STATEMENT OF POSITION: “steam” and “vapour”

Do you know the scientific difference between vapour and steam?   The question is important because while “steam room” is a common term today, the mist we actually see is “vapour”.  So shouldn’t a steam room be a “vapour room”?  What’s going on?! 

But here at The Saunatarian, we’re not sticklers in that way! READ ON for how to negotiate between scientific accuracy and the reality of language-use.   



When was was the last time you heard someone call a steam room a “vapour bath”?  There’s a good chance you’ve never heard this – I certainly hadn’t until starting to research the history of sauna.  It’s the old term, and was particularly common in the 19th century.

But first, some science:

Did you see the cool trick at the end?  Neat!

Thanks Mr Wizard!

Now, some history.

Ok, so if steam is water in invisible gaseous state, and vapour is the visible mist we actually see – how did the term “steam room” originate?  Saving full exploration for a future post, here’s some points of summary:

  • “Vapour bath” was by far the most common term in the 19th century to describe traditional forms of hot-air bathing in Russia and Finland – what we call “sauna” today.  The term was used by physicians and travel writers.  The earliest reference I’ve found (thanks to the OED Online) is from a chap called John Quincy as early as 1722. In his wide-ranging medical encyclopaedia we find the following entry:

Æstuary, a kind of Vapour-Bath.  Ambrose Parey calls an Instrument thus which he describes for conveying Heat to any particular Part; and Palmarius (de morb. contag.) gives a Contrivance under this Name for sweating the whole Body.”

Lexicon Physico-Medicum: or, A new physical DICTIONARY; explaining the difficult TERMS used in the several branches of the profession  and in such Parts of PHILOSOPHY as are introductory thereunto. To which is added, Some ACCOUNT of the Things signified by such Terms: COLLECTED From the most Eminent AUTHORS; and particularly those who have wrote upon Mechanical Principles. The second edition, very much altered and improved.  LONDON: Printed for E. BELL at the Cross-Keys and Bible in Cornhill, W. TAYLOR at the Ship in Paternoster-Row, and J. OSBORN at the Oxford-Arms in Lombard-Street. 1722. (Here p. 8)

It’s not much … but a clear reference to sweat bathing nonetheless!  I’m unsure how “Æstuary” fits into this picture … I’ll have to study the works of Ambrose Parey.  “Palmarius” is Julius Palmarius (Julien le Paulmier), author of a tract on illness from 1578.  More research required.

  • The next big-time use of “vapour bath” I found is an outstanding work from 1766 called Obervations on Vapor Bathing and its Effects, with some Particular Cases in which is was used with Success.  By John Symons, Surgeon.  Bristol.  Here’s the cover:
Observations on Vapor-Bathing (John Symons, 1766)

Observations on Vapor-Bathing (John Symons, 1766)


  • The earliest use of “steam bath” I’ve detected is from John B. S. Morritt in a letter from 1794.  Here Morrit describes a stop in Budapest on the way to Constantinople:

The plan of their baths is the  same in all three, though the Kaiserbad, or bath of the Emperor, is the largest and neatest.  There is one large circular room arched over with a dome, and a large bath where any one may bathe, and where we found about twenty men and women of all ages washing and bathing, or lying round in the steam, for rheumatisms, etc.  Besides this, there are several smaller baths for solo’s, likewise arched, and painted in fresco, with grotesque ornaments. In many of these they have brought a pipe with cold water so  you may make it hot or cooler to your own taste.  The common people are bathing here all day long, and seem very fond of the custom, which I suppose has at first been Turkish.  Bootle had found it a very general one in Russia and Siberia, where, after a violent steam bath, they would run out and roll in the snow.

The Letters of John S. B. Morritt of Rokeby, Descriptive of Journeys in Europe and Asia Minior in the years  1794-1796.  Published 1914, edited by G. E. Marindin.

  • In the 19th century, “vapour bath” became the common term in to describe hot-air bathing.  An example is Russell Trall’s The Hydropathic Encyclopedia from 1856, where he also attributes the practice to Russians and “the Finlanders”.  The “Turkish bath” also took off in Victorian England – it already had a pedigree, but came roaring into view when promoted by diplomat David Urquhart in his book The Pillars of Hercules (1850).  You can read all about this in Malcolm Shifrin’s excellent new book – check the website!
  • The term “sauna” is first attributed in 1881 and then 1897 (OED), picking up after that.  I’m sure there are more early examples, but the ones given are all directly related to Finland.
  • A key transition term seems to be “sauna bath” (in 1959), following from descriptions of sauna as “the Finnish steam bath”.  Here’s two examples from the 1930s (from the OED):
Some early examples from the Oxford English Dictionary ("sauna, n.")

Some early examples from the Oxford English Dictionary (“sauna, n.”)


  • I’m not sure when “sauna” replaced “vapour bath” at a more widespread level.  More research is required, but my sense is by 1950 “vapour bath” HAD BEEN FORGOTTEN.
  • Helsinki hosted the first Olympics after WWII (in 1952), which put the country in the international limelight.  I think widespread use of the Finnish term “sauna” follows from there.
  • The first use of the term “steam room” given by the OED is 1972, which seems pretty late.  But I suppose it make sense.  Even though steam bathing is ancient, modern steam rooms – the ones using an electric steam generator – are relatively new.  There’s no easy information on when modern steam rooms took shape … that’s a detailed project involving a lot of different social histories.  I’m sure the gay sauna movement plays a role, not to mention the history of the modern gym itself.
  • Because the modern steam room employs wet heat, it’s more similar to the Turkish Hammam than the Finnish sauna.   But with “sauna” coming into its own after 1950, people obviously needed a name for the new rooms appearing in gyms and hotels – because they were also clearly not hammams.  “Vapour bath” no longer sounded very sexy – indeed, it sounds positively antiquated.  “Steam room” arose, somewhere in the mists of history.      


Some lessons to take away from it all.

  • The term “steam room” is pretty clearly derived from the colloquial equivalence of “steam” and “vapour” in everyday language.  While they are different scientific terms, in common language most people call vapour “steam” – just like the kid in Mr Wizard’s video (above).
  • For this reason, I have no problem using the term “steam” for what should technically be described as “vapour”.   It’s called a “steam room” now, end of story.  Language is what language does.  And it’s close enough anyway.
  • Following this, you can use steam “steam” to replace “vapour” in any number of scenarios.  For example, you might say “let’s get this box steamy!” to mean “let’s put water on the rocks to fill the sauna with water vapour”.  Use your imagination.


That’s all for now.
Go have a steam!

Or click here to read some thoughts on
the differences between saunas and steam rooms.