Sauna History and Contemporary Trends

When envisioning the sauna lifestyle, people often conjure up images of robust Finns perspiring profusely on wooden benches while heat radiates from a bed of hot rocks. After a session in the sweat bath, the naked bathers run out of the sauna and plunge their glistening bodies into the chilly waters of a nearby lake or roll around in a fresh blanket of snow. As exotic as this may sound, it doesn’t represent the modern-day reality of sauna use in the United States.

Though some sauna purists pooh-pooh anything other than a traditional wood-fired sauna fashioned from hewn logs, most of us are more familiar with contemporary saunas crafted from smooth cedar planks and warmed with an electric or gas heater. Instead of naked bodies sweating in unison, today’s more modest sauna bathers are frequently wrapped in towels. And a cool shower is more likely to follow a sweat bath than a dip in frigid waters.

Indeed, sauna products and the lifestyle surrounding them have changed a great deal since the first sweat baths were created thousands of years ago for the Romans and Turks. Throughout history, civilizations around the world from Native Americans to Asians practiced some form of sweat bathing. In fact, many indigenous North Americans used some form of a sweat lodge. The Anishinabe of the Lake Superior region, for example, would heat stones on an open fire and then stack them on the floor of a small wigwam. The heated hut was typically used for therapy, as well as ceremonial and spiritual activities. Though many cultures enjoyed the concept of a sweat bath, it is the Finns who came to popularize the ritual and incorporate it fully into their day-to-day life.

Sweat baths can be found in many cultures. Shown here is the interior of a Native American sweat lodge and healing hut.

The Finns deemed the sauna experience important to their health and happiness, and they used it with decorum. More than just a relaxing method of cleaning the body, the sauna was part of their social culture. For example, Finnish literature talks of a new bride dutifully preparing the sauna for her mother- and father-in-law and of the sauna being used to help one persevere through troubling times.

Frequently, rural neighbors took turns preparing the sauna for everyone to use at the end of a hard day in the fields. Also, it was common for women to give birth in the sauna. Supposedly, the tannic acid from the smoke sterilized the sauna surface, making it one of the few sanitary places to perform minor surgery or other medical procedures. In fact, a loose translation of an old Finnish proverb, Sauna on koyhan apteekki, is The sauna is a poor man’s pharmacy.

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