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Uncovering the Fascinating Origins of Sauna

A sauna is often considered a luxury, but its origins and development over the centuries tell a fascinating story of craftsmanship, cultural evolution, and health benefits.

SAUNA, correctly pronounced “sow (rhymes with wow!) nah,” is the only Finnish word in the English dictionary; it means “bath” and “bathhouse.”  The name Sauna is thought to be a derivative of the word savuna, literally “in smoke”. 

The origins

The 5 generations of sauna

It all seems to have started in Finland dating back thousands of years, after the Ice Age. Originally, Finnish saunas were earth pits, man-made or natural caves that were covered or draped closed with animal skins and had a fire burning inside them during the day beneath a pile of stones. 

The smoke was allowed to fill the room while it was heating. It was a half-day process to heat this type of room. When the Sauna reached temperature, the fire was put out and the smoke wafted out, through a hole in the back wall. The walls and ceiling would become dark black. This original Sauna was called “savu” (Finnish for smoke) Sauna. 

The bathers entered after the smoke cleared and the stones would continue to warm the cave long into the night for the people (and sometimes animals) who huddled inside and basked in the steam that rose from the stones when water was poured on them. 

It was a place for the whole family, of many generations, from children to grandparents. They were usually nude to ensure proper cleansing.

It was one of the first things you would build when you arrived somewhere: These rooms were not just warmed by the fire, but also sterilised by the smoke. As a result, they were essential for sustaining daily life in a harsh landscape. These early saunas functioned as kitchens, washrooms, hospitals and more throughout the year, while in the harsh winters they were literally the only place to live. The sauna was where people were born, where their bodies were laid out at the end of their lives, and where all the most important celebrations took place in between.

The saunas of the past were not just used for cleaning and relaxation; they were also used for spiritual purposes. For example, the ancient Finnish people believed that the sauna was a place where they could communicate with gods and spirits. It was also believed that the sauna could help them reach enlightenment and gain knowledge of the world.

In addition to being used for spiritual purposes, saunas were also used for healing. The ancient Finns believed that the heat of the sauna could help heal a variety of ailments, from muscle pain to skin diseases. The sauna was also used to treat a variety of medical conditions, such as infections, wounds, and even broken bones.

The ‘ground’ or ‘Earth pit’ sauna arrived after the Stone Age. To build it, you need only an earth floor, three walls, one wooden door and a turf roof with a few tree trunks. Inside the sauna was a stove in the corner and a wooden bench made of a log. They don’t exist anymore in Finland but their modern equivalent is the tent sauna.

The third-generation sauna –  the smoke sauna with large stoves – was born at the end of Iron  Age and it remained popular until the 1930s with one of the first written detailed descriptions of the Finnish Sauna was in 1112. 

The Sauna later evolved to the more typical metal woodstove heater with the chimney in Western Finland and they spread quickly in the 18th and 19th century city saunas. The barrel-shaped, sheet metal stove arrived in the 20th century.

A wood-saving way to heat saunas using small electric and gas-heated stoves arrived immediately after World War II. This invention meant saunas could be heated in just half an hour. These fifth-generation stoves are still used in many Finnish cottages and backyard saunas.

Sauna’s Migration to Europe

Sauna spread beyond Finland, making its way to Europe in the 16th century. It was during this time that the sauna began to take on its modern form, with the introduction of stoves, benches, and other features. As saunas spread throughout Europe, they began to take on different forms and become more popular.

Saunas were especially popular in Germany, where they were used for both leisure and medicinal purposes. In some parts of Germany, saunas were even used to cure ailments such as arthritis and rheumatism. In addition to being used for medical purposes, saunas were also used as a place of relaxation and socialising.

Wherever Finns travelled they brought their Sauna culture with them. It was first brought to America by Finns who settled in the current state of Delaware in 1638. Modern day life and electricity evolved the Sauna again. Saunas became more accessible in the U.S. after the electric Sauna stove was developed in the 1950s. In the 19th century, saunas began to spread throughout the world in large numbers, with countries such as the United States and Canada embracing the practice. Saunas were used as a way to escape the cold winter months, as well as for social gatherings.

Sauna’s Expansion Throughout Scandinavia

Saunas eventually spread to other parts of Scandinavia, with Norway, Sweden, and Denmark all embracing the practice. In Norway, saunas were used for both leisure and medicinal purposes, with some believing that the heat of the sauna could help heal a variety of ailments.

In Sweden, saunas were popular among the upper classes, with saunas being built in the homes of the wealthy. These saunas were often decorated with lavish furniture and artwork, and became a popular place for social gatherings.

In Denmark, saunas were used to treat a variety of medical conditions, such as skin diseases and muscle pain. 

The Sauna in Modern Culture

Today, saunas are popular around the world and are often found in gyms, spas, offices, factories, ships, hotels and homes. In Europe, saunas are ever more popular, with Finland having the most saunas per capita – over 3 million saunas for 5.5 mil population so around 1 for every household on average – often more saunas than there are cars.

They are popular in summer and winter. It is no longer seen as pure luxury, but a necessity. 

In Asia, saunas are becoming increasingly popular, with many countries embracing the practice.

Saunas have also become popular in the entertainment industry, with many movies and TV shows featuring saunas as a setting. In addition, saunas have become a popular destination for tourists, with many countries offering sauna-related experiences.

Other cultures have developed their own similar things  – like the Japanese steam baths. – Ways of using hot water, hot stones. The Roman baths, the Turkish baths. The Russian Banya, the African hot springs. 

Technology has led to the invention of the infra-red sauna, and personal sauna suits.

Germany introduced the Aufgass – or  “infusion” experience in the 1960s. It was soon commercialised and spread throughout the world. It involves a ‘fusion’ of music, aromatherapy (with scented natural oils), towel waving (to distribute the aroma and hot air) and is led by a sauna master.

At Emerald spa, we embrace the rich history of the original saunas and our aim is the same – to provide a place for heating, healing, relaxing, cleansing and socialising – and a feast for our senses.

For a fuller history of saunas, see

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