The History of the Sauna

A history of the traditional Sauna, from its purpose to its construction.

| January/February 1971

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    This illustration shows the inner workings of a traditional sauna.
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The sauna bath has gained widespread popularity in North America the last couple of years and anyone who has had one doesn't need to be told why. Unfortunately, as the commercial availability of the sauna has increased, there has been a corresponding decrease in the understanding of this traditional Finnish bath.

The sauna is an integral part of a Finnlander's life: It'swhere he cleanses both his body and his soul and it's also an important social institution in the Finnish community. The construction of a sauna is one of the first projects any good Finnlander completes when he moves into a new home.

I was introduced to the sauna when I was about ten years old by my dad, a raving Finnish anarchist. He had waited years to get the family into one. You see, dad had courted mom by driving around the countryside on Saturday night looking for a place to take a bath and mom-raised in the city by strict Scandinavian parents and not speaking a word of Finnish-had come to almost lothe saunas as a result. So if dad was to have a sauna, it would have to be through the enthusiasm of us kids . . . and he had waited years for this day.

Dad had not waited patiently, either. Months before the first bath, he had found someone handy with torch and soldering iron to put together what is known as the kiuas, or sauna stove.

Our kiuas was nothing fancy. Dad and his friend made it by cutting away the front and part of the top of a 55gallon oil drum. Inside the large drum they placed a 25-gallon oil drum fitted with an iron door and stovepipe (see illustration). Rocks, 2 to 6 inches in diameter, were placed on a heavy grill laid across the open top of the larger drum.

Our steam room was one corner of a boathouse that was already on the property. It was blocked off with large pieces of plywood set on the rafters for a ceiling and gunny sacks hung down for the two remaining walls.


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