The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition

The hearth, or kiuas (pictured, left), in the Cokato savusauna is representational but not functional. An open fire would heat the stones, and all smoke exited through vents in the log walls before the fire died out and bathing commenced. Vihta and vasta (pictured, right) are regional Finnish words for bath whisks, most commonly made of birch twigs harvested throughout the year. North American immigrants used other deciduous species as well as northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis).

An indelible historical imprint endures in the Finnish American settlements of the upper Midwest, places like Cokato, New York Mills, Embarrass, and Esko in Minnesota; Oulu, Brantwood, and Marengo in Wisconsin; Calumet, Misery Bay, Negaunee, and Kiva in Michigan; and Ontario locations ranging from Thunder Bay to Sudbury. A vast inland sea dominates the middle of this region: Superior, the highest, freshest, coldest, and greatest of the Great Lakes.

These humble structures provided a warm place for births and the application of remedies, allowed farmers to dry their grain, and hosted the preparation of the dead for burial. Bathhouses of such construction may have been built on North American shores over a thousand years ago in the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. While no such hearth has been identified at that site, the foundations of a structure essentially identical to a Finnish savusauna, or smoke sauna, have been unearthed at Sandnes, the Viking farmstead on the southwestern coast of Greenland, complete with wooden platforms for bathers and "enormous quantities of badly scorched stones." More certainly, the Swedish colony on the Delaware River in the present states of Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey featured saunas: the residence of Governor Johan Printz on Tinicum Island, an area now dominated by the Philadelphia International Airport, included such a bathhouse.

Text excerpts and photographs taken from The Opposite of Cold:
The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition
by Michael Nordskog, photography by Aaron W. Hautala.
Published by the University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Copyright 2010 by Michael Nordskog. Photographs copyright 2010 by Aaron W. Hautala.