I’M TOLD THERE ARE more saunas in Finland than cars – over a million. No other country has attached so much national pride to their bath. Cold weather, abiding folk traditions, and hard living conditions (until recently) have made the sauna dear to the Finnish heart.
Every morning, from eight to noon, this Helsinki lady sells bunches of birch twigs, frozen or dried from the previous spring. They cost only a few marks and may last through several saunas.
Unlike other sweat baths, modernization did not leave the sauna behind; rather, it helped the traditional sauna to develop and become the symbol of all sweat bathing throughout the world.
I sailed to this icy land in the dead of winter, snow flurrying around my boots. Icicles grew in my mustache. “This is insane,” I thought, remembering the sun of California a few weeks ago. Sun? It was still dark at eleven in the morning. If I hadn’t known that months of fiery saunas awaited me, I’d have turned around and caught the first boat out of Turku’s frozen harbor.
I watched a road crew diligently filling a crack in the iced pavement, seemingly unaware of the blizzard raging around them. (It seemed like a blizzard to me.) While I felt out of place, these workers seemed at ease in cold and darkness. Their forefathers had scratched a mean living from the unyielding Nordic soil. I can understand how the sauna was invented – to mitigate the harshness of their lives. The sauna, with its almost supernatural ability to give warmth, cheer and health became integral to their hard lives.
I hitched a ride to Helsinki, my nose pressed against the frosted window as I watched the small wood sauna huts adjoining the houses. At the sight of a smoke-enveloped hut with a farmer chopping wood alongside, I almost jumped out of the car. My driver just smiled at my enthusiasm and said matter-of-factly, “That’s the way saunas are heated on the farms. The old way is really best. The scent of freshly burned birch lingers in the sauna.” Just what I needed, to defrost my thin-blooded California body.
Helsinki rose noisily from the quiet wooded countryside. Horns honking, cars careening on the slushy streets. Then I began to spot the public saunas, their distinctive signs. The moment I hopped out of the car, my hand pulled five marks ($2) from my pocket and I rushed through my first Finnish sauna door, vowing to take a sauna every day in Helsinki.
My friends, Janne Suorsa and his father in their Helsinki apartment sauna.
I found a small apartment on Makelanrinne Street and lived there for nine months. The building had its own sauna free to its tenants. Every Tuesday and Saturday men and children would gather in the electrically heated sauna, and warm foil-wrapped meat on the hot stones for dinner. (Women took their sauna an hour earlier.) This was the ideal time to meet the neighborly Finns and socialize. During the winter, most Finns hole up in the warmth of their homes and are difficult to meet. Here I was, holed up and sweating right along with them. “You came all the way from America to study our baths?” was a common ice-breaker. “Sure,” I’d answer, “why not?” A long stare usually followed, then, “You Americans... here, study some of this good Finnish beer.” Then the conversation was off and running.
When I wasn’t bathing in my apartment, I braved Helsinki streets to sample the public saunas. Most of these were heated by birch logs. Smoke bathes the city with a delectable scent, evoking images of medieval days. All public saunas provide an array of paraphernalia: a vihta (birch twigs collected in midsummer and frozen or dried for winter use) to whisk the skin; scented soaps and shampoos; loofahs for scrubbing the skin. Best of all is a woman dressed in white who, for a small fee, will scrub a bather. A man’s uneasiness being naked in the presence of these fully dressed women is quickly lost in the luxury of the scrub.
One day I found a public swimming pool, pulled on a swim suit and hustled out to the pool. I was poised to plunge in when a burly lifeguard whistled and shouted: “Hey, have you had your sauna yet?” A faux pas for me, as I remembered my days as a lifeguard in the States when I often scolded kids for not showering before a swim. Now I learned how much more pleasant a sauna is than a cold shower.
The pool side sauna also felt great after a bruising game of water polo, relaxing my sore and battered muscles. I then learned that all Finnish athletic complexes have saunas – sport and sauna are inseparable in Finland. Also, many companies provide a sauna for their employees right after work.
As if a sauna at home, work and play weren’t enough, the Finns have developed portable saunas to carry on camping trips. On hikes through the forests, I saw portables, standard equipment for the Boy Scouts. The unequipped hiker often builds a makeshift sauna from any material at hand – plastic, bark, canoes, skiffs. I later saw improvised saunas with the Finnish United Nations troops on front-line duty in Cyprus.
After enjoying a number of different saunas, from the wood-heated to the gas and electric heated ones, I felt I had become a connoisseur. I found good saunas and bad saunas (yes, even in Finland). I cultivated my preferences. Like a cheap wine whose flavor is enhanced by good company, my fondest memories come from times I was alongside good Finn friends, regardless of the sauna itself.
Although traditional birch log saunas can be dangerous and ecologically unsound in the city, their fragrance and soft even heat makes them preferable to the electric or gas. Public saunas are usually lined with tile, being so easy to keep clean, but I prefer the natural aesthetics of those lined with wood. Normally, public saunas have a lower temperature and higher humidity which appeals to those with reluctant sweat.
An old country savusauna being purged of smoke just before bathers enter. – National Museum of Finland
My favorite sauna is the smoke sauna, the savusauna, the oldest and most enduring sauna in Finland. The savusauna was conceived long before the discovery of electricity or bottled gas. It is little more than a pile of rocks in a small log cabin. There is no chimney, for smoke fills the room and eventually escapes through cracks in the roof and walls. It takes a good day’s work to prepare this sauna properly and heat the hundreds of rocks and thick log walls. There are no short cuts. Wood must be chopped, the fire must be extinguished and smoke purged from the room.
It was my pleasure to sweat in several savusaunas, ranging from the sophisticated model at the Finnish Sauna Society, complete with showers, dressing rooms and no responsibilities, to the rustic countryside version.
Whether I hung my clothes in a tree or on a coat hanger, I was never disappointed by a savusauna. Their sooted walls emanate the savory smells of wood, earth and camaraderie. Steam reaches out from the rocks like friendly hands, dispensing their heat. The bather warms evenly, everywhere at once. With my senses warm and smiling, my mind easily drifted into revery. That was followed by a few minutes of invigorating swatting with the vihta, then a dash to a plunge hole in a frozen lake or a brisk, tingling dip, I never felt more clean and vibrant.
