Get the Massage?: A Postcard from Dr. Olson’s Swedish Institute, Los Angeles, ca. 1911

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Naturopathy became an organized system of medical treatment in the late 19th century, stressing the same general approach as Ayurvedic medicine in India in that there is, as stated by the Society of Naturopaths, “the belief that the body has the innate wisdom to resist disease and the mechanisms to be able to self-regulate and recover from disease.” French researchers at that time determined that “the factors necessary for health were divided into internal factors and external factors. The internal factors were alkalinity and a negative electrical charge and the external factors were good nutrition and the effective elimination of toxins.”

The Society noted that “at the turn of the 20th century doctors and naturopaths were divided between those that believed in the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle  and a natural approach to support health, and those that were following the germ theory of disease; ‘a pill for an ill’.” Dr. Thomas Allinson favored what he called “hygienic medicine,” which focused on bathing, diet, exercise, fresh air, avoiding caffeine and alcohol and disdaining drugs and vaccination.

Los Angeles Times, 14 March 1897.

Benedict Lust popularized the term “naturopath” and established what became the American Naturopathic Association, contrasting themselves from allopaths or mainstream doctors who relied on drugs, radiation and surgery to treat illness. Another emerging and growing school were the osteopaths, who look at what the field calls the “whole person approach to care” including an emphasis on the musculoskeletal.

In California, there was no state licensing requirement for doctors until 1876, when legislation for the Medical Practice Act set up that system. By 1920, there were over 6,200 licensed physicians and surgeons (allopaths), but only 542 osteopaths and just 53 naturopaths, though there has been a great deal of growth in the latter two fields. Coming into the naturopath segment, moreover, was a subset of “medical gymnasts” such as those practicing what has commonly been called “Swedish massage” treatments.

The enumeration of Peter, Louis and Nels Olson (lines 31-33) in the 1900 federal census in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles, Special attention should be given to census taker J. Angel Romero for his very easy-to-read handwriting.

In Los Angeles, probably the earliest practitioners of this method were Johan Victorinus Walden and Peter Olson, natives of Sweden, who operated solely and jointly the Swedish Institute. The featured artifact from the Museum’s holdings for this post is a circa 1911 postcard from the Institute, when it was operated by Olson and an unnamed associate, and the two men and a nurse stand in front of the office on 7th Street and Francisco, across from Good Samaritan Hospital. Today the site is the Inter-Continental Hotel.

Notably, the windows have the actual sign paintings reading “Dr. Olson’s Swedish Institute on two of tm and the third having “Swedish Institute Estab[lished] 1897,” but writing was added for the purpose of producing the card that included the phrases “And Company” and “Dr. Peter Olsen and Associate Physicians” as well as his home and business telephone numbers and the phrase “A System of Drugless And Non-Operative Methods of Healing.”

An ad for Olson when on his own as a “medical gymnast and masseur,” Times, 25 November 1902.

On the reverse, it is noted that there was also a connected “Rest Home Sanitaria” in Sierra Madre, at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, where many such facilities opened in the late 19th century for the hordes of “health seekers” coming to balmy greater Los Angeles to deal with tuberculosis and other maladies (including those that have been referred to as psycho-somatic.)

A paragraph states that it was not needed for people to suffer because the Institute, with its drug-free and non-operative focus, “has restored to health vast numbers of helpless, hopeless invalids. Professing that it offered testimonials from medical professionals and offering free examinations, the Institute confidently asserted that potential patients could “come and see results that speak for themselves.” A message from Olson to the recipient informed that he was back from vacation and ready to see patients.

The most detailed information located about The Swedish Institute from the Los Angeles Herald, 3 September 1905.

Swedish doctor Per Henrik Ling is generally credited with establishing the technique of “medical gymnastics” or the “Swedish Movement Cure” to deal with chronic pain and may be considered something of an antecedent to Swedish massage, but a Dutch doctor Johan George Mezger established a set of techniques, using French terms, that included gliding strokes with pressure, kneading, rolling, lifting, pushing and pulling, tapping, beating and deep tissue movements. Training involved understanding anatomy, physiology, and pathology, among others, beyond body movement.

Yet, it is also frequently noted that massage therapy goes back for millenia in India and its Ayurvedic medical tradition, in China and Southeast Asia, Japan (shiatsu, for example), Egypt, and Greece and Rome. As with many aspects of life, there is a much broader and syncretic approach to massage than is often understood, but, of course, it makes sense that such treatments would spread throughout the world, albeit with the expected variations.

