top of page

History of Sauna

Stepping into a sauna is like stepping into history's warmth, where the past whispers its secrets, teaching us the enduring significance of relaxation, purification, and communal well-being.

In our quest for progress and convenience it is easy to overlook how we got here. Understanding the history of sauna can offer us a window to our past, and perhaps a bridge to our future. 

From the Saunaist's perspective, we hope that this brief foray into our history will help predicate a return to community, inspired by sauna. 

Pekka_Halonen_-_Saunassa.jpg

Image Source: Pekka Halonon's 1925 illustration of a Finnish sauna

Exploring our past helps inform our future.

Where we come from and how we got here informs both where we are and where we are headed. Certainly, a very reductive notion of history but it lays the groundwork for an exploration of sauna’s past.

Sweat bathing writ large occupies a central role in human history; civilizations and societies both ancient and of the more recent past regularly gathered at public bath houses before their erosion in significance in the middle of last century. The development of modern residential plumbing certainly played a role but was it also in part political? And why is there a resurgence in public bath houses around the globe today? Moreover, is there a chance that the age-old weekly Finnish tradition of families sauna bathing together makes its way to this side of the pond? 

 

These are a few of the questions we will explore through the lens of history as we delve deeper into the intersection of society, community and sweat bathing.  

photo - sauna from 1804.jpeg

Image Source: Giuseppe Acerbi's 1802 illustration of a "Finnish Bath"

A brief history of sauna

The Finnish sauna has a rich and enduring history that dates back over two-thousand years. Rooted in Finnish culture and tradition, the sauna has played a significant role in the lives of the Finnish people, shaping their way of life and social interactions.

The ancients

The origins of the Finnish sauna can be traced back to the ancient traditions of the Finno-Ugric peoples, the ancestors of the modern Finns. These early saunas were simple underground pits dug into the earth, covered with animal skins or peat and heated with stones and fire. These saunas were used for bathing, healing, spiritual ceremonies, and giving birth. 

The late middle ages

Unfortunately, until the 16th century Finnish sauna habits passed largely unrecorded. What we do know is that as Finnish society evolved, so did the role of the sauna. It became a central part of Finnish life, serving not only as a place for physical cleansing but also as a social gathering spot, a place for villagers to break bread together and discuss the issues of the day.

The sauna was also closely tied to rituals and beliefs, with the act of bathing seen as a form of purification. However saunas were also used for drying malts and curing meats although hopefully not together. 

These medieval sauna were primarily smoke saunas (savasauna) with large stone hearths heated up over many hours by fire. When hot, the remnants of the fire were removed and the smoke was largely exhausted through tiny portholes and bathing could begin. To this day, smoke saunas are widely considered as the quintessential expression of the art. 

The industrial revolution

 

The 19th century saw significant changes in sauna design and construction. Sauna stoves, made of metal, replaced traditional stone hearths, enabling better control of fire, heat, and smoke. This era also saw the emergence of public saunas, where communities could gather for hygiene and socializing. These communal saunas were often the only places with warm, sanitary conditions and plenty of hot water and villagers relied on them for their weekly baths. 

The 20th century

In the 20th century, the Finnish sauna underwent change again. Saunas began to be built as separate structures, detached from living quarters, and with the advent of residential plumbing public saunas began to wane in stature.

 

With the invention of the electric sauna heater in the 1930s, saunas started being built in urban residences and eventually reincorporated into public life in the form of recreational saunas dotting urban landscapes.

 

Continued technological advancements in electric sauna heaters solidified the evolution of sauna bathing from farms to towns. In the 1960s we saw the advent of communal saunas in large housing blocks and in the 1970s saunas started appearing in individual apartments, a development that quickly took off. 

The present and the future

However it wasn't until the last decade or so that the public sauna renaissance really took hold. The Finns finally figured out that they even non-Finns might want to check out this sauna thing and so "sauna tourism" was born. Today sauna tourism is integral to Finland and has perhaps ushered in yet another new wave of sauna's evolution. 

 

In Finland today there are an estimated 3.3 million saunas for a population of 5.5 million people.

bottom of page