Doo Massaging Steering Wheel Cover, a check Gene Wilder wrote for massage several decades ago, a mink glove just like the one being used on Sean Connery in a movie still for one of his many Bond films and an official Jack LaLanne exercise ball, still accompanied by its garishly enthusiastic box.

Although the World of Massage will probably appeal most to massage therapists and others in the body-work field, it's also fascinating as a repository of kitschy old things and fabulous, period-authentic design. Calvert points out how often the word "electric" is used in the packaging for various items and explains how quackery was often disguised as clever marketing.

"This is from a time when people didn't have electricity, so anything having to do with 'electric,' or 'electricity,' that was the buzz word of the time," he says. "If you didn't have that word your product didn't sell."

As far as design goes, some of the items in the museum are astonishingly beautiful, including a dramatic Art Deco-influenced orange, gold and black box that houses a translucent turquoise plastic home vibrator set and an early modern Japanese vibrating chair that looks like a cross between a Barcalounger and the back seat of a 1954 Buick. Other pieces in the museum are exceedingly rare -- for instance, an ivory barber salesman's sample kit that dates from before the Civil War, a solid jade "massage knuckle" from China that Calvert estimates to be more than a thousand years old and a set of violet ray glass tubes which were used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

"We're still collecting," says Calvert. "We have over $250,000 in objects here, which is not bad for a small museum. But we're always looking for things to add to the collection."

Publication date: 04/01/04

Thursday Night Live (TNL) @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Third Thursday of every month. Continues through Sept. 16
  • or