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The Finnish Sauna

Not only is the sauna Finnish, but Finns define themselves as such in terms of sauna participation. The affirmation of their identity is communicated in sauna performance.

Sauna is a Finnish hot air bath. In colloquial English, many Finnish-Americans say they go sauna and they take a sauna or sauna bath. In other words, sauna is both the bathhouse and the bath.

Since the 1950s saunas have proliferated all over the western world. Regarded suspiciously in the early decades of the twentieth century as a place where immigrant Finns conducted strange rituals and worshipped pagan gods, today sauna is a household word – perhaps the only Finnish word incorporated into the English language – and is enjoyed by Americans of different cultural backgrounds. Saunas are advertised as special features of motels and hotels along with HBO and pools; they have become standard components of resorts, gymnasiums, health clubs, and reducing salons. In addition, saunas have become luxury items in the homes of non-Finnish-Americans. Despite this widespread acceptance, few Americans have experienced a "real" sauna, that is, sauna in its traditional spatial, temporal, and cultural context. Depending n whether one is Finnish-American or one of the other Americans now enjoying sauna, the significance of sauna differs. To other Americans, sauna (which they often pronounce as saw-nah) is perhaps an exotic, perhaps a healthful, bath. To Finnish-Americans, sauna (pronounced sow-nah) is more than a bathhouse. It links past and present, Finland and the United States, Finns and Finnish-Americans; it is an ancient tradition and a symbol of ethnic identity.

Wherever there are Finns, there are saunas. Geographers Cotton Mather and Matti Kaups used saunas as an index to Finnish-American settlement zones, the greatest density and largest number of Finnish-Americans being in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan where the Keweenau Peninsula and surrounding area is often referred to as the "sauna belt." Minnesota is a close second. Traveling the roads of Michigan’s central and western U.P., an observant visitor sees many homesteads consisting of the house and various small barns and outbuildings. One of these is a small, low structure, usually closer than the other buildings to the back door of the house, with one or two windows, one door, and a chimney. This is the sauna.

The first Finnish-American saunas were one-room structures made from squared logs, hewn and mortised at the ends and placed horizontally on top of each other, and with pitched roofs. This early type of bathhouse, called savusauna (smoke sauna), had no chimney; smoke from the wood fire encircled the walls, ceiling, and tiered benches, escaping through a small vent near the roof or through the door. The interior became black and fragrant from years of smoke.

The sauna of today is most often a plank-wall construction with an attached dressing room. New log constructions, however, are not uncommon. Within living memory of second-generation Finnish-Americans, before dressing rooms were added, people undressed in the house and streaked naked to the sauna. The addition of a dressing room to the one-room sauna was in partial response to outside pressure, just as chimneys were constructed on smoke saunas to conform to local safety regulations. The dressing room walls are lined with benches, pegs on the walls for clothing, and rag rugs covering the benches and floor. A door opens into the bath chamber, a room about ten by eight feet. A wood-burning stove stands in a corner, heaped with lake or field rocks, and a two- or three-tiered wooden platform, like bleachers, extends from wall to wall at one end. Each room has a small window, but ideally the bath chamber is dimly lighted. Water is either carried into the sauna and stored in large drums or piped in. Bathing utensils include dippers, basins and buckets, and whisks made of cedar boughs or young leafy birch branches.

Saunas are also built in the basements of homes, especially in cities. Often the stoves are electric or gas, and showers are installed nearby. However, the detached sauna with a wood-burning stove is still the idealized form, and whenever possible Finns build them on lake shores and next to rivers.

Regardless of its location, the sauna is removed from everyday activities. It is where one goes not only to wash away the dirt but also to restore oneself. The Finnish national epic, Kalevala, attributes magical curing properties to the sauna. Although no one today regards its attributes as magical, many do believe that the sauna has healthful benefits. A Finnish proverb states that if whiskey and a sauna won’t cure your ills, nothing will. For a common cold it is not unusual to go sauna, sip whiskey, and sweat. A widespread hangover remedy is also a long and hot sauna. To offset fatigue, anger, and depression, Finns turn to quiet time in the sauna and emerge revitalized. The Finnish way to restore order is to take a sauna.

