FINNISH SAUNAS IN AMERICA
The First Saunas in America
Saunas were introduced to North America around 1638, when the first Finnish and Swedish settlers arrived. The initial response by Colonial America was that saunas were mysterious and not to be trusted. Many believed it was a log temple used to worship pagan gods. They would see smoke coming out of the chimney late at night and people walking to and from without proper clothing on.
In his book Sweat, Mikkel Aaland tells a story of a sauna that went on trial in Wright Country, MN in 1880:
“An American homesteader … went to court in an attempt to rid the countryside of “that pagan temple.” On the day of the trial, the courtroom was packed with curious citizens, most of whom never heard of a sauna. But it was proved to the judge’s satisfaction that the Finns were law abiding, American citizens of a staid Lutheran caliber when it was explained the sauna was a place for cleaning and not for worshiping pagan gods. The judge ordered the plaintiff to pay the defendant thirty dollars for damages to his reputation plus forty dollars to have the sauna moved to a more isolated location.”
It was a rocky start, but as a sense of security and familiarity for their homeland, Finns continued to build and defend saunas in America.
Saunas in the Olympics
Paavo Nurmi, Finnish Olympic Athlete (won 9 gold medals between 1920-1928)
Finnish Olympic athletes also played an important role in promoting saunas in America. In the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles and in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, saunas were brought from Finland and installed in the Olympic Villages. This led to many questions about the sauna itself and its use for recovery.
Aaland says that, “In the late 20s and early 30s, Finnish athletes were competing well internationally and publicly advocating the sauna for training.” Many people felt that the endurance and success of these athletes was due to their use of the sauna, thus encouraging a positive reputation of the sauna in America.
The popularity of the sauna and electric sauna stove took off, and by the late 70s, sauna sales were in the thousands. This number only continues to grow as more research is done and knowledge gained on the positive health and wellness affects of sauna use.
So there you have it, a brief evolution of the Finnish sauna. We've seen the very first saunas dug into embankments in the ground, savusaunas, and the ever famous log cabin chimney sauna. Today you can find saunas in all shapes and sizes from the technologically advanced infrared sauna to the tradition outdoor barrel sauna with a wood-burning heater.
And if you’re interested in the future of the Finnish sauna in America, stay up to date on our website or social media. We have some exciting new projects in the works!
If you are interested in more information on the history and evolution of the sauna, check out Mikkel Aaland’s book Sweat.