History of the Nordic Bath
The Finns go back thousands of years to central Asia when nomadic tribes began their migration eastward and northward, to populate southwestern Russia, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, and finally Suomi, as they call their land.
A foreigner’s view of the Finns savusauna in 1799. Giuseppe Acerbi, the Italian traveler, is shown peering in on the left.
Origin Of The Sauna
When BC met AD the itinerant Finns were establishing fur trade with Central Europe and gave up their wandering ways. As their numbers increased, they moved inland, turning to the soil for sustenance. Anthropologists know little about the Finns before the Middle Ages; therefore, the origin of the sauna is in question. Have they always had some form of sweat bath? Were they the progenitors of sweat bathing across Europe and Asia? Did they share the idea with American Indians before they crossed the Bering Straits?
Most researchers agree that Finns always had some form of sweat bath, as did most peoples around the world. It was the simplest and most efficient way to satisfy people’s innate need to keep clean. When the Finns were nomadic, they probably used a portable sweat lodge similar to those carried by the American Indian and still seen among nomadic tribes in central Asia. Once the Finns settled, they may have erected underground sweat houses, forerunners of the savusauna.
An underground sauna was probably the first sauna in Finland. Easy to build, it required little material and was well insulated by the layer of dirt and sod on the roof. Although the log savusauna became popular, underground saunas are still to be found.
An early underground sauna in Finland.
Until the 16th century, Finnish bathing habits went virtually unrecorded. During the Middle Ages sweat bathing was popular throughout Europe. Finland was merely a quiet buffer between the Swedish and Russian empires and had little cultural influence in Europe. The sauna was, therefore, inconspicuous.
The Finnish sauna’s profile began to grow when the Reformation made the European bath house almost extinct. Only did Finnish, Russian and Scandinavian peoples continue their traditions of sweat bathing.
In the 1500s Klaus Magnus wrote: Nowhere on earth is the use of the bath so necessary, as it is in the Northern lands. There you find both private and public baths extremely well equipped. Private baths belong to highly placed persons and are built in the vicinity of fresh running water and beautiful gardens and herbs. Public baths are built in towns and villages and in such a large quantity as the number of people living there make necessary. It is not as Poggio claims in a letter to Leonardo Aretino: that naked people of both sexes meet with inappropriate notions. He probably means the people in northern Germany, especially near the Baden area, who are rather loose with their morals. Among these people there are some who are so loose and degenerate in the hot baths that they even drink and sleep and allow themselves all kinds of evil and other foolishness in the baths. If such immodest creatures were found with their customs in Nordic bathing places, they would immediately be carried out and thrown into the deep winter snow drifts with the risk of being smothered. In the summer they would be thrown in ice cold water and left some time without food.
Sweden And Norway
In the early 18th century, Sweden’s bastu (bath house) conforming to central European standards, had its meaning altered. It lost its functional use in society and became primarily a Christmas custom, otherwise used only for therapeutic reasons.
While the church forced the demise of sweat bathing in the rest of Europe, the opponents of the sweat bath in Sweden were a coalition of economists who maintained the bastu wasted firewood, and doctors who blamed it for the spread of venereal disease. Their claims were not unfounded. Swedes traditionally took a bastu every day which consumed a considerable amount of firewood. Furthermore, the bastus rotted faster than other buildings, seldom lasting more than twelve years, and in need of constant renovation. Swedes realized their source of wood was not inexhaustible. Venereal disease was certainly spread through the baths. As with baths elsewhere in the world, prostitution hid behind the bastu’s facade.
Sweat bathing in Norway suffered a similar decline. The creation of linen underwear, easier to wash than bodies, contributed to the loss of bath house popularity. During the 1700s, while under Swedish rule, Finns were under great pressure from the Swedes to abandon the sauna. Propagandists warned against its harmful effects claiming they caused convulsions, tumors, premature loss of vision, and were particularly dangerous for children. With a spice of racism, some Swedish doctors claimed the sauna caused the skin to shrivel, wrinkle and brown, just like Finnish old folk.
In 1756 the Royal College of Surgeons published a pamphlet entitled The Necessary Guardianship and Care of Children, as is the Duty of All Christian Parents. Evidently in close contact with God, these surgeons said, “Finland also has an insane custom whereby the mother goes to the sauna with her little child as often as every second day, which like all insanities leads to the child’s early death, just as if she is wishing it on him”. In 1751, Pehr Adrian Gadd wrote, “frequent saunas, the time spent in smoke huts, and the bitter smell of charcoal-burning seems to be the main reason that the people of that area regularly lose their sight before their hearing.”
Happy times in a savusauna.
No Luxury for Finns
The sauna was no luxury to the Finns and it would take more than a few such pamphlets to discourage their use. Most of the people lived off the land – a grudging land with a growing season of four months. There were few amenities. A farmer coming off his field in the early evening would slip into the same hut he used for drying malts and smoking meats. The glowing heat of the savusauna would relax his muscles and soothe his soul. He left rejuvenated, hungry for a large meal and maybe a dance at a neighboring farm.
In villages, it was common for farmers to take turns preparing the saunas. When it was ready, the farmer with cowl staff in hand, would knock on his neighbors’ doors and shout, ``Come, the bath is ready!”
Besides its social value, the sauna was the only place warm, germ-free and with plenty of water. The savusauna’s smoke contained tannic acid that sterilized the surfaces. It was used as an infirmary where women gave birth, where blood cupping, blood letting and minor operations were performed by the barber, surgeon or village apothecary. (The letting of blood was infused with the same principle as sweating – ”letting out” the evil causing harm to the body.) The old Finnish proverb, “Sauna on köyhän apteekki” says “The sauna is the poor man’s apothecary.”
