History of Sauna: Where Did Sauna Originate?

History of Sauna: Where Did Sauna Originate?

Saunas are amazing. They relax your mind, ease soreness in your muscles, and just improve your overall body. Since saunas have impacted our lives in such a major way, we would often ask ourselves, “Who invented the sauna?”

The answer to this pivotal question is not clear since saunas have existed for thousands of years. This article will analyse this question, explain the history of saunas, and tell you who invented them.

Sauna History

Saunas have been used for thousands of years by many different societies. Their mental, physical, and social benefits made them very popular as their use spread globally. However, tracking down their growth to their origin has been very difficult. This is simply because they were created such a long time ago and used by so many different societies.

SAUNA, correctly pronounced “sow (rhymes with wow!) Nah,” is the only Finnish word in the English dictionary; it means “bath” and “bathhouse.” Sauna has been a way of life in Finland, where it was invented, for over 2000 years. One of the first written descriptions of the Finnish Sauna was in 1112. The earliest Sauna was dug into an embankment in the ground. 

Later, Saunas were built above ground with wooden logs. The rocks were heated in a stone stove with a wood fire until the rocks were super hot. This room did not have a chimney but a small air vent in the back wall. The smoke was allowed to fill the room while it was heating. It was a half-day process to heat this type of room. When the Sauna reached temperature, the bathers entered after the smoke cleared. The walls and ceiling would become dark black. This original Sauna was called “save” (Finnish for smoke) Sauna.

The name Sauna is thought to be a derivative of the word savuna, literally “in smoke”. The Sauna later evolved to the more typical metal woodstove heater with the chimney. Wherever Finns travelled, they brought their Sauna culture with them. It was first brought to America by Finns, who settled in the current state of Delaware in 1638. Modern-day life and electricity evolved the Sauna again. Saunas became more accessible in the U.S. after the electric Sauna stove was developed in the 1950s. Some Americans that lived near Scandinavian communities may have been lucky enough to discover Saunas early on. 

After 360 years in this country, the Sauna has become an established tradition for many Americans as it has been for the Finns.

With that being said, most historians come to the same conclusion as to where these saunas were created. Therefore, in their opinion, the Finnish people are the most likely candidates to have created the Sauna. The reason for this is because sauna bathing is such an important aspect of Finnish society. This can be specifically be shown by analysing the common Finnish term, “saunas ollaan kuin kirkossa,” – one should behave in the Sauna as in church.

As you can see, sauna bathing is not a simple activity for the Finnish. Instead, it’s is a spiritual experience that you must treat with love and respect. To strengthen this theory, even more, some of the oldest saunas ever recorded have come from Finland. These saunas were made from pits that were dug into the ground. During the winter, they were used excessively because of the hot temperatures they created.

Other places where saunas have been used include China, Japan, Sweden, Mexico, and Guatemala. Most all of these places had their own specific version of a sauna. Even though they differed a little, they were all built to make you sweat with the same common goal.

The Finnish Sauna has a long, rich heritage and knowing some of the culture and traditions that it contains can only add to your own enjoyment of the sauna experience.

Sauna, pronounced: ‘sow (rhymes with wow) – nah’.

The Finnish word, ‘sauna’, meaning a bath or bathhouse, is apparently the only Finnish word that has entered the English language.

It’s certainly true that the Sauna itself has entered into the UK culture and lifestyle.

Anyone who has ever taken a sauna will definitely remember that sense of heat that seems to sink right down to your bones, that incredible feeling of wellbeing that comes from being in such a cleansing space, the smell of cedar and that burst of sweat on your skin when water is first thrown onto the stones.

Bathing in a sauna is a truly unique experience, and it’s no surprise that it has been popular for over a thousand years.

Back in the mists of time…

The Finns were originally a nomadic people, and the first ‘sauna’ was probably much more like a North American native sweat lodge. Skins and hides would be used to make a tent inside which a fire would provide heat and water would provide ‘löyly’ – the burst of steam that cleanses and purifies.

In those times, the simple state of being warm and clean was so rare that it certainly attained great significance.As the Finns ceased to wander and began to settle, the Sauna began to change into something more structured and permanent.

