Early Spa Designs
In the 1800s the sauna resembled a small house made of logs. It was built tight with no exterior windows. Other than the door, the only opening was a small hole in the ceiling that allowed the smoke to get out. This hole was kept closed until the sauna was heated, typically by a wood fire built beneath a stone structure in the center of the room. Saunas were built away from other buildings in case they accidentally caught on fire. Once the desired temperature was reached, the fire was extinguished and women cleaned up the ashes and soot before shepherding everyone into the sauna.
A traditional sauna bath is taken in the nude with men and women, children and adults, all enjoying the sauna together. After a few minutes in the intense heat, bathers often use birch switches to strike their backs, arms, and loins to promote circulation. Then water is poured over the body to clean and refresh it. To raise the sauna’s temperature and to envelop bathers in temporary steam, water is ladled over the hot rocks. After about 30 minutes, bathers rinse themselves one last time and return to their homes to dress.
The sauna experience began to change in the late 1800s. Industrialization brought bathing conveniences into the home, and population growth made it more difficult for families to bathe simultaneously or to build saunas at a safe distance from other buildings. Meanwhile, new medical facilities usurped the role of saunas in childbirth and other health procedures. Finns even became less comfortable in their own skins, with both sexes modestly covering themselves when making their way to and from the sauna.
Changing times called for a changing sauna. Urban areas couldn’t support the use of wood-fired saunas, which posed a fire threat to cities. But new heating technology
wasn’t available yet, causing sauna use to hit a historic low in the 1930s. World War II, however, ushered in a period of revitalization for the sauna industry. The depressed war economy offered few inexpensive entertainment options, and saunas offered a pastime most people could afford. Interestingly, during the war the military used tents equipped with sauna heaters to delouse soldiers and improve troop morale.
After the war the sauna industry intensified efforts to create a marketable sauna unit. Eventually, electric and gas-fired heaters were developed and manufactured, making saunas practical again for home use. Though other countries, such as Sweden and Germany, also began marketing their own saunas around this time, the Finns were reluctant to export a cultural icon. Even today, more than half of the world’s saunas are in Finland, which boasts nearly as many saunas as cars, or about one sauna for every four people.
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