History of the Nordic Bath
©1997 Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
A foreigner's view of the Finns savusauna in 1799.
Giuseppe Acerbi, the Italian traveler, is shown peering
in on the left. From Sweat, copyright Mikkel Aaland.
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.
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.
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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
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
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."
No Luxury fo 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
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, "Saun on koha apteet" 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
kayttaydyttava saunaaa 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.
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
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 to-day!" "Yes, do," exclaimed therest 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 recognise 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. 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
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.
Their nationalism was stirred and marshalled. 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
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
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 lumbermills 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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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