Olson’s listing among the 15 naturopaths, including four women, in the 1910 Los Angeles city directory, a year after the state’s Medical Practice Law was amended to allow licensing of these practitioners.

In March 1897, Walden and a partner advertised their “Massage Treating Rooms,” located on the corner of Broadway and 4th in downtown Los Angeles, with a panoply of options, including electric, medicated bathing, fomentations, salt, glows and scientific massage. Physicians were encouraged to visit and observe “and their instructions [will be] strictly attended to.” Other ads included the Hammam-Turkish Baths, two blocks north on Broadway, and the Vithapathic Institute of Dr. Harriman, just a few doors down from the “Massage Treating Rooms” and both offered an array of treatment including massage, with the latter using the term “Swedish massage,” as well as a German form.

By July, Walden was operating solo and early in 1898 advertised that he’d expanded his operation, now known as the Swedish Institute, and offered “all kinds of baths, electricity and scientific massage” as well as treatments at the home of clients. In March 1899, an ad stated that the Institute was the only in the Angel City “where the patients are treated according to the system of the Central Institute in Stockholm” using “medical gymnastics and scientific massage.” Moreover, he claimed these could cure “rheumatism, nervousness, female and stomach trouble (constipation,) paralysis, [and] corpulency.”

Herald, 6 November 1910.

Within a short time of going on his own, Walden was joined by Olson, who was born on New Year’s Day 1875 in the hamlet of Appello, about a four hours’ drive now northwest of Stockholm. Olson and his brothers Louis and Nels migrated to America in 1893 and may have come to Los Angeles fairly quickly, though it is not known if there was some form of “chain migration,” in which news was sent back encouraging others to venture to the Angel City, at play or not.

In any case, by the time the 1900 federal census was taken, Olson, who lived with his siblings on Bunker Hill, was listed as a “Medical Gymnastic laborer.” By November 1902, however, he went off on his own as a “Swedish medical gymnast and masseur. He then returned to partner with Walden for a short period before the latter embarked on a practice as a naturopath and turned the Swedish Institute over to Olson by September 1905.

Los Angeles Express, 8 October 1914.

In its edition of 3 September, the Los Angeles Herald provided some detail of the enterprise and included a photo of Olson leaning against the side of the corner entrance to the Institute. The paper noted:

The sensible, humane and practical methods employed in dealing with disease at the Swedish Institute have commended this fine institution to a large majority of our people, and it has built up its patronage from among all classes, the wealthy, exclusive and aristocratic as well as the middle class, the reason for this being not far to seek, namely, its universal success in the treatment and cure of the sick.

The business was then on Pico Boulevard between Hope and Flower streets and it was claimed that “there is in this city a very large class of intelligent people who have discovered the inefficiency of drugs in the treatment of disease.” In the “well furnished and conveniently fitted apartments” of the Institute were employed “various medical gymnastics” along with hydrotherapy, scientific massage “and complete diet directions.” It was averred that “a very large majority of Dr. Olson’s patients are restored to health and happiness” and because “his charges are reasonable,” it was concluded that “the poor as well as the rich can have the advantage of his skillful attention.”

Olson on the left with his unidentified associate physician and nurse. This card was postmarked 14 July 1911, but was likely produced earlier, perhaps around 1905 when he took over the business from Dr. Johan V. Walden, its founder in 1897.

In 1909, the state’s Medical Practice Act was amended to allow for the licensing of naturopaths and, in the next year’s Los Angeles city directory, Olson was one of fifteen such practitioners listed, four of whom were women. Within several years, advertisements promoted treatments for rheumatism, while also promoting osteopathic ones, as well as something called the “Magnetic Nerve Vitalizer,” developed by Dr. Charles Bergman and apparently something more in the electric treatment line and said to be a “most wonderful discovery of the age for ailing mankind.”

Meanwhile, Olson, who married Olive Olson (no relation) in 1906, was also a talented singer and led a sextet that included his brother Nels, both being tenors, that was based out of the Swedish Tabernacle, which was a block north of the Institute. Occasionally, the group performed for larger public gatherings including a 1914 travelogue series and, in 1925, a program on the KJS radio station included pieces arranged by the Olson. He continued to run his Institute through the 1920s until he died in late 1928 at just age 53 from heart disease. Shortly afterward, the Institute was space was offered for lease and the equipment he used was sold.

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