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Steam Bath History and Contemporary Trends

Spas, saunas, and steam baths each have a rich history that goes back thousands of years. Oftentimes these histories cross and collide, blurring the lines between warm-water, hot-air, and steam therapies. The terms sauna and steam bath are frequently used interchangeably, although they have as many differences as similarities. Simply put, a sauna produces a dry heat and a steam bath produces a wet heat. Whereas a sauna might achieve 40 percent humidity through the ladling of water over the hot rocks, a steam bath is able to maintain nearly 100 percent humidity at all times.

Not surprisingly, however, the two types of baths go together like chips and dip. Take ancient Rome, for example, where bathing was a drawn-out affair that involved moving through various baths while socializing with friends and neighbors. Ordinarily, patrons used the laconicum (hot-air room) and the caldarium (steam room), as well as cold-water and hot-water rooms, during their visits.

The use of steam baths originated in Greece and spread westward to Rome. Eventually, the practice migrated north with those Greeks who settled in what is now the Ukraine, part of what was then Russia. The Russians embraced steam baths, or banya, for their health and relaxation properties. As

A Exquisite tilework evokes the earliest days of the Turkish steam baths. This spacious bath includes multiple showerheads, two drains, and multiple showers, including stationary, handheld, and overhead styles. Tiled alcoves provide a cozy place to bask in the steam.

a result, steam baths are still referred to as Russian baths in many parts of the world.

Throughout history, many cultures have enjoyed steam baths.

Turkish bathhouses, or hammam, were popular in the Middle East and typically included a domed central steam chamber. The Europeans were inspired by the hammam when creating their baths. Today “Turkish bath” (like the term “Russian bath”) is often used to describe a steam bath.

In India, steam baths, or swedana, are part of the centuries-old Ayurvedic tradition, in which they are used to purify the body as part of the panchakarma cleansing process. Wealthy families would often incorporate a swedana into their elaborate homes.

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