History of the Finnish sauna

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The sauna has always been important for Finns. It has a long history, going back at least a thousand years, probably more. Originally the sauna was a place to bathe, but as it was the only available clean place with abundant water, it has also been a place for giving birth and healing the sick.

There are today an estimated 2 million saunas in Finland, 1.2 million of which are in private apartments and the rest in summer cottages, hotels and public swimming pools. Quite something for a population of 5 million. (Statistics)

History has seen a variety of differents sauna types in Finland and other cultures have had their own versions of the sweat bath: the native American sweat lodge, or inipi, the Russian bania and the Turkish hamam steam bath.

The first saunas

Defining the first sauna is a difficult task, because there is no clear definition of what a sauna is. Does a hot room suffice, or is water thrown on hot rocks an essential ingredient? If we only accept places that were used solely for washing, we must discard many recent saunas as well.

The nomad people wandering around what later became Finland already had primitive saunas. They heated holes in the ground and covered them with a tarp to have a warm place for bathing. There was probably an open fire in the hole, and the bathers would wait until the fire had gone before entering the sauna. The native American sweat lodge is very similar to this kind of sauna.

Such a hot room would later evolve into the smoke sauna, the most traditional form of modern saunas. A smoke sauna has a fireplace with no chimney; the fire heats the stones directly and the smoke exits the room through a small hole just below the roof. The fireplace is built by piling stones, ideally without using mortar, and takes several hours to warm up. Smoke saunas were built and used as late as the 1920's, after which they almost disappeared as new types of heaters were developed.

Heating the sauna

Heaters

While smoke saunas have a very pleasant heat, the smoke has obvious problems. For example, the room is covered with soot and benches have to be cleaned before each bath. Also, smoke saunas have a strong tendency to burn down because it is difficult to control the open fireplace. The first chimneys were metal cones on top of the fireplace directing the smoke out of the room.

Modern heaters have a metal casing and a chimney, but still have stones to retain the heat. Keeping the room hot for a long time is not simple and requires a lot of energy. The stones store heat energy, which can then be released by throwing water on them during bathing.

Most modern heaters use electricity since it is easy and relatively cheap, but many still prefer wood heaters. The feeling in a wood-heated sauna is somewhat different from that of an electric sauna. The wooden sauna has lately won new appreciation and the art of building wood-heated saunas, even smoke saunas has been revived.

Saunas in homes

Saunas were originally separated from the main house. The sauna building was often a single room, used both for washing and warming up on the high benches. As living standards evolved, the washing room was separated from the hot room. Running water made washing easier, and allowed placement away from water sources such as lakes or wells. In many modern Finnish houses the sauna is a main part of the bathroom, nearly all apartments are built with saunas.