The first fixed Sauna was perhaps nothing more than a pit dug in the ground containing a fire and covered with hiding or branches, but it soon became a more permanent structure and as its solidity grew, so did its significance.

The next evolution of the Sauna was an enclosed cabin with a fire heating a pile of stones. Once the fire had burned down and the smoke had cleared, the residual heat in the stones would keep the Sauna warm for hours.

This type of Sauna was the norm for hundreds of years, and it was during this time, most of the original sauna traditions and beliefs developed.

“The sauna is a poor man’s pharmacy.”

The heat and humidity – and of course, originally the smoke – of a Finnish sauna cabin created a clean environment, purifying and restoring.

A Finnish farmer coming in from his fields in the evening would step into the Sauna – that admittedly he sometimes used for drying his malts and smoking his meats – and the heat would relax his muscles and soothe his soul.

The Sauna was a place where children were born, and women went through the purification ritual before marriage. There was no cleaner or more cleansing place.

An old Finnish proverb says, ‘If tar, vodka or the sauna won’t help, then the disease is fatal’. ‘Tar’ in this case meant distillations of pinesap that were used as an antiseptic. The trust in the health-giving properties of the Sauna is clear.

Such was the importance and the sanctity of the Sauna that another Finnish saying goes, ‘In the sauna, one must conduct themselves as one would in church.’

There are many claims made about the health-giving qualities of a sauna in the modern world, and some of them are perhaps hard to substantiate. Still, there can be no doubt that few experiences can match a saunas ability to soothe the aches of the body and ease the cares of the mind.

Despite a population of just over 5 million people, Finland has an impressive 3 million saunas to share between them — far outnumbering their cars — while ‘Finnish saunas’ are now found in gyms and spas almost everywhere Earth.

No one knows where the first saunas were built, but the tradition originated somewhere in northern Europe around 2,000 BC. It has remained an important part of cultural life to this day in countries including Estonia, Latvia, Russia, and Finland.

The Finns invented the Sauna over 2000 years ago. The Saunas were originally designed and used as a form of a bath. The Sauna was a place to cleanse the body and was considered a sterile environment. In fact, in Finland, women often gave birth in the Sauna!

The sauna houses were traditionally made of logs, and a central fire heated the rocks. Unlike modern sauna rooms, there were no chimneys, only a small hole in the Smoke Sauna wall. This meant that the original saunas had a very smoky inside. Typically, the sauna room was heated for ½ day before use and could provide up to 12 hours of heat once it was ready. One can only imagine the sauna room full of black ashes along the walls and a heavy smell of smoke, not exactly a modern-day sauna! These first saunas are called “save saunas” or “smoke saunas”. The Finnish used hot stones as the source of latent heat, and then water was poured on the stones to provide steam that quickly raised the perceived temperature inside the Sauna. This steam has a special name in Finland called Loyly or “sauna heat”.

As the industrial revolution approached, metal chimneys were added to the Sauna to provide a means of venting the smoke. Finally, the wood-fired sauna heater evolved to provide a means of integrating the hot fire with a large bed of stones that surrounded the sauna heater. The wood-fired sauna heater remains the choice for modern outdoor saunas as it has the power to provide unlimited heat and Loyle.

In 1938, the first electric sauna heater was introduced using an element like that found on a traditional electric stove. The Electric sauna heater provides a means of controlling the heat to a much more accurate level than a fried wood heater. It also provides the convenience to allow users to preheat the Sauna quickly without having to make a fire. The electric heater was the start of indoor sauna room popularity as homes could now have their own saunas without the need for chimneys and fires. It is now known that there are more saunas in Finland than there are cars. This is due to the popularity of indoor saunas that became popular with the introduction of the electric sauna heater.

While the methods of heating a sauna have evolved, the sauna benefits remain the same. The Sauna is the only place where both high heat and low humidity are used. The water added to the saunas creates the humidity know as a “wet sauna”. Without water, the Sauna is sometimes called a “dry sauna”. The construction of a wet or dry sauna is the same. The only difference is the preference for humidity by the bathers.

