The oldest Finnish saunas date back 10 000 years ago, after the Ice Age. Originally, Finnish saunas were earth pits covered with animal skins. Earth pit saunas don’t exist anymore in Finland but their modern equivalent is the tent sauna.
The ground sauna arrived after the Stone Age. To build it, you need only an earth floor, three walls, one wooden door and a turf roof with a few tree trunks. Inside the sauna was a stove in the corner and wooden bench made of a log.
The third-generation sauna, the smoke sauna with large stoves, was born at the end of Iron Age and it remained popular until the 1930s. Smoke saunas differed from contemporary saunas in that they used piles of rocks heated over a fire for 6 to 8 hours which, after letting the smoke out, would provide warmth for hours. Nowadays sauna lovers cherish the smoke sauna.
The first sauna stoves with chimneys were used in Western Finland and they spread quickly in the 18th and 19th century city saunas. The barrel-shaped, sheet metal stove arrived in the 20th century.
A wood-saving way to heat saunas using small electric and gas-heated stoves arrived immediately after World War II. This invention meant saunas could be heated in just half an hour. These fifth-generation stoves are still used in many Finnish cottages and backyard saunas.
Saunas have been used for different purposes through the ages in Finland. Saunas were used for religious ceremonies, bodily cleansing, healing illnesses, relaxation and for social life. Children were born in them, women went through the purification ritual before marriage and old people went to die in sauna.
Historically, there were some beliefs concerning the location of saunas and what kind of firewood is used in sauna. The first bath of a new sauna required knowledge of ancient traditions to ensure good sauna experiences for the future. Using someone else’s sauna also required its own spells.
People believed that each sauna was guarded by its own spirit. The guardian spirit was in gnome form and was supposed to protect its sauna from fire and other damage. By following sauna traditions, people kept the spirit satisfied. One tradition was that the household left a cup of water for the gnome, or at Christmas time, a bowl of porridge. Traditional sauna gnomes still remain in some saunas as a reminder of the old Finnish superstitions.