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Lakeside saunas have urban roots

A sauna heating up by a calm, peaceful lake is a classic image of an idyllic Finnish summer. However, historians say this countryside tradition is relatively recent and rooted in upper-class urban culture.

The forerunner of the lakeside Finnish sauna was the 19th century bathhouse that provided an enclosure for taking a dip out of sight. Image: Pertti Huotari / Yle

While there are few things that conjure up the image of a relaxing summer's day for the Finns than a sauna by a lake, the tradition of placing saunas close to bodies of water is not as long as most people may think.

Researchers who prepared a new exhibition on the sauna at the Museum of Central Finland in Jyväskylä  say that originally the custom was indirectly transplanted to the countryside by 18th century upper-class urban dwellers.

A new twist

The sauna, in one form or another, is likely to date back thousands of years. In Finland, it has long been an important, some might say essential, part of life.

In the countryside, the family sauna was usually to be found close to the farmhouse and close to the well. But, as increasing numbers of urban residents began acquiring villas and cottages as summer holiday retreats during the latter half of the 19th century, saunas began appearing on lakeshores.

"Urban dwellers were accustomed to a variety of baths and ways to splash about in the water at city spas," the museum's curator, Erkki Fredrikson explains.

It was natural that when these people started spending more time in the countryside, they wanted bathing facilities on the water, thus giving birth to the lakeside sauna.

Prudish about nudity

The open, unashamed nudity that the peasants practiced while bathing and swimming would have been beyond scandalous among the more refined classes.  For them, a day at the beach required covering up in long-sleeved, long-legged garments, complete with hats and sunshades.

"Members of the upper classes were never tanned. This was the rule right up to the start of the 20th century," says Fredrikson.

Transferring bits of spa culture to the countryside, private bathhouses became somewhat of a craze among the upper classes in the late 1800s.

These allowed for one to disrobe discretely. In their original form, they included a chamber built out over a lake with a wooden plank enclosed pool of water where one could take a dip in the water away from prying eyes that might be offended by a display of bare skin.

Changed by war

The Second World War had a lasting impact on many features of life in Finland, including sauna culture. Soldiers at the front learned to improvise saunas almost anywhere, and there was no distinction made among who bathed with whom.

"Bluntly put, everyone is equal sitting in a sauna," Fredrikson grins.

It was during the war period that lakeside saunas became much more widespread. Soon, they began to take over from the bathhouses of the genteel folk, becoming so common that few people today even consider that they have not always been a central feature, and a delight, of the Finnish way of life.


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