After centuries of temporal use, the sauna acquired spiritual significance. The sanctity of the sauna was supported by ritual and strict propriety. “These stubborn people,” wrote an astonished Swedish economist in 1776, “even connect the sauna with their theology and think the sauna building is some kind of shrine.” An old saying, still heard in Finland today, says, “Jokaisen on käyttäydyttävä saunassa samalla tavalla kuin kirkossa.” (“In the sauna one must conduct himself as one would in church.”) This strict reverence protected the Finnish sauna from the corruption that befell most other bathing institutions in Europe.
There is the old Finnish folk tale of a farmer who used the sauna to reduce his chances of going to Hell. Often told to children, perhaps to encourage them to bathe regularly, the story tells of a farmer with a passion for the sauna. He bathed so often that in time he could endure the highest heat the sauna had to offer. The hotter the sauna, the more he enjoyed it.
It became known around the land that this farmer enjoyed more heat than any sauna could produce. Eventually, the Devil himself heard of this farmer and made a special trip up to the surface of the earth to meet him “I hear you like the heat of a sauna,” said the Devil. “Aye,” replied the farmer, “that I do.” “Well then, let me take you to a place where it is so hot you’ll be begging me to stop it.”
Excited by the Devil’s promise of heat, the farmer went willingly. Upon passing through the gates of Hell, the Devil shouted to his imps to throw more wood and coal on the giant fire. “More heat!” yelled the grinning Devil. “We have a friend here who loves the heat.” The farmer smiled and bowed to the Devil, thanking him for his generosity.
Soon Hell was afire. It was so hot on earth that old volcanoes erupted and the polar ice caps began to melt. The farmer smiled. “More heat!” the Devil screamed fretfully. “More heat for this dumb farmer!” By this time all the denizens of Hell had gathered around the farmer and watched him in awe. Then, glancing at the Devil, they whispered among themselves and chuckled. “More heat, more heat, more heat!”
The Devil was burning with embarrassment; the Devil’s Hell was Heaven for the farmer. He simply smiled, again thanking the Devil for such a splendid time. Finally, in a fit of exasperation, the Devil screamed, “Out with you! I never want to see you down here again.” So, the farmer returned to his farm, sad to lose the wonderful heat of Hell, but pleased to know his fate was secure. Thus Finnish children, wanting to go to Heaven, learned a way to avoid Hell.
A 16th century public bath in Sweden, showing one man (right) enduring bloodletting, another tending fire and hot rocks, while man (left) wets a bunch of birch twigs for whisking. – Woodcut by Olaus Magnus, Historia De Gentibus, ca 1500.
Finns used the sauna for rites of passage. In the sauna children were born, women went through the purification ritual before marriage, and old people often dragged themselves there to die. Even today, many middle-aged Finns boast of being born in the sauna. John Virtanen, in his book, The Finnish Sauna, gives a personal account of this tradition.
The people of Arima were still in bed that cold October morning while my mother lingered over her first cup of hot coffee in a crowded one-room home. Her children slept soundly in one wide bed, and Father had hardly opened his eyes. The arrival of the tenth child was imminent as Mother wrapped herself in a warm blanket and then went down a narrow, rocky footpath toward her favorite smoke sauna, lighting her way with an old lantern and feeling the frost through her thin leather shoes. The doctor and the hospital were miles away and far beyond her reach. After a few painful minutes she found the privacy and warmth of the sauna where she would deliver her baby. The sauna was dark. She lit the handmade candle which rested on the window sill and hung the lantern on a hook by the door. The charcoaled walls had witnessed the marvel of birth before. Opposite the benches stood the large kiuas, source of the sauna’s heat, built by a master mason of natural red rocks and formed in a shell to contain over a square yard of fist-sized, blackened stones. The kiuas radiated the pleasant heat which filled the sauna, warming the walls and enveloping the benches and platform. For a long 280 days my mother had carried a child in her womb, and now she allowed her blanket to slip to the floor and climbed the three steps to the platform. Once again the sauna would provide the warmth, the quiet, the peaceful though primitive environment in which to give birth. The midwife who came along washed the baby boy, and there I saw my first candlelight and cried my first sound.
Although the sweat bath had disappeared in Europe and much of Scandinavia, the Finns continued with their saunas through this time, and in some of the backwoods of the Swedish north.
In the 19th century, European travelers took interest in the bath of the Finns. Many accounts were written. I particularly like the description by the Frenchman, Paul B. Du Chaillu in The Land of the Midnight Sun (1899):
One of the most characteristic institutions of the country is the Sauna (bath house), called Badstuga in Swedish. It is a small log-house, built very tight, with no windows, having a single aperture above to let the smoke out; in the centre is an oven-like structure built of loose stones, under which a fire is kept burning till they are very hot; then the fire is extinguished, and the women clean the place thoroughly of ashes and soot, the smoke-hole having been in the meantime closed. A large vessel filled with water is placed within, a number of slender twigs, generally of young birch trees, are put into it, to be used as switches. The bath-house stands by itself, and at some distance from the other buildings, for safety in case it should take fire. Every Saturday evening, summer and winter, all over that northern country smoke is seen issuing from these structures. It is the invariable custom for all the household, on that day, to take a bath, for the work of the week is ended and the beginning of Sunday has come. After washing, all put on clean linen and their best clothes. The stranger, the passing inhabitant of the cities, does not bathe with the people, for they are shy: he may have his bath, but all alone. It was only when they had come to regard me as one of themselves that I was allowed to accompany them; then the neighbours, old and young, would often come to bathe and keep company with Paulus. I remember well my first bath en famille. One Saturday after noon a couple of young fellows, friends of mine, as the girls were giving the last touches in cleaning the badstuga shouted, “Palulu, take a bath with us today!” “Yes, do,” exclaimed the rest of the company, among whom were the father and mother of the large family. The weather was piercing cold, the ground covered with snow, and I was glad that the bathing place was within a stone’s-throw of the dwelling. From my window I noticed several maidens wending their way with rapid steps towards it, in a costume that reminded me of Africa, minus the colour. I did not wonder at their speed, for the thermometer stood below zero. Soon three rather elderly women took the same route from a neighbouring farm, but the two oldest were clothed with old skirts around their waists; other young women followed, and all were quickly lost to sight behind the door, which they shut at once. “They must be about to hold a sort of levee in the bath,” thought I. Several aged men then made their appearance, followed in quick succession by younger ones, and children of all sizes; none had on any clothing whatever, and they also joined the throng inside. When I saw the field clear, I thought it was time to make a rush for the building. I emerged from my room at a running pace, for I was dressed as scantily as those who had preceded me. I hastily pushed the door open, and was welcomed by the voices of all the company as I closed it behind me. The heat was so intense that I could hardly breath, and I begged them not to raise any more steam for awhile; the sudden transition for 20 degrees below zero to such an atmosphere overpowered me. As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness of the place, by the dim light which came through the cracks of the door I began to recognize the faces of my friends. There were more people than usual, for all the neighbours had come to have a bath with Paulus. At first I seated myself on one of the lower benches built around, after awhile getting on the other above. More water was poured on the hot stones, and such a volume of steam arose that I could not endure it, so I jumped down again, and reclined in a half-seated posture in order to breathe more freely. In a short time I was in a most profuse perspiration; again and again steam was raised by pouring water on the stones, till at last the hot air and steam became extremely oppressive.
