Sauna History: A Comprehensive Timeline

Last updated on May 16th, 2023 at 08:32 pm

Sauna, Infrared Sauna, Smoke Sauna, Sweat lodge, Bathhouse, Turkish Bath.

Any of these terms sound familiar?

They are all similar and virtually derive from the same origins. That being said, I think it is safe to assume that most of us are familiar with the Sauna, but perhaps you are someone that has just been introduced. Let’s break it down with some sauna history:

What Exactly is a Sauna?

A sauna or sudatory is a small enclosed space, suitably designed to contain heat in which the patrons inside experience dry or wet heat sessions, causing perspiration and a multitude of other incredible health benefits.

Now that we’re up to speed-

sauna history

An Intro to Sauna History

Perhaps for some of you, sauna is something that you or your family uses on a regular basis or something that you’ve heard of or seen along your travels. Whatever the case may be, sauna use has really begun to turn some heads as of late and rightfully so; we believe it deserves the attention.

The term “Sauna” is actually a Finnish word and if you are familiar with it, you would assumably think of Finland. This is because the Sauna tradition runs deep in the Finnish culture, so much so that many consider it a part of their heritage. Tampere, Finland is actually considered the “Sauna Capitol of the World”.

Although Finland is widely considered to be the birthing grounds for the Sauna tradition, it is still relatively unclear as to its exact origin. However, the tradition is thought to have originated somewhere throughout the regions of northern Europe around 2,000 BC.

Believe it or not, the traditional use of a sauna today isn’t exactly what it was used for in its infancy. Today we generally consider sauna use as a recreational activity with sole purpose of pleasure, whereas the ancient sauna had a multitude of uses. One of the primary and essential reasons for sauna use during this era was a means for survival in the harsh climate of northern Europe. The sauna provided a perfect refuge for families to gather on cold wintery days or nights.

The sauna was originally featured in Finland as a hand dug pit along an embankment or slope that resembled that of a cave. Akin to today’s saunas, these early pioneers were also equipped with a fireplace, of which was used to heat up stones to high temperatures where they would pour water atop, producing steam and a substantial amount of smoke as a by-product of the open flame heat source.

Once the heat up period was complete the smoke would be cleared from the space and ready for use. The entrance to the sauna was blanketed with the pelts or hyde’s of animals in order to retain the smoke and heat within. The smoke that was produced during the heating period also served to sterilize the space providing a sanitary environment for multiple uses including, but not limited to – birthing zone, kitchens, hospitals, washrooms, etc.

The aforementioned Finnish sauna of the early days are what we would refer to now as smoke saunas or savusaunas. The way in which these early saunas operated was by building a fire within the space and heating the rocks, also called the kiuas, for 6-8 hours.

Once the rocks were sufficiently heated, they would then allow all the smoke to escape before the patrons gathered inside and enjoyed roughly 12hrs worth of radiant heat or löyly, that was left emitting from the rocks.

Evolution: Where to?

Following the industrial revolution and technology on the rise, saunas would adopt a different method of heating the space by use of a metal wood stove and chimney arrangement allowing temperatures to reach roughly 75-100° C or 167-212° F – in some cases, exceeding 100° C.

You may be asking yourself: wait, how is it possible to get so hot without burning or even cooking me?

Good question. It is possible to get to these temperatures without poaching you like an egg by means of humidity control. By keeping the relative humidity levels lower we are able to withstand much higher temperatures, whereas the the Turkish Bath or steam bath have relative humidity levels approaching 100%.

This restricts temperature levels to about 50°C (122°F); exceeding this mark could result in scalding of the skin.

As travel became easier the Finns naturally began to migrate to other parts of the globe, introducing their new and ancestral sauna traditions elsewhere. With that came further evolution of the sauna when in 1938, the open burning flame was deemed no longer essential and the electric sauna stove was introduced by Metos Ltd. in Vassa, Finland.

The Finnish sauna culture and tradition as we know it is also heavily recognized in the Baltic regions (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) as part of their heritage and is also generally considered to be an essential part of their everyday lives. Some would refer to sauna use as a healing or spiritual ritual/ceremony that is very much a part of their way of life.

Following the second world war, saunas became so popular that virtually every country across Europe and even Russia depended on them and adopted the ancient tradition as part of their everyday lives.

Parts of Asia, namely Korea, had their own form of traditional sauna of which they referred to as hanjeungmak. These dome shaped stone structures were used by Buddhist monks, where they would hold clinics called hanjeungso to treat the ill and impoverished community, held by the belief that the hanjeungmak had restorative health benefits and the ability to treat different sorts of illness.

What are thought to be sauna remnants have been uncovered by archeologists as far as Greenland and Newfoundland, with very close resemblance to the Scandinavian farm sauna complete with bathing platforms and large piles of scorched rocks.

Some historians and archeologists would suggest that remains of saunas have been uncovered in the shape of stone structures in areas of the Nordic diaspora; the Orkney islands of Scotland in particular. These structures are thought to date back as far as the Neolithic ages, somewhere around 4000 B.C.E.

Fast Forward

Today, 1 in 3 Fins have sauna rooms customized to fit their homes and are used regularly.

Saunas have definitely made their mark on the western world as well, where many people now use saunas whether it be in-house or in a community recreational facility.

Health Benefits and Precautions

Sometimes it is wise to look back on our ancestors and thank them for their life altering discoveries and we would say the sauna is one that definitely deserves some praise.

For a long time the positive health benefits from sauna use were purely speculation, but today through extensive study, the true colours of sauna use are really staring to shine through.

Through routine and frequent sauna use, studies have found that there is a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and all-cause mortality. But it doesn’t end there, to name a few more:

  • lower markers of inflammation in blood
  • reduced risk of high blood pressure
  • reduced risk of pneumonia
  • temporary relief of common cold
  • reduced risk of dementia
  • reduced risk of Alzheimers disease

That Being Said:

In a nutshell, sauna use has been a staple, not only in Finland and other northern European countries, but has managed to spread throughout the globe. Although the traditional Finnish sauna may have different meanings and ceremonial context in other parts of the world, it is still however, providing the same wonderful effects for all of those that choose to partake.

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