The first sauna in North America dates back to 1638 in Philadelphia and was erected by Finnish and Swedish immigrants who settled in the Delaware River Valley. In fact, some historians believe âœSaunaâ was the original name given to Philadelphia, where the first sauna was built on the site now occupied by the city hall.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Finnish immigrants came to America and settled in the Midwest particularly Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota which offered a climate similar to Finland’s. A sauna on the homestead, built in the traditional style of logs, stone, and mortar, made immigrants feel more at home in a foreign land. By some estimates, 90 percent of Finnish-American homesteads had a sauna , a higher percentage than in homesteads in Finland. These saunas were typically 8 by
15 feet (2.4 to 4.5 m) and constructed of squared logs. The saunas often included two rooms, one for dressing and one for basking. A lantern might hang in a window between the two rooms to illuminate both.
Explaining their bathing style to settlers from other countries, however, was difficult for Finnish immigrants. They had to overcome the hurdle of not only the language barrier but also the difference in attitudes. Some immigrants from other cultures viewed communal bathing as immoral. In 1920, for example, a Wright County, Minnesota, farmer brought suit against his Finnish neighbors in an attempt to force them to disband their use of a sauna as a âœpagan temple.â Fortunately, the judge sided with the Finns, who argued that the sauna was used for bathing, not pagan worship. He found the Finns to be law-abiding citizens with good Lutheran principles, and he ordered the plaintiff to pay the defendants $30 for slander.
During the first half of the 20th century, the Finnish sauna began making a name for itself in the United States. Finnish athletes, who performed on the world stage during Olympic competitions, extolled the benefits of sauna use. In the 1920s, just a few years after Finland had gained independence, one of the best-known Finnish athletes, Paavo Nurmi, nicknamed âœThe Flying Finn,â dominated middle- and long-distance running, winning nine gold and three silver medals over the course of three Olympics. Since then, saunas and athletes have gone together like protein powder and health shakes.
In 1937, the Friends of the Finnish Sauna (later named the Finnish Sauna Society) was established to advocate the traditional Finnish sauna lifestyle. The members’ work has paid off. As more people became familiar with and accepting of Finnish customs after the war, sauna sales began to increase,
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