Now and then we poured water on each other, which caused a delightful sensation of relief; then with boughs, every one’s back and loins were switched till they smarted severely. “Let me give you a switching, Paulus,” a fair-haired damsel or a young fellow would say; “and after you get yours, I want you to give me one.” This operation is beneficial, as it quickens the circulation of the blood in the skin. In about half an hour the people began to depart, first submitting to a final flagellation, after which cold water was poured upon the body; then all went home as naked as they came. As I emerged from the hut the sensation was delightful, the breathing of the cold air imparting fresh vigour and exhilarating my spirits; I rolled myself in the snow, as did some others, and afterwards ran as fast as I could to the farmhouse. In some places the men and women, as if by agreement, do not return together, and the old women wear something around their loins as they go to or come from the bath. I have gone out of the bath-house with the mercury at 32 degrees below zero. It is not dangerous to walk a short distance, as long as the perspiration is not suddenly and entirely checked.
An old couple beside their savusauna in Jalasjarvi, Finland, ca 1920. – National Museum of Finland
On returning one does not dress at once, for he must get cool gradually and check the dripping perspiration. I had hardly been fifteen minutes in my room, when suddenly the door opened and the wife, who had dressed herself, came in, and was not the least abashed at my appearance; she talked with me as if I were in my morning-gown. The door opened again, and a grown daughter entered, and then another. I began to fear that all the neighbours were coming, as if to a reception. Though they did not seem in the least troubled, I was; I seated myself on a chair, however, and for a short time we carried on a rambling conversation; they then left, and I dressed myself and went into the stuga, or family room. At first I could hardly keep my countenance, for the sight was extremely ludicrous. There was a crowd of visitors, neighbours of different ages, and among them three old fellows – a grandfather, father, and an uncle – who were sitting upon one of the benches with legs crossed, minus a particle of clothing, shaving themselves without a looking-glass. Nobody seemed to mind them, for the women were knitting, weaving, and chatting. This was certainly a scene primitive enough. When the men had finished shaving, clean shirts were brought, and they then dressed themselves while seated. The men usually shave once a week, oftener when courting, and always after the bath, for the beard then becomes soft. These people are the only peasantry in Europe who take a bath every week, and they are very healthy. I never failed to bathe every Saturday.
Finnish customs and folklore became prominent in the paints, songs and novels of Finnish artists during the 1800s. After the defeat of Napoleon, the French conceded the territory of Finland to Czar Alexander I of Russia, who clamped strict censorship on all Finnish political discussion and publications. The independent Finns were not about to put up with heavy-handed tactics of the foreigners, so they glorified their cultural heritage that set them apart from the Russians. “Swedes we are not; Russians we can never be; therefore we must be Finns!” became the slogan of the intelligensia.
E.A. Elfstron painting of the Finnish sauna. First painting of the sauna done by a Finn. 1808.
Their nationalism was stirred and marshaled. Folk tales, poetry and the sauna became symbols of their cause. A remarkable epic poem, the Kalevala (Land of the Heroes) writes of mythical heroes in search of an identity separate from Russia and the rest of Scandinavia. (This poem is said to have inspired Longfellow’s style in Hiawatha.) The poem makes many references to the heroes’ enthusiasm for the sauna. In the following section, the poet instructs a future bride of Ilmarinen in the preparation and care of the sauna:
When the evening bath is wanted,
Fetch the water and the bath-whisks,
Have the bath-whisks warm and ready,
Fill thou full with steam the bathroom,
Do not take too long about it,
Do not loiter in the bathroom,
Lest my father-in-law imagine,
You were lying on the bath-boards,
On the bench your head reclining.
When the room again you enter,
Then announce the bath is ready;
O my father-in-law beloved,
Now the bath is fully ready,
Water brought and likewise bath-whisks,
All the boards are cleanly scoured,
Go and bathe thee at thy pleasure,
Wash thou there as it shall please thee,
I myself will mind the steaming,
Standing underneath the boarding.”
Artists And Sauna
Before 1808, no Finn had attempted to paint the sauna on canvas. Artistically, examining a sauna would be like painting an oven or a toilet – it just wasn’t done. But the forces of nationalism and realism changed this as C.P. Elfstrom’s painting shows.
The sauna soon became the central subject for many a Finnish painter, depicting scenes of blood letting, old women bathing, and birch gatherers.
While nationalism was glorifying the sauna, industrialization diminished it. In the late 18th century Finns began to exploit their vast timber lands and dam rivers for hydro-electric power. Some became wealthy. A middle class emerged with money to spend on modern conveniences of the industrial West. For Finnish “fine folk” it became fashionable to bath in showers or tubs and to travel to bathing resorts. Although still a national symbol, the sauna was limited to special occasions – holidays and hunting trips. Rural people still depended upon the sauna, but as the villages swelled with newcomers in search of work in lumber mills and corporate farms, the intimate lifestyle of the sauna was altered, its sanctity diminished. Silence was no longer the absolute rule; bridal bathing ceased along with the magic and witchcraft used in curing diseases and seeking luck.
