The Evolution of the Finnish Sauna
What is a sauna?
-an ancient Finnish word referring to bath or bathhouse
-small room or cabin
-a place where a dry or steam bath can be taken
Interestingly enough, sauna is the only Finnish word that has made it into the English language. But where did the Finnish sauna come from? What are its origins?
Side note: Many cultures have had some variation of sauna throughout history—the Native North American sweat lodge, the Ancient Greek and Roman bathhouse, the Russian Banya (steam room). But today we are going to focus on the evolution of the Finnish sauna. Let’s begin with one of the earliest known Finnish saunas—
The Underground Sauna
The earliest saunas were dug into embankments in the ground. Stones were heated by fire and then brought into the make-shift room that was dug into the side of a hill. The room stayed insulated by the layers of dirt and sod that made up the roof and outer walls. These underground saunas were used to keep warm throughout the harsh winter months. Underground saunas can still be found in parts of Finland today.
The Smoke Sauna or Savusauna
As time went on, the underground sauna evolved into the smoke sauna, also known as the savusauna. The smoke sauna is a log hut built with a small hole in the ceiling. There’s a large fire place inside the cabin that warms up the small room and fills it with smoke. The smoke then seeps out through the opening in the roof and the cracks in the walls. This type of sauna takes all day to prepare and the smoke must be purged before it can be entered.
The savusauna was not only used for warmth, but also for cleanliness. Up until the 1900’s, before modern medicine and hospitals, minor medical procedures and births were conducted in saunas because they were clean and warm. There is an old Finnish proverb that translates to, “The sauna is the pharmacy of the poor.”
The Log Cabin Chimney Sauna
Although the savusauna was, and still is, loved by the Finnish culture, it has its downfalls. It took time and resources to keep the fire burning all day, the smoke covered the benches in soot, and they sometimes caused fire to break out. Because of these reasons and cultural innovation, a small stove was invented that had a chimney. The smoke could now filter out while the sauna was in use.
The Public Sauna
At the turn of the 20th century, the public sauna became more and more common. These saunas were made of concrete instead of wood, taking longer to heat up than a small wooden room. Traditionally saunas were separate buildings from the house, however, when people from the country started to move to the city, space became limited. This opened up a need for public saunas, for those who couldn’t afford to build their own or did not have the space.
Public saunas are still very popular in Finland. According to statistics Finland, there are over 2 million public saunas in Finland. In addition, almost every household in Finland also has a sauna of their own. If you ever find yourself in Finland, here are the oldest and largest public saunas. Check them out!
In Pispala, Finland—Dating to 1906, this is Finland’s oldest public sauna still in use; an on-site cafe serves food.
In Kuopio, Finland—Housed in a former lumberjack lodge, the world’s largest traditional smoke sauna also features live music.
The Electric Sauna
After WWII, electric and gas stoves began taking the place of wood burning stoves, especially in cities. The electric sauna stoves saved resources and time, heating up in less than an hour. The electric stove made the sauna marketable. Stoves could then be produced and sent all over the world.
Almost Heaven Saunas Vienna Electric Barrel Sauna
Read about the future of the Finnish Sauna in America here in part 2!