The sauna is generally considered to be invented in Finland. But Finns don’t want all the credit, just what is due. Who made the first sauna is not as important as who developed it to the high standards of the culture we see today. In Finland, almost every home has a sauna. At least no other country can claim that, not even the other Scandinavian countries. The sauna survived and developed in Finland because the Finns were people of the forest and nature, and never deviated from the proper way to use the sauna in daily life. This attitude is partly due to tradition and the Finns’ historically healthy attitude toward the human body. That is why the Finns even today are the keepers of the sauna culture and sauna enjoyment.
The sauna has always been important for Finns. It has a long history, going back at least a thousand year, probably more. Originally the sauna was a place to bathe, but as it was the only available clean place with abundant water, it has also been a place for giving birth and healing the sick.
There are today an estimated 2 million saunas in Finland, 1.2 million of which are in private apartments and the rest in summer cottages, hotels and public swimming pools.
History has seen a variety of different sauna types in Finland and other cultures have had their own versions of the sweat bath: the Native American sweat lodge, or inipi, the Russian bania and the Turkish hamam steam bath.
The Finns go back thousands of years to central Asia when nomadic tribes began their migration eastward and northward, to populate southwestern Russia, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, and finally Suomi, as they call their land. The nomad people wandering around what later became Finland already had primitive saunas. They heated holes in the ground and covered them with a tarp to have a warm place for bathing. There was probably an open fire in the hole, and the bathers would wait until the fire had gone before entering the sauna. The native American sweat lodge is very similar to this kind of sauna.
Such a hot room would later evolve into the smoke sauna, the most traditional form of modern saunas. This type of traditional smoke sauna was called a savusauna, which means smoke sauna in Finnish. A smoke sauna has a fireplace with no chimney; the fire heats the stones directly and the smoke exits the room through a small hole just below the roof. The fireplace is built by piling stones, ideally without using mortar, and takes several hours to warm up. Smoke saunas were built and used as late as the 1920’s, after which they almost disappeared as new types of heaters were developed.
As the sauna types are developed, the heaters have been changed both in technological standpoint and models used. The older sauna heater models were larger wood heated stoves that were fired up once and took a long time to reach full temperature.
Today there is a wide range of sauna heaters available, including electric, gas, traditional wood-fired and infrared. Mostly, factory made constant heat (which means there is fire burning all the time) models are used because they take up less space and in many ways are handier than the old ones.
Most modern heaters use electricity since it is easy and relatively cheap, but wood heaters can be still preferred, too. The feeling in a wood-heated sauna is somewhat different from that of an electric sauna. The wooden sauna has lately won new appreciation and the art of building wood-heated saunas, even smoke saunas has been revived.