As new medical facilities reached the provinces, the need for the sauna during childbirth disappeared. In the late 1800s, Finns opened the sauna’s door to functions once foreign to it, like slaughtering animals and laundering. The simple function of cleansing and refreshing the body remained. Even the age-old custom of heterosexual bathing changed. Where once men strolled or ran naked from bath house to home, now they tied a shirt around their waist or held a birch twig in front of them. Women began to don light robes or dresses and took to dressing in the living room behind the bed curtain. Even the mother breastfeeding her infant turned to the wall when men were present.
Aside from growing modesty, practical reasons for segregated bathing arose. Dramatic increase of population on the farms made it impossible for everyone to bathe at the same time. They bathed in shifts, based on social standing – the landlord entered first, then the men closest to him, the other men and finally the women and children.
During this difficult transition time, urbanization shoved peasant ways into the background, and the savusauna went with them. If the sauna was to remain a Finnish custom, a new style had to be conceived – a more modern one without log construction and without the chimneyless heating system. Close living increased fire danger and insurance companies put a high premium on saunas built without fireproof cover for the fire and rocks. New heating units were designed, not all of them very good. Stones were encased in sheet metal boxes. Some were so small they could barely heat the sauna. Others were located close to the ceiling where they were least needed, “in the loft where the crows sit.”
”Bad” is Swedish for bath and since Swedish is the second language in Finland this 1900 public bath proclaims itself in both languages. – Helsinki City Museum
As concrete replaced wood, more heat was required to heat a sauna. As a result, many public saunas built at the turn of the 20th century were more like steam baths than saunas. By the 1930s, poor construction and resulting disinterest brought the sauna’s popularity to an historic low.
Public saunas like this were built in the growing Finnish cities to accommodate the influx of country people.
Ironically, the explosion of World War II halted this declining trend. Food became scarce, theaters and other forms of entertainment closed and life became bleak. Sauna was one of the few pastimes people could enjoy. The military found the sauna essential. They used tents with special sauna heating units as means of delousing the soldiers and boosting morale. Often a sauna left by an evacuated villager was repaired
and heated by the freezing troops.
Finnish soldiers during a cold winter in World War II. When real saunas weren’t available, they improvised.
– Finnish Military Museum
During the war a group of sauna devotees composed of Finnish journalists, doctors and architects convened to consider ways of furthering the sauna’s cause. Known as Friends of the Finnish Sauna (Suomalaisen Saunan Ystavat), and later as the Sauna Society of Finland (Sauna Seura r.y.), Their task was to research the climatic conditions inside the sauna, to determine the best ways of construction, and to perform tests to the sauna’s physiological effects.
Business people were not included in the society for fear their commercial interests might prejudice the research. In 1940, the group’s leader, H.J. Viherjuari, published the first comprehensive work on saunas entitled Saunakirja (Sauna Book). It contained a brief history of bathing customs around the world, origins of the Finnish sauna as well as diagrams for construction. Modern Finns turned to it and learned how to build the heat-storage sauna stove – one of the few post-savusauna stoves that worked well. The book was later abridged and translated into Swedish, German and English, becoming the first sauna book available to enthusiasts everywhere. In 1966, a short American appendix was added to the English edition and published in America.
In 1946, Viherjuuri and his friends acquired a small sauna which they opened to the Society’s growing membership. In 1952, they built a larger sauna complex near Helsinki on the island of Vaskiniemi which included two savusaunas, two vented saunas, and an experimental sauna where medical research could be conducted. (NASA used their facilities in 1959 to study the effects of re-entry heat on the human body.) Today, more than 2000 members of the Sauna Society use the saunas regularly. They also have an architectural library and physiological reports compiled over the years. The Society publishes a monthly magazine, Sauna, and sponsors the International Sauna Congress every four years.
Ladling water on rocks in one of the modern savusaunas of the Finnish Sauna Society.
The disappearance of the savusauna encouraged the growth of Finland’s sauna industry. Obviously, the savusauna, with its hundreds of kilos of rocks and logs, was not a marketable item. But the new, metal-cased stoves were. As one sauna manufacturer said, “The savusauna is like a two thousand year old bottle of wine. Who can find it? Who can buy it?”
The vented, continuous woodburning stove was manufactured for countryside saunas and, immediately after World War II, electric and gas-heated stoves began heating city saunas. In the beginning, the home market in Finland was lucrative enough to satisfy the growing industry. Even today over half of the world’s sauna sales are in Finland. But when the world market began demanding saunas, the Finnish industry was ill-prepared. During their history of isolation and non-aggression, they sat back and watched Sweden emulate Finnish inventions and market them internationally. Furthermore, the Finns were a bit reluctant to market a way of life, sell a ritual.
One of the first continuously heated sauna stoves designed by Kastor Oy in 1935.
A heat storage stove from the beginning of this century. – Kastor Oy.
Meanwhile, the Germans designed and marketed their own sauna at home, while the Swedes were selling sauna stoves around the world. Eventually, a contingent of young, worldly Finns jumped into the international sauna business. Over 300 companies manufacture sauna stoves today, although only a handful produce 10,000 or more stoves yearly.
Another important component of the sauna industry are the hundreds of companies which build pre-fab sauna rooms, distributed through the larger stove companies. Much credit for the success of the Finnish sauna industry can be attributed to the Finnish Sauna Society whose engineers and draftsmen have imposed stern standards on the sauna companies. Their stamp of approval is found only on baths that comply with their careful specifications. Today, there are few places in the world where Finnish companies are not selling saunas, including their neighbor, Russia.
Registered trademark – guarantees a genuine Finnish sauna product. Products entitled to this sign of guarantee have been tested and approved by the Technical Expert’s Committee of the Finnish Sauna Society (Sauna-Seura r.y.)
The first commercial sauna stove arrives in Kenya in 1969. – Kenya Information Services
Keeping Cool on a Hot Island
I thought I knew what to expect when I arrived in Cyprus, but the sight of soldiers moving from the torrid 43° C summer heat and into the 100° C heat of the Finnish sauna bewildered me.
