The Sauna in America
©1997 Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
A group of my friends in a public sauna in Richmond, California.
Photo copyright Mikkel Aaland.
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.
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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
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,"
"kinas," and "loyly" was impossible because English has no equivalent.
Many Finns gave up the bath when they became older.
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 worshipping
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 caiibre when it was explained the
sauna was a place for cleaning and not for worshipping 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
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
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 1939-4O. 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
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
Although the electric sauna stove had been invented several years
before the sauna became popular in America, its appearance told
entrepeneurs 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. lt 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.
[authors note: I've removed some of the more dated material from
this section but the condition of the sauna in America remains
very much the same today in 1997 as it did back in 1978 when I
did my initial research.]
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