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For Americans, a sauna is a luxury, but for the Finns it is a common fixture – nearly half of all Finnish homes have a sauna, and every Finn to the last swaddled babe will take up the tradition, if not in their own saunas then at the neighbor’s, as it is a communal tradition.
And, this is not to speak of Scandinavia at large. The Finns are credited with creating the sauna we know today (indeed, “sauna” is the only Finnish word used in the English language), but its popularity doesn’t end at the border. Swedes and Norwegians also indulge in the steamy ritual, and you’ll find many of their homes have saunas as well.
Early Sauna History
But, to say the Finns created the first sauna – or were the first people to practice the fine art of sweating intentionally – would take a leap of faith. There’s no hard proof to the contrary, but archeologists have discovered ancient underground sweat lodges in several locations around the world, including some very old sites in Mexico and Guatemala.
There’s good reason for this, as well as to suspect that sweat lodges were a widespread phenomenon in ancient times, perhaps even prior to recorded history. Nowadays saunas are an indulgence, but back then sweat baths were used as a primary way to clean the body.
So, how did the sweat bath go from necessity to luxury?
Many things contributed to the sauna’s evolving place in current culture, though arguably none more than technology. The Industrial Revolution marked a transition in the way saunas were heated, and the advent and advancement of plumbing impacted their practicality as a bathing option.
But, it’s the science that really gave saunas a face-lift. New technology in heating and building made the way for different kinds of saunas. Now, we can choose between infrared saunas, wet saunas, dry saunas, smoke saunas and steam saunas, which we’ll explore in Part II of our sauna series.