U.N. troops had been stationed as a buffer force between the Turks and Greeks since 1962. When the Finnish contingent arrived, one of the first order of business was to set up saunas, fulfilling the adage that “When three or more Finns gather, within three weeks there will be a sauna.” The Finns had three reasons for building saunas on Cyprus: to encourage social interaction among the various national contingents; to make themselves feel more at home; and, strangely enough, to help beat the heat. Fighting fire with fire, so to speak.
They built regular saunas where they could, and improvised when they couldn’t. Saunas sprang up all over the island. At company head-quarters, where some degree of permanence was unfortunately insured, I encountered elaborate saunas complete with washing facilities. In the hills, where skirmishes between the Greeks and Turks caused map-makers headaches and military camps were constantly moving, Finnish ingenuity created several interesting variations on the traditional sauna. The first sauna I saw was a converted bunker dug into a mountain overlooking Kryenia. This camp was given the name Sauna OP (Operation Post) and had been the scene of heavy fighting during the summer of ‘74. Machine gun bullet holes riddled the sauna walls. The camp commander, Jonas Kortekallio, didn’t mind the holes. “As a matter of fact, the ventilation is much better now.”
Bunker sauna – Cyprus
The next day, under Turk escort, I was shown a Finnish base where a decrepit garage had been converted into a trim sauna, adjoining a swimming pool, where soldiers could alleviate the tensions of war. I was then driven to the barren southeast where twelve men guarded a farm area. Theirs was the most primitive sauna on Cyprus, fashioned from a regulation army tent. I couldn’t resist it. As I sat sweating with the commander, he told me, “The Swedes and Austrians here,” motioning toward three UN soldiers next to us, “come down the line to join us and pass time together. It’s the only social pastime we have in this desolate place.”
Afterwards, while sitting outside and sipping Erikos beer, l marveled at how cool I felt. I asked how could this be? No one at camp knew, so when I returned to the main camp, I cornered one of the medical officers. He explained that when the pores are open and sweat is allowed to escape freely, the pores are cleaner and work most efficiently. This over-compensation makes the person feel cool..
A lieutenant said as much as he appreciated the cooling effects, the sauna was more than that for him. “We have Finnish beer, some Finnish food, Finnish newspapers and magazines, but the sauna is the most substantial link we have. You go inside, take a deep breath and smell the burning wood, sit back and imagine you’re home in Finland.”
Tent sauna & shower.
Other UN contingents, following the Finns’ example, often built saunas of their own, using their expertise. The Finns’ ambition was to build a single cooling sauna for both the Turks and Greeks and be free to go home.
Sauna in Europe
The work of Pasteur and Lister in the late 19th century, inspired Europe to improve its hygienic conditions. “Rain Baths” or showers began to appear in cities and towns as public cleansing stations. At the same time, the sauna began to spread.
The Norwegian Medical Association championed the Finnish sauna, which they called the badstue, as effective in preventing the spread of certain contagious diseases. By 1926, Norway had built 185 public saunas; today there are thousands in homes, hotels and factories. (When I worked in a Stavanger shipyard, the company badstue was a welcome relief after a day’s grinding and welding.) Even the Norwegian parliament has a badstue in its basement for members and guests.
Carl Curman, a Swedish balneologist, encouraged a sauna (badstuga) revival in Sweden. In 1944 the Swedish Crown appropriated generous sums to the thousands of sports centers to establish or improve their sauna facilities. The Swedish business community took a lively interest. Their ambitious promotion has led many to believe the modern sauna is a Swedish institution.
Germany took interest when a sauna was built for Finnish athletes during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Impressed by the conditioning of Finnish athletes, the Germans swiftly included the sauna into their own athletic programs.
Visitors to the German sauna are struck by their formality. Most German saunas are equipped with sand timers; precise instructions for bathing procedures are posted on each sauna door. Since Germany has no long history of sauna bathing to refer to, they seem to need examples to follow.
German sauna instructions.
The yellow pages in Amsterdam advertise 35 public saunas, each claiming to be the most authentic Finnish model. Not listed are many others, built explicitly for the sex market. Some straight saunas are equipped with closed-circuit TV to discourage promiscuity.
France has its share of saunas. Parisian saunas are usually adjoined by a therapeutic spa, but haven’t yet attracted popular public use. (High rates and irregular hours convinced me to shower at the train station while I was there.)
The sauna in Great Britain is becoming an integral part of sports and recreation centers. Auxiliary services such as massage, aerotone treatment, solarium, and gymnastic equipment have been added wherever possible to offer the highest benefit to a session in a sauna. Over 100,000 English people regularly enjoy more than 1000 saunas in their land.
Sauna in Japan
Japanese athletes returned from the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne praising the saunas provided for them there. (10,000 Finnish immigrants brought sauna bathing Down Under where it was enthusiastically received.) Saunas soon began to supplement public bathing facilities in Tokyo, and later in Osaka and Nagoya.
“Quarreling and Scuffling Women’s Bathhouse,” by Yoshiiku Utagawa (1833-1904).
In 1973, the sauna’s popularity in Japan was second only to its native Finland. Japanese saunas are gorgeous, their facilities elegant; they provide manicures, shampoos and refreshments as well. The most impressive Japanese sauna was built for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and is now open to the public for daytime use at 500 yen and 600 yen in the evening.
The Japanese Sauna Party was formed in 1969 to maintain the integrity of the Finnish methods.
They were anxious to ensure the Japanese sauna would not follow the example of the Turkish baths where their Islamic character was compromised by prostitution. The Party’s newly-elected leader, Shigeto Saitou, told me they now have 30,000 members. They are intent to make the sauna a bath of the people with the popularity of the famous hot water baths of Japan, and easily accessible to all.
The Sauna in America
The first sauna in North America was built by Finnish and Swedish immigrants who settled in the Delaware River Valley before the American Revolution in 1638.
Bath houses were common among the early settlers and some historians believe Sauna was the first name given to what became Philadelphia. Today in the center of the Philadelphia Navy Yard a plaque marks the site of that first sauna.
