Farm story 7: Who was BRD?

The bride chest: BRD, 1849

On Tjörn in the 19th century and before, getting around the island was difficult. Fishermen and seamen would venture long distances when they had to and would occasionally bring back foreign brides, but most young people on Tjörn conformed to local norms and traditions, which for the majority included making a sensible marriage. This was something that women prepared for from girlhood onwards. We have a reminder of this standing in our living room in the farmhouse at Mölnebo , a brudkista , a painted wooden bride chest in which girls and young women gathered the sheets, towels and other linen they’d need when they married and had a home of their own.

The chest in the living room on Tjörn is a substantial size. It’s much bigger than the sea chests in the house and, unlike them, has a curved lid which makes it less comfortable for sitting on. Its four sides measure 110 cm by 53 and it’s 50 cm high, its stumpy little feet holding it a couple of centimetres above the floor. It’s too big for most modern homes and is too heavy to shift without help - even when empty. Inside there is a fitted internal box the length of one of the short ends, which is handy for little things which might otherwise get lost. The metal hinges which allow the chest to be opened and closed look home-made, as do the two thin, wrought iron handles on the short sides. There’s a lock in the middle of the long side and when you open the lid you can see the two prongs which would move to lock the chest. At least they would if you had the key – which we don’t.

The chest seems to be made of pine and its heavy, curved lid is painted as is the rest of it. The painting has obviously been done by a talented amateur rather than a professional, but it makes the chest a decorative object. On the centre of the lid there is a painting of a yellow bowl of what seems to be fruit, three red apples perhaps, or perhaps three tightly furled red roses. They are placed in a tasteful arrangement against some green foliage and some smaller flowers. The background is a pale, faded grey, and to the right of the flowers the lid has been badly worn, right down through the paint to the wood beneath. On the front directly below the home-made metal lock is a large, carefully painted wreath of flowers, in the middle of which the letters B.R.D have been inscribed in red and white. Underneath and slightly smaller, is the year 1849 in the same colours. Over time this chest must have stood in a variety of places and its current position under a window in the large living room isn’t ideal as in the summer I have to keep the curtains closed for part of the day so that the remaining paint on the lid won’t fade any more.

Although over the years I’ve been quite ruthless about getting rid of a lot of old objects on the farm, I’ve never considered taking BRD’s trunk to the tip despite its inconvenient size - it’s too attractive. Olle had no idea of who it had belonged to for it had been there since he was born and, like so many things we grow up with, he took it for granted. I could work out that the B was the initial of the owner’s first name and the letter R would indicate the Christian name of her father, while the last letter, D, was short for dotter. In Sweden at the time the chest had been made, 1849, women kept the surname they were born with, which should have made it easier to trace its owner. However, in this case it didn’t help for as far as I could see no Birgittas or Börtas or other women with a Christian name starting with B had been married at either of the local churches in 1849.

Then after more fruitless searching it dawned on me that I might have been taking the term “bride” chest too literally. My mistake had been in assuming that 1849 was the date of B’s marriage. The scales fell from my eyes when I learned that the year on a bride’s chest might be that of the girl’s birth, or even the date she was given the chest, rather than the year of her wedding. It made sense. After all, teenage girls starting to hem their sheets or towels would not know if or when they would become brides. The boy they had their eye on might find another wife, be lost at sea or die of a fever before he made it to the church. Or a parent might become ill and need looking after so a girl couldn’t leave the farm. But even if you never married, that wasn’t a reason why you shouldn’t have a chest and things to put in it. A sensible girl might consider that while men might be fickle, sick or accident prone, towels and sheets would never let her down. She would know that the harder she worked and the more material she spun and wove into cloth, the more financially secure she would become, for wool and linen were expensive materials and always in demand.

When I started looking through the records again I couldn’t find a single baby girl born in 1849, but as I browsed the registers I finally came across the name of a possible contender with the right initials. She was Britta Rutgersdotter, born in 1820 and to use the Swedish term, she was Olle’s farmorsfaster (his paternal grandmother’s paternal aunt). Britta would have been 29 in 1849 – not an unreasonable age for marriage. However, the records state that when she died in 1896 she was a spinster, having lived all her life in the same place, in Rönnäng, a couple of kilometres up the road from our farm.

As a dyed-in-the-wool romantic I’d like to think that some time in 1849 the date was set for Britta’s wedding and her unnamed fiancé had given her the splendid bride chest as a token of his love. But then tragedy struck and he was swept overboard by a freak wave, or died of constipation or fell into a threshing machine (all dreadful deaths recorded in the church register) and as she cancelled the booking for the church she made a vow never to marry. But the truth is probably more prosaic. The church records, or lysningsbok, do not show that wedding bans for Britta were ever read and there is no mention of a fiancé or fästman . The chances are it was one of her brothers or perhaps her father Rutger Andersson (1792-1866) who made the chest, possibly as an early thirtieth birthday present. But how did it end up on our farm? Well, Britta seems to have been close to her brother, Peter Rutgersson and she left the chest to one of Peter’s daughters, Elisabeth. This same Elisabeth married Olof Johansson who inherited Mölnebo Nedergård, and eventually became Olle’s grandmother.

Britta died in 1896 and her will makes interesting reading. She was evidently relatively well-off for her possessions included one pair of gold earrings priced at 3 kronor, a silver tumbler at 4 kronor and a scent box (luktdosa ) valued at 6 kronor. There was also the chest (2 kronor 50 öre) and a spinning wheel (3 kronor) , both of which found their way to our house via Elisabeth. But what surprised me was that the high-value articles in the will were not the gold earrings nor the spinning wheel, but the textiles. Eighteen pieces of linen are valued at 18 kronor, one krona each, and twelve old shawls for head and shoulders (gamla hufud och halschalar ) at no less than 20 kronor. A bolster for the bed, filled with 17 kilos of feathers, is priced at 21 kronor 20 öre. The prices reflect the time and skills it took to grow and harvest the flax, and the complexity of the many processes which had to be carried out to transform the plant fibres into the linen thread which was eventually woven into cloth.

Originally, the old chest contained some of Britta’s precious textiles, but at her death they were dispersed, perhaps sold. Nevertheless, the bride chest found its way to Mölnebo Nedergård. and became a depository for other women’s prized possessions.

© Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023 See more pictures of the farm on Instagram: gwyneths_swedish_farm

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