Regardless of tubs and showers, it is only in the sauna that one gets really clean. Finnish-Americans who do not have their own often have access to a relative’s or a friend’s. When smoke billows from the sauna, neighbors know they are welcome for sauna. In towns of dense Finnish-American population, there also are public saunas where for a fee one can take a sauna.

Although one can sauna anytime, the traditional days are Saturday and Wednesday. Socializing is an important part of the Saturday sauna and friends and relatives are often invited. While first the men and then the women (or alternatively, family by family) take turns bathing, others visit. Sharing food afterwards is important and usually includes coffee and cold drinks, pastries, or even a complete meal. Saturday sauna parties are a Finnish-American alternative to card parties in other American subcultures.

Sauna is important in other situations of social interaction. Offering sauna to out-of-town guests is the traditional way of extending hospitality, and failure to do so is could be taken as an insult. Moreover, one does not sauna with just anyone. This is an experience that strengthens social bonds.

Like the structure itself, the bath is governed by widely shared traditions. After leaving clothing in the dressing room, bathers enter the sauna naked, closing the door behind them. The room is like another world; dimly lighted, quiet, and hot. They may sit anywhere; although there is no rule, the "bravest" go to the top tier where it is hottest. Children often sit on the bottom tier as close to the floor as possible where it is coolest. When perspiring freely, bathers return to the dressing room to cool off. Before the addition of the dressing room, bathers stood or sat naked outside. This practice shocked passing non-Finns. To stand naked outdoors in any season was regarded as abnormal behavior, especially in the winter. However, this was normal Finnish-American sauna behavior.

Once cooled, bathers reenter the sauna and begin the process over again. Now and then water can be thrown on the hot rocks; the water sizzles on impact and hot steam encircles and momentarily "stings" the bathers. The skin tingles, perspiration increases. Along with the steam comes the cedar bough switch, which is soaked in warm water and then lightly "toasted" on the hot stones "to kill germs." Bathers energetically beat themselves causing additional tingling. An outsider might regard this act as masochistic, but to a Finn the tingling is a learned pleasure and feels good.

Bathers then step out to cool off again. This pattern can be repeated many times or only once. One can remain in the sauna for several hours sweating and flagellating, or go through the steps quickly. Finally bathers scrub down well with soap, either in the sauna or in an adjoining shower, and then rinse off. At this point bathers might jump into a lake or river, or merely rest quietly in the dressing room to cool down. Old-timers talk about rolling in the snow too, but today this is not a favorite alternative.

Tradition also determines behavior in the sauna. At one time the sauna was considered a sacred place, along with the church. Today this sacred association no longer exists; however, sauna behavior emphasizes the specialness of the place. Children are subdued. Singing and whistling are not condoned, and talk is generally quiet. Finnish-Americans do not recognize the establishments in motels and health clubs called "saunas" as the real thing: people talk too much and too loudly, it is never hot enough, management does not allow water on the rocks or the use of whisks, and clothing is required. Many are also offended by the association of saunas with massage parlors. In other words, the Finnish code of sauna is violated. Not only is the sauna Finnish, but Finns define themselves as such in terms of sauna participation. The affirmation of their identity is communicated in sauna performance.


Suggested reading

Johnson, Aili K. "Lore of the Finnish-American Sauna." Midwest Folklore 1 (April 1951):33-40.

Lockwood, Yvonne R. "The Sauna: An Expression of Finnish-American Identity." Western Folklore 36 (January 1977):71-84.

Mather, Cotton and Matti Kaups. "The Finnish Sauna: A Cultural Index to Settlement." Annals of the association of American Geographers 53 (December 1963):494-504.

Sutyla, Charles M. The Finnish Sauna in Manitoba. Canadian Centre for Folk Culture Studies 24. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1977.

Acknowledgements to: This essay by Yvonne R. Lockwood first published in 1988 Festival of Michigan Folklife, Michigan State University Museum.

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