The largest wave of Finnish immigrants came to the United States and Canada between 1850 and 1920 when four hundred thousand Finns left their hard homeland to try their luck in the “new world.” Most of them settled in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin where the “new world” weather was comparable to Finland’s. Some later moved west to California, Oregon and Washington to work in rock quarries, ship yards, lumber mills and fishing industries. Rocklin, Berkeley, and Astoria, Oregon contained strong Finnish communities – complete with Finnish cultural halls and public saunas.
The early establishment of a sauna on the homestead lent a sense of familiarity, order and security to immigrants who found themselves in an alien land. The construction of the saunas differed little from those in Finland. The “savusauna” was the easiest to build since the tools and materials needed were few and simple. With some logs, stone and mortar, a broad ax for hewing and an ordinary bitted ax for chopping, a plumb-line, an auger and a few pounds of roofing nails, a sauna could be built in a few days.
When the Finns first arrived in America they had a difficult time assimilating the culture. Perhaps their greatest obstacle was the language. Unlike other Scandinavian languages, Finnish has no words in common with English, limiting Finns to menial jobs, poor neighborhoods and giving them little chance to promote their own culture. The Finns sensed that trying to communicate their bathing habits would cause embarrassment since heterosexual bathing could be construed as being immodest, immoral or at least sexually suggestive.
Children were especially vulnerable to teasing and mocking by non-Finnish classmates who did not understand family bathing. For the children trying to explain such sauna words as “vihta,” “kiuas,” and “löyly” was impossible because English has no equivalent. Many Finns gave up the bath when they became older.
Gesturing across one of Duluth, Minnesota’s frozen streets to his clothing store is Alex Kyyhkynen. In the background is one of Duluth’s oldest public saunas. Kyyhkynen is a familiar face and name in Minnesota having been the Finnish consul for a number of years. For Kyyhkynen, a hard luck story in Finland and then, in 1910 the move to the “promised land”, bringing the knowledge of sauna with him. Kyyhkynen’s enthusiastic views on sauna bathing have been published in many newspaper articles and in one of the earlier American sauna books he contributed a section on building sauna tips.
Americans who chanced to see the sauna in use were puzzled. “What is this strange nocturnal rite?” Farmers in Minnesota, neighbors to Finns, complained to authorities that Finns were worshiping pagan gods in strange log temples – seen from time to time cavorting naked in the moonlight in what seemed to be ritualistic dances.
A sauna went on trial in Wright County, Minnesota in 1880. An American homesteader demanded that the Finns’ public sauna be removed “from the middle of the road.” The farmer 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.
From the turn of the century until the early 60s, when the media seemed to explode with the sauna, Finnish bathing was making a name for itself in the United States. In the late 20s and early 30s, Finnish athletes were competing well internationally and publicly advocating the sauna for training. Paavo Nurmi, better known as the “Flying Finn,” won nine gold medals in three Olympic competitions, setting 25 track and field world records. Some people felt his use of the sauna was responsible for his endurance and physical prowess.
“The Flying Finn”.
The relationship between American athletes and the sauna was off to a flying start with Nurmi’s feats, and has been gaining momentum ever since. In 196O, the Olympic Games Organizing Committee contracted A. Winston Interiors (which later became Viking Sauna) to build saunas in Squaw Valley, California, where they scored a tremendous success. The units were in constant use by the athletes from all participating countries.
With the American passion for sports, saunas at the Olympics certainly helped bring saunas into the limelight, but there were other reasons as well. After World War II, Finnish Americans were looked upon with a new respect. Second and third generation Finns returned from the war as proven American citizens, ready to fight and die for the U.S.. Finland was receiving world attention for her heroics against Russia during the Winter War of 1939-40. Although Finland lost much of her eastern territory to Russia, it was generally recognized that the Finns had fought valiantly for independence against overwhelming odds. World sympathy went out toward Finland. A few years later, tiny Finland again impressed the world when she became the first European country to pay back her war reparations debt.
Thus, Finland’s notoriety primed the American public for a Finnish custom. The press reported the President of Finland’s longing for a sauna during a visit to America in 1961. A sauna company responded by driving its “saunamobile” demonstrator to New York and placing it at the service of the distinguished guest. Later, President Kennedy and his family enjoyed a sauna in the White House.
Although the electric sauna stove had been invented several years before the sauna became popular in America, its appearance told entrepreneurs that the sauna could be adapted to the American market. Sauna manufacturers began advertising in Finnish/American newspapers. Reports from sauna heater manufacturers declare that business has increased steadily since the 50s, expanding to include sauna enthusiasts of non-Finnish descent. “Relaxing Sauna Baths’ Growing Popularity Lifts Equipment Sales” proclaims the front page headline of a 1962 Wall Street Journal.
When it became apparent that Finns weren’t the only ones interested in buying saunas, the manufacture of heaters picked up considerably. Viking Sauna, founded on the West Coast, became one of the most successful American sauna companies. It began with virtually no market in 1961, selling only 50 saunas in their first year. Seventeen years later, annual sales reached into the thousands. When I spoke with Robert Jones, president of Viking, he translated the growth and success of the sauna into everyday business talk:
To start with, take a process which is thousands of years old in one part of the world and relatively unknown in another, and of course, we had an immediate marketing challenge. ‘It’s unknown.’ ‘It’s foreign.’ ‘I’ve never heard of it.’ Despite the obvious benefits of the sauna, its marketing opportunities had to be laboriously explained to potential dealers and distributors, and its many consumer benefits to the public. Fortunately times have changed and thousands of saunas are now in use throughout America. And, I might even say, they have become a part of the American scene.
Books, press coverage, sauna manufacturers listed in every phone book; the word sauna familiar to almost every American; thousands of saunas sold yearly; the sauna has been accepted in America. According to many purists, however, there has been too much commercialization and too many variations on the theme. Disgusted Finns, and others who knew better, grew weary of saying, “No, sorry, that sauna has too few rocks,” or, “This is not a sauna, it has NO rocks.” Some of the modern saunas employed infrared lights, sun lamps, so the bather had to turn like a chicken on a spit to keep from getting burned. “What’s going on here?” cried the knowledgeable Finns, “Saunas that heat only to 150 degrees F?” When the sauna was first tested by the Underwriters Laboratory, they were very concerned about subjecting someone to such intense heat, for they had no experience with saunas, no precedents.
