The history of smoke saunas in Estonia
Saunas and the customs that surround them are found among all Finno-Ugric peoples, and have been known for many centuries. For evidence of the earliest Estonian farmstead saunas, some rare written sources dating from the 13th century can be consulted. These texts occasionally mention the existence of a sauna in one region or another, mostly as a sidenote. We have some data from the first half of the 17th century about farm buildings in eastern Saaremaa, properties that usually possessed a sauna. The same can be said for southeastern Estonia, according to texts from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Tamara Habicht compiled an overview of Estonian saunas and sauna customs based on research from the 1960s and 1970s. This summary is based on that overview.
Historically, most smoke saunas have been situated in South Estonia, a fact that is related to settlement density in that part of the country. Smoke saunas existed in eastern Estonia (East and West Virumaa, Tartumaa), on the western islands and on the northwestern coast. The central and western parts of Estonia, comprising about a third of the country, form a large area where saunas were not found – people washed and whisked themselves in a grain drying barn, so the sauna did not exist as a separate building.
For the saunas of southern, eastern and western Estonia, the distinct differences in planning, construction, and stove type are historically traceable, as are the customs and oral heritage of the sauna.
In the mid-19th century all Estonian farm saunas were still smoke saunas, comprising small, one-roomed, cross-timber buildings which were built on corner stones with an earth floor, and were heated with a cobble-stone stove constructed without any cement. Building materials were obtained from the local surroundings, which explains why saunas in limestone areas were different from those in South Estonia, where the stoves were built from cobble stones. The oldest saunas were the “cave-saunas” which were built partially or entirely into the ground and had ceilings of mostly soil.
Some changes in sauna construction can be found in the second half of the 19th century, when living conditions improved. Saunas were built with vestibules and half-timber or plank floors. Some saunas were already being built in two parts, with a separate vestibule and sweating room. The roofs were covered with shavings instead of reed, thatch, bark or board split off from a log with a wedge. In some parts, wooden smoke-chimneys were built into the roof to allow the smoke to be released. The design of the stoves also started to change with unburned bricks and clay being used as new building materials. Constructing the stove with a closed top gave the opportunity to direct smoke into the chimney, converting a smoke sauna into what had essentially become a clean sauna. The building of saunas with a chimney began to spread in the first half of the 20th century and in some areas, it became the prevailing design for new saunas. According to Habicht’s materials, in the 1920s many saunas with a chimney had been built in some North Estonian parishes and East Virumaa, but also in Pärnumaa and Viljandimaa, so saunas with a chimney exceeded the number of those without one. The only areas in Estonia where new smoke saunas were built between the 1940s and 1970s are southeastern Estonia and eastern Mulgimaa. Older smoke saunas were common in these areas, and at that time could also be found quite frequently in Saaremaa, Muhu, Kihnu and in some parishes of northwestern Estonia.
People placed a higher value on smoke saunas than on those with a chimney. They pointed out the major differences: saunas with chimneys do not get as warm, the floor is cooler and, when making steam, the room becomes damp. The steam that comes from the closed-top stove is sharp; its effect vanishes quickly and can make one feel dizzy. Likewise, there is no habitual smell of smoke in a chimneyless sauna. The following statement by a man from Rõuge illustrates the prevailing opinion on clean saunas in Võromaa: “Nobody praises a sauna with a chimney. No-one builds them, either. Not one of them is better than your own smoke sauna.”
In historical Võromaa and Setomaa, the native inhabitants consider the smoke sauna to be the “right” kind of sauna to this day, while in other parts of Estonia people have accepted the unpleasant aspects of the modern sauna.
There have been changes in smoke-sauna construction during the 20th century. The timber is more likely to be milled than to be worked by a carpenter. Usually foundations are laid before building the sauna. The shape of the roof varies and its covering materials have changed – slate and sheet-iron are used instead of shavings. Bigger windows are provided, and the vestibule has become wider. However, some principles of sauna construction have not changed: the walls of the building are made from softwood and the sauna platform and other equipment is made from the wood of a decidous tree. Decisions about the size of the sauna depend first and foremost on the need for insulation. The placement of the heater and the sauna platform have remained more or less the same.
As long as the smoke sauna is considered culturally important, knowledge of the meaning of the sauna experience will be kept alive, as will the knowledge of how to build a sauna, how to heat it and how to behave in it. There are many customs and conventions connected to smoke saunas which lose their meaning and effect when visiting other types of sauna.