From the very first moment outsiders reached Finland, they invariably have placed the sauna at the heart of Finnish culture, and much of the international imagination of Finland has revolved around the sauna. Giuseppe (Joseph) Acerbi’s 1798-1799 tour of Finland and the Nordic world was among the first detailed European commentaries on the sauna. His account Travels through Sweden, Finland, and Lapland, to the North Cape in the years 1798 and 1799 acknowledged that “Another particular that appeared very singular among the customs of the Finns, was their baths, and manner of bathing. Almost all the Finnish peasants have a small house built on purpose for a bath: it consists of only one small chamber, in the innermost part of which are placed a number of stones, which are heated by fire till they become red. On these stones, thus heated, water is thrown, until the company within be involved in a thick cloud of vapour.”
The 19th-century poem The Kalevala, widely regarded as the Finnish national epic, details the country’s oldest origination myths and folk legends that include many folks stories of the sauna in its pages. Pekka Leimu argues that in the century leading up to Finland’s 1917 independence from Russia, Finnish nationalists routinely distinguished themselves through reference to their language, The Kalevala, and the sauna. LM Edelsward’s 1991 study Sauna as Symbol: Society and Culture in Finland argues that 19th-century nationalism fueled the popularity of saunas and moved them from an everyday but mostly invisible practice to the self-conscious heart of Finnish culture. The sauna became a symbol of nature, ideally embedded in the distinctively Finnish forest landscape of ice and lakes implicitly distanced from urbanity. There is also a sort of egalitarianism implicit (or potential) in the sauna experience, since it strips us literally to our common bodily form devoid of clear ranking.
In 1963 Cotton Mather and Matti Kaups’ study of Finnish immigrants to the northern US found that saunas remained a very common practice among those immigrants and their descendants. The largest number of Finns came to the US in the first decade of the 20th century (when 58,640 Finns immigrated into the US), and in 1920 that community reached its peak with 149,824 foreign-born Finns living in the US. Most came from the Vaasa region and southern Ostrobothnia, so not from the Oulu area to the north. Nearly half of the Finns who went to the states settled in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and in 1963 Mather and Kaups still found more than three-quarters of the Finnish-American households in their regional survey had saunas. They expressed skepticism that Finnish immigrants had been assimilated in the “melting pot,” pointing to the sauna as evidence for the persistence of Finnish culture in the states.
Over 2,000,000 saunas are in Finland today, so there is roughly one for every household, and they are considered a necessity and an essential part of all architectural design. Saunas come in myriad forms and sizes ranging from the sauna in the Parliament to the modest sauna in my flat. There are a wide range of heating forms from smoke saunas to wood-burning to the now-common electric sauna, and the range of rituals—beating oneself with birch, plunging into an icy lake or a snowbank afterward, consuming sausage or beer in break or afterward—are legion. Saunas are ways to end and continue business negotiations, cement friendships, and relax collectively, so the experience and the discussions within are consequential.
The basic mechanics of a sauna have not changed much from the end of the 18th century, when Giuseppe Acerbi described a sauna in which “the chamber is formed into two stories for the accommodation of a greater number of persons within that small compass; and it being the nature of heat and vapour to ascend, the second story is, of course, the hottest.” Depending on the size of the sauna—I have been in a couple that easily could seat 10 people—the spaces are mostly dark and strangely quiet spaces punctuated by the sizzle of water hitting the rocks, so it is a distinctive sort of conversation. I have been in one wood-burning sauna, and it adds a familiar Finnish forest scent somewhat distinct from an electric sauna, which has its own distinctive smells and sounds as well.
The bigger surprise for Acerbi has often seized the minds and imaginations of many other visitors, with Acerbi noting that that “Men and women use the bath promiscuously, without any concealment of dress, or being in the least influenced by any emotions of attachment.” For many Finnish visitors then and now, bathing is not especially social, and in many cultures there is not an easy parallel to the sauna experience beside the functional act of bathing. The sauna codes are not especially clear to me, but saunas tend to be gender-exclusive experiences in my modest experience, outside family units. But Americans bring a host of hang ups to nudity and bodily image, and a sauna does compel you to accept the genetic card you’ve been handed.
Acerbi indicated that if “a stranger open the door, and come on the bathers by surprise, the women are not a little startled at his appearance,” so this early European ethnographer “often amused myself with surprising the bathers in this manner, and I once or twice tried to go in and join the assembly; but the heat was so excessive that I could not breathe, and in the space of a minute at most, I verily believe, must have been suffocated.” With a reflective awareness of the significance of sauna and a little more respect for local practice, my son and I entered the sauna this week intent of embracing local culture and intent on avoiding any discussion of nakedness. My Finnish colleagues seem terribly apologetic that our saunas must be in the tiny little electric box in our flat, and all provide contradictory advice about the rituals leading up to, during and following the sweat, but we charged in emboldened by our summers in sweltering Indiana.
Like many visitors to follow, Acerbi was floored by the sauna heat, acknowledging that “I sometimes stepped in for a moment, just to leave my thermometer in some proper place, and immediately went out again, where I would remain for a quarter of an hour, or ten minutes, and then enter again, and fetch the instrument to ascertain the degree of heat. My astonishment was so great that I could scarcely believe my senses, when I found that those people remain together, and amuse themselves for the space of half an hour, and sometimes a whole hour, in the same chamber, heated to the 70th or 75th degree of Celsius. The thermometer, in contact with those vapours, became so hot, that I could scarcely hold it in my hands.”
Me and my son entered the sauna confidently, but in a few minutes we reached a mutual decision that perhaps our chosen temperature was a little much for our fair temperaments as we fancied ourselves doing a Scanners meltdown, and we acknowledged that initially pouring large amounts of water onto the rocks made a cool sound but was not especially pleasurable. We dashed onto the balcony clad in sweat-drenched towels and spent a half hour drawing cool breaths and contemplating perhaps turning the temperature down a modest amount on our next sweat. We are optimistic we’ll be completely accustomed to the heat and settle in for the Finnish sauna experience in no time.
For a clever analysis of contemporary Americans in saunas—and our complicated experiences of the gaze, nudity, and the body in saunas—see Pia Lindman’s Sauna as Cultural Practice: Two Art Projects and a Video.
Joseph (Guiseppe) Acerbi (1802) Travels through Sweden, Finland, and Lapland, to the North Cape in the years 1798 and 1799. 2 vols. John Mawman, London.
Lisa-Marlene Edelsward (1991) Sauna as Symbol: Society and Culture in Finland Peter Lang Publishing.
Pekka Leimu (2002) “The Finnish Sauna and its Finnishness,” In Water, Leisure, and Culture: European Historical Perspectives, eds. Susan C. Anderson and Bruce H. Tabb, pp.71-86. Berg Press, New York.
Pia Lindman (2003) Sauna as Cultural Practice: Two Art Projects and a Video Rethinking Marxism 19(2):197-211.
Cotton Mather and Matti Kaups (1963) “The Finnish Sauna: A Cultural Index to Settlement” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 53(4):494-504. JSTOR subscription required.