“A Turkish bath is not a sauna,” said the Finnish spokespeople over and over again. “Nor is the sauna a place to hide illicit sex.” That saunas were being used as brothels outraged Finns more than other misuses and misunderstandings. As everyone interested in the Finnish style of bathing has found, cultural transplants require care – and it may be a while before American sauna standards match those of the Finns.
Together, Mr. John Vanamo and his wife, Irma, operate Suomi-Sauna, the oldest sauna business in Clifton, New Jersey. A typical immigration story, Vanamo left Finland in 1928 because he was dissatisfied with his toilsome railroad job. After landing in America by boat he did anything to make a living, cleaning, repairing, a few years later he opened a massage business. His first location had no sauna only s small vapor box, but eventually, in 1951 he opened his business in Clifton complete with a gas-heated sauna. Vanamo is well known in his field and many a famous Finnish athlete, including Paavo Nurmi, have sweated in his sauna then had Vanamo’s strong fingers squeeze and pound them into shape for competition.
Family Saunas in the San Francisco Bay Area
During the first waves of Finnish immigration to the United States, public saunas or steam baths, as they were called, were owned and patronized by the sweat bath purist, usually of Finnish descent, who memories of the homeland sauna as a reverent gathering place were still fresh. Russian and Turkish immigrants familiar with the sweat bath also enjoyed these Finnish steam baths. But when these founding Finnish sauna people passed on or sold the business, many of the incandescent lights blinked out and were replaced by flashing neon – usually red. Minneapolis, for example, with its large Finnish population, has no public saunas except those designated as massage parlors or “sexy” saunas. In Portland, Oregon, another Finnish area, a call to a public “sauna” will connect you with a soft-spoken female voice saying that she can take care of all your needs. In the San Francisco Bay Area, long-time residents recall the time when public saunas were plentiful: The Peralta Sauna, The Reinberg’s Sauna, the 9th Street Baths, the Grayson Street Baths in Berkeley, Forsti’s Sauna in Oakland, and others. All these have closed down. The few public saunas that remained intact – the “straight’ saunas, that is – were taken over by second generation Finns or sauna devotees.
But the depletion of public saunas is reversing. In the Bay Area public saunas have revived to accommodate the recent surge of sauna fans. The older saunas were just not adequate. Finnilia’s, which opened under Finnish ownership in 1934, has long lines waiting for its private sauna rooms. Their large public sauna room is always packed. The Albany Steam Bath was opened forty years ago by a Finnish couple who recently sold out to a young American couple. The demand for saunas had forced them to extend their business hours. Yet, if you arrive on a Friday or Saturday night, the wait can be as long as two hours. The American Family Sauna (formerly the Civic Center Sauna) in Richmond was opened twenty-two years ago by another Finnish couple. The new owners, Richard and Teresa Kleker, also have extended their business hours. Helping relieve this crowded condition are new saunas: the Grand Central Sauna, Hot Tubs and Kabuki Hot Springs in San Francisco, and the Berkeley Sauna, and more are planned.
One of my favorites of these new saunas is the Family Sauna Shop of San Francisco. Sonja Lillvik and her husband are re-establishing the old tradition of public baths, providing wholesome services for enthusiasts who are intimidated by the Turkish baths, massage parlors and “sexy’ saunas. Their two shops are nestled on opposite sides of Golden Gate Park, where buffalo roam, joggers run and ducks float on Stow Lake. The First Family Sauna Shop opened three years ago because, as Sonja puts it, “We couldn’t find any saunas that met our standards.”
Sonja was raised in the Finnish community of Vinland, a small town in New Jersey with a preponderance of carpenters and farmers. “All the Finns had a sauna,” recalls Sonja. “One family we often visited lived near a river. Jumping in the river after the sauna was wonderful. I guess having such nice surroundings spoiled me.”
Sonja Lillvik in San Francisco.
When she arrived in California, she quickly realized what she had left behind. “The only sauna that I liked was the Civic Center Sauna, but when I moved to San Francisco, it was too long a drive to visit regularly.” After a few years as a dental hygienist, Sonja made a switch from cleaning teeth to cleaning bodies. “Our concept was to open a small sauna, with the neighborhood spirit. A place where families could come, bath and relax.” They added the word “family” to the business name to set it apart from the massage parlor stigma of public baths. “We carefully researched the idea for two years checking out all the baths in the Bay Area as well as those in other parts of the country, consulting with Finns and other sauna takers.” Sonja was not satisfied with the conditions of most baths. “I like wood paneled saunas,” says Sonja. “Concrete ones are too humid, not like the saunas in Vinland.”
She found the old storefront on 20th Avenue. Of course, San Francisco is far from the serene country-side of Vinland so they had to make some adjustments. Still sauna bathers, including the Consul General of Finland, are pleased with the results.
Now business is booming. Holistic health people as well as members of the medical profession have been recommending the Family Sauna Shop to their clients. “It is obvious that Americans need more forms of relaxation,” comments Sonja. “And that is partly why our saunas have become so popular.” Even with minimal advertising, the word of the sauna on 20th Avenue has spread and another Sauna Shop was opened on Clement Street. Additional shops are being planned.
Since most Americans are unfamiliar with the sauna, Sonja and her attendants spend much of their time carefully educating their customers to the Finnish way of bathing. “We explain the history of the sauna. But, more important, we tell people that sauna time is a time to be still and quiet.” Sonja even takes it upon herself to show novice families how the “no-nonsense” Finnish washer-woman scrubs backs. “It’s great to watch how people learn to respect the sauna and its tradition, especially during their first visit. Their behavior becomes rather reverent once they understand the roots and effects of the sauna.”
Sonja feels it is a gratifying business. “People come out glowing with a sublime expression on their faces – it makes my work so rewarding.” Even people with private saunas are drawn to the Family Sauna Shop. “It is a good time for father and son, mother and daughter, and even the whole family to spend a few hours together.”