In Context

There is nothing that Finns have been so unanimous about as their sauna. This unanimity has remained unbroken for centuries and is sure to continue as long as there are children born in their native land, as long as the invitation still comes from the porch threshold in the evening twilight: "The sauna is ready."
-- Finnish author Maila Talvio (1871-1951)


The Sauna in History

The sauna has been a central part of Finnish culture and daily life for centuries, if not millennia. There are currently an estimated 2 million saunas in Finland (a country with a population of 5 million) and 99 percent of Finns take a sauna at least once a week.

Today, the word "sauna," a Finnish word whose etymology is unknown, can apply to either a freestanding structure or a wood-lined room with some sort of stove. In its simplest, oldest form, however, the sauna was probably a pit dug into a slope, with a fireplace or pile of heated stones in one corner. This most primitive of forms, which also served as a home, evolved into a rectangular log hut with a chimneyless stove, a raised platform and an earth floor. The room would fill with smoke while the stove was being heated, but the smoke would later dissipate, leaving the room lined with naturally bacteria-resistant soot.

According to historical documentation, the smoke sauna, which stood separately from the dwelling structure as early as the 12th century, persisted into the 20th century. It is still considered the most authentic form of sauna in Finland, but it can take hours to prepare -- three or four hours for heating and one or two for "settling."

Traditionally, the sauna in Finland was used not only for regular bathing, but also for a range of domestic chores and rituals, such as drying flax, preparing malts, curing meat, giving birth and preparing the deceased for burial. It was also where traveling healers (usually women) attended to the ill, administering baths or massage or drawing blood. At the summer festivals of Whitsuntide and Midsummer, special rituals involving spells, baths and hanging herbs were performed to improve young women's perceived suitability for marriage. The sauna was also believed to increase men's virility.

There was a time when public town saunas were common, though those have now more or less died out, as most Finns have access either to their own personal saunas or to shared saunas in their apartment complexes or homes. The oldest public sauna still in use is the Rajaportin sauna in Tampere, built in 1906; it is still heated in the traditional manner. Visitors may participate in massage and cupping, a traditional treatment in which small glass cups containing heated air are placed onto the skin so that the cups form a seal with the skin. The reduced air pressure draws circulation to the cupped area.

The Sauna Today

The traditional smoke sauna gave way over time to a slightly more sophisticated model with a chimneyed stove whose heat could be regulated. This new sort of stove needed only an hour or two to heat up and could be used as soon as the fire went out. By the 1950s, about half of the saunas in Finland were this type.

In the 1930s, a new type of sauna was introduced -- one in which the stones and the fire are separated by a cast-iron element, with the fire remaining lit throughout the bath. This type of sauna allows bathing to begin after just 30 minutes, but the disadvantage is that the fire must be attended throughout the bath, which can be disruptive. some say the quality of the steam is also inferior to that in a directly heated sauna.

Today, even more modern saunas have been developed, including versions powered by electricity, oil or gas, which are safer, but are generally considered inferior to their wood-burning predecessors

Finnish saunas are found in a wide variety of locations. A number of Finnish cargo ships boast saunas, as do many corporate offices and the Finnish parliament building. (It is not uncommon for politicians and business leaders to hold meetings and negotiate deals in the sauna.) Finns have also been known to erect saunas while serving in war. An annual festival even brings together owners of"mobile saunas." However, modesty and simplicity remain integral to the essence of the sauna space. saunas are almost always lined with simple wood or logs, and ostentatious decoration is not acceptable.

Photo Caption: Phonebooth sauna
Credit: Oktober Oy

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Rajaportin Sauna
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