Today saunas are enjoyed worldwide and are generally known for their relaxing properties their ability to relieve stress. In addition, the health benefits are well documented and are a great way to improve one’s overall wellbeing. Home sauna rooms are also considered a positive investment in a home, same as a kitchen or bathroom renovation!

People in these countries like to debate who now has the best saunas, but the truth is that their building techniques and traditions have evolved mostly in parallel for the past few thousand years. As an Estonian, though, I’ll give you my slightly biased explanation later for what makes Estonian saunas particularly special.

Most other people worldwide using a sauna today might not realise just how deep the sauna story goes. In fact, it starts underground where the first saunas were built — not for relaxation — but for survival.

The Ancient Saunas

The first saunas were man-made caves draped closed with animal skins and had a fire burning inside them beneath a pile of stones during the day. After the fire was extinguished and the smoke wafted out, the stones would continue to warm the cave long into the night for the people (and sometimes animals) who huddled inside and basked in the steam that rose from the stones when water was poured on them.

These rooms were not just warmed by the fire but also sterilised by the smoke. As a result, they were essential for sustaining daily life in an unforgiving landscape. These early saunas functioned as kitchens, washrooms, hospitals and more throughout the year, while in the harsh winters, they were literally the only place to live. The Sauna was where people were born, where their bodies were laid out at the end of their lives, and where all the most important celebrations took place in between.

As a result, the saunas developed their own distinct traditions and became holy places that were intertwined with spiritual beliefs. They were believed to bestow magical powers on those that entered and were also home to a mystical sauna spirit that was both respected and feared.

So Who Invented The Sauna?

Even though it’s not official, it’s believed that the Finnish created the Sauna. There’s a lot of evidence pointing to this conclusion. Such as the old saunas that were discovered in Finland and the respect the Finnish have for the Sauna. Since this is so, many historians and sauna enthusiasts conclude that the Finnish created the Sauna. So while we’ll never know completely who did it, but we have a good idea with strong evidence supporting it.

Modern saunas

It wasn’t until the industrial revolution arrived in northern Europe that chimneys were added. This enabled saunas to be heated faster and continuously even after people entered inside (as long as they added wood).

These continuous wood-fired saunas are now what most people consider an authentic sauna, although the older styles without chimneys — now called smoke saunas — still exist in various places and are still considered the best.

By the 1920s, smoke saunas began to be replaced by iron stoves that vented the smoke through a chimney.

As Finns travelled and settled, they took their sauna culture with them. This is because it was such an intrinsic part of their lives.

In the 1950s in America, the first electric sauna stoves were developed, and this technology quickly spread throughout the world and indeed back to the country of origin of the Sauna.

Electric stoves made saunas more accessible and easier for everyone. In Finland, with a population of about 5 million people, there are an estimated 2 million saunas. So it must be said that the people who invented the Sauna are still in no doubt about its benefits.

The Tylö sauna range continues this great tradition of health and relaxation while bringing it completely up to date in terms of technology and design.

The reason that Finnish saunas have become most famous, though, can be explained by modern geopolitics.

Finland and Estonia are both currently celebrating 100 years as independent republics, yet the fortunes they’ve faced during much of that period has been drastically different. Then, Finland remained free while the Soviet Union occupied Estonia.

Consequently, the Finns used their increased wealth and freedom to modernise their saunas and continue spreading the tradition around the world during waves of westward migration.

The first electric saunas were invented in Finland, then popularised in the USA in the mid-20th century. This made saunas a more accessible experience to vastly more people, although with an arguably inferior form of heat. In addition, it meant that saunas could now easily be installed inside spas, gyms and hotels across the western world and beyond.

This cemented the idea that saunas were a public leisure activity — where most traditions were removed, and swimming clothes were not. 

Electric saunas spread back to Finland, too, where they replaced many of their wood-fired predecessors.

In conclusion, we’ll never truly know who invented the Sauna. There’s good evidence supporting that the Finnish created it because it’s so important to their daily lifestyle and culture. But, this alone doesn’t make them the inventors of the Sauna. All we can do now is just thank whoever made the Sauna, thank the people who’ve refined the Sauna and enjoy the modern saunas that we have today.

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