From sweat lodges to public bath houses, there has always been some type of “sauna” throughout human history, across all cultures. But where did the type of sauna that is the closest to what we are familiar with today come from?
Neolithic Finnish Sauna
Finland is often the first country to come to mind when the question “Where did saunas originate?” The earliest ones were thought to have been invented around 4,000 years ago in Northern Europe, beginning in Finland and spreading out to Latvia, Estonia, Russia, and Orkney. They were actually built for survival purposes more than anything. In such harsh, cold climates people didn’t have the means for luxury.
The more simple ones were holes that were either surrounded by stones with fire under them or covered with animal skins. The latter is believed by some to have dated all the way back towards the end of the Ice Age. The more modern “tent sauna” is the closest thing to the “earth pit saunas”.
When stones were used, they were heated to as high a temperature as possible. Water was then thrown on them to produce steam. People could then take off their clothes and warm up.
There are still traditional steam saunas today based on the original Finish models, only instead of heating the stones with fire, they are heated via electricity.
As time went on, log or wooden rooms would be built. These were lined with a type of bacterial soot to add to the cleanliness. Unlike the more ancient stone pit saunas, these small rooms were used for more than just surviving in a cold climate. They were used for purification rituals for events such as weddings and funeral preparations. The bodies of the dead were brought to the sauna to be cleaned and prepared for the funeral.
These small rooms were also used in all seasonal and sacred holidays throughout the year, including New Years, Midsummer, and harvest time.
Other “Saunas” Throughout History
As mentioned above, there have been some sort of heating and cleansing room or hut throughout history in most cultures. While Finland is the most common answer to the question regarding the origin of saunas, it’s not the only answer.
- What about those living in warmer climates? In Mexico and Central America, ancient sweat lodges have been uncovered. These were designed for low-heat and constructed from clay or stone.
- In North America, the traditional sweat lodge was heated by steam from the water poured over hot steams, and was used for spiritual and therapeutic purposes.
- Ancient Rome was notorious for its public bath houses, which are more like modern-day spas than saunas. Communal baths were often found in temples, and used for many things, including business deals. As time went on, these “spas” became so popular that more lavish ones were built on natural hot springs.
- Korean kiln saunas were first mentioned in the Annals of Sejong from the 15th century. Among their uses were medicine and healing. Some of the state-supported ones were maintained by monks. In the early 1400s, separate facilities for women and men were constructed. Today, there are Jjimjilbangs that are open 24/7 and very popular tourist attractions.
History of Infrared Saunas
The advent of electricity in the latter part of the 19th century helped pave the way for the infrared sauna. The answer to the question of “Who invented the sauna” that would eventually lead to the far infrared saunas we know and love today would be John Harvey Kellogg, who spent his life embracing holistic healing modalities. Credit also goes to William Herschel, who was the first to discover infrared rays in the 1880s.
It wouldn’t be for another several decade before far infrared technology was heavily researched by NASA. It was in Japan, however, that the first patent for a ceramic far infrared heater was established. Eventually, the product finally made its way to the US, and is continued to be used today, as well as the modernized Finnish-type sauna.