Farm story 19: Youth and childhood

Rörstrand cup, Var snäll mot djuren, from first half of 20th century

Back in 1952 Olle’s teacher set her class of thirteen-year-olds a homework – to draw their family tree. She must have known that the majority would complete it quite easily, for her pupils were born at a time when over half of Sweden’s population still lived in the countryside and were often the descendants of families who’d lived on or near the same spot for generations. It was not surprising then that many people grew up with an encyclopaedic knowledge of both their own family’s history and that of their neighbours. This was especially true of people who lived on the island of Tjörn, where for centuries few people moved to another part of the island, never mind the mainland. At any rate, Olle had no difficulty in producing an extensive family tree, tracing his ancestors back seven generations on both his mother’s and father’s sides.

As is still the case in farming communities all over the world, children were expected to help their parents as soon as they were able, so after school and chores there wasn’t a lot of time for play. Nor was there much money for toys, and for Olle’s aunts and uncles even pens and paper, which were regarded as tools rather than playthings, were an unnecessary expense. (This was why they used old Bibles and law books to practice their signatures, see Farm story 5). Until the 1950’s, younger children were expected to use slates and chalk to practise their writing at school, so it is no surprise that in one of the boxes on the first floor of the farmhouse I found a of slate set into a wooden frame.

It is 32 cm by 22 cm and one side is scored horizontally so children could form their letters on straight lines, while the other side is unlined. But what catches your eye is the large crack running across the whole slate - it’s held together only by the wooden frame. It’s not the sort of thing that Olle’s parents would have bought as it came into the category of non-essentials, - but perhaps it had been broken at school and Olle or one of his brothers had been allowed to bring it home. Of course it wasn’t thrown out because nothing ever was on the farm. If things were broken and couldn’t be mended they were relegated to the back of a cupboard or taken down to the cellar or up to the loft, and eventually ended up in the barn. They were almost never destroyed, for one day they might just be useful.

As well as the slate, a second object confirms that children had indeed lived on the farm. It’s an abacus. Its main main purpose was of course to help teach young children to count but in a house with few toys it’s bound to have been an attractive object for small fingers to play with. It’s from the first half of the 1900’s and is in the form of two thick wire hoops, one inside the other, and with the ends of both sunk into an oblong wooden base, 24 cm by 4 cm. The inner hoop has 15 wooden beads threaded along it, eight red and seven green. The outer hoop has twenty. In the middle of the base stands a rounded wooden shape like a miniature wooden gravestone, painted a faded green colour. At one time a clock face was drawn on this surface and there were little hands which could be moved to show the time, but they are long gone. The base itself was originally painted red but there is very little colour left now, yet for such a faded object it continues to work like new. The beads slide smoothly on the hoops and make a satisfying click when they meet and none of the little fingers which have played with it have managed to loosen the metal wires from the base.

I guess it’s homemade rather than shop-bought, but it’s hard to say. It’s certainly hand-painted, for when you examine the wooden beads you can see a few of the green ones have a little splash of red paint here and there where a brush has slipped. It was probably not too difficult to make, but the maker had actually tried to create something to amuse and instruct small children, and not every adult saw the point of that. Olle’s parents and grandparents used to growing up with many siblings, may have reasoned that playing was in the nature of children and was not something that adults needed to get involved in. And even if the will had been there, toy-making required that most precious of commodities on a small farm – time

Another child-related object which turned up is even more unusual as it has clearly been bought rather than made at home. It’s a child-sized china cup, 7½ cm tall . It’s a plain, thick, white china object with a sturdy handle and a large picture of a cow, which looks as if the original had been a detailed pen and ink sketch rather than a more modern, coloured, cartoon-style picture of a stylised animal. On either side of the picture are the words, Var snäll mot djuren – which means Be kind to animals. On the bottom is the word Rörstrand, the name of a famous Swedish china producer established in the 1700’s and still producing high-quality objects. There’s also a faint indentation, A1, alongside the name. I’ve tried everywhere to establish how old the little cup was, but without success. Rörstrand’s website is apologetic but tells us that unfortunately it is able to help with queries for the time being, which is a shame. However, I did find a few similar ones for sale on-line a few years ago and discovered that there was a series of mugs showing different farm animals including a horse, a dog, hens and a pig, all carrying the same message and drawn in the same style. I gathered that they were all manufactured at some time after 1926 as before that year the series was produced by another company, but that’s as close as I’ve come to a definite year.

I can only guess that ours was a present for Olle or his middle brother, perhaps as a christening gift or birthday present. At any rate I doubt that it was used without careful supervision for it is pristine and uncracked. Like the slate and the abacus, the little cup was a practical object, and as a bonus it came with an improving message. It’s clear that these weren’t objects which screamed fun and games. The young children who used them had their chores to do and they were expected to work hard on the farm. But that didn’t mean that they had no fun. They may have had few toys but they did have young animals to play with, trees to climb, wood to whittle, wild flowers and berries to gather and the security that a sense of place can give.

There’s only one object on the farm that was clearly owned by an older child or teenager, and a bandy club is not a particularly unusual item to find in a Swedish home. For people who haven’t heard of the sport before, bandy is like a more expansive form of ice hockey, played on a football-size pitch with a small, hard ball rather than a puck. But there’s a story behind this one, although I’ve never heard it. I know this because of where it was found - jammed between the planks in the wooden ceiling of the byre where the cows and pigs were kept. Who it belonged to and why it was hidden, I have no idea. Perhaps one of the boys on the farm had bought it and thought that his father would disapprove – perhaps bandy took up too much time from his chores. The club looked and felt old to me, but I’m no judge, and it’s now found its way to the tip so the mystery is likely to remain unsolved.

In the community at Mölnebo, like most other places in the world, the first gift that a child received was not a toy, but a name. Names cost nothing but give new parents a chance to let their imaginations soar. In 1887, one family of torpare (tenant farmers) at Mölnebo Lower Farm named their oldest daughter Beria Elemina Edvardsdotter. She was followed by her sister Alma Axelina. They were getting into their stride by then so the third daughter was given the truly magnificent monicker, Bertelina Emerentina, while the last little girl, born in 1901, had a relatively modest first name – Helga. However, her middle name made up for it – Adolfina. I guess at home they were known by the shorter versions Mina, Lina ,Tina and Fina, like a girl band.

They weren’t the only children in the neighbourhood to have a striking name. One of Olle’s many paternal aunts, Beata, had a son named Ragnar Alfons Napoleon . Little R.A.Napoleon Rutgersson was born in the 1920´s, which was a hundred years after the great man had died, but that evidently hadn’t put Napoleon’s parents off the name . The British of course, who spent many years at war with the Little Corporal, were not fans of his but for many people in Europe Napoleon had been a revolutionary figure fighting for the freedom of the common man against the twin evils of the church and the monarchy. Perhaps that’s why his parents chose the name – or perhaps it was just to annoy the priest at the christening.

I cannot finish without mentioning another baby, born in Mölnebo in 1891. I hope Bolivar Kornelius Karlsson’s short life (he died in 1926 at the age of 35) was a happy one. It’s not a stretch to say he must have been called after Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan military and political leader who led many South American countries in their fight for independence from Spain in the early 19th century. Bolivar’s family moved from Tjörn to Masthugget, one of the poorer working-class areas of Gothenburg, when he was still very small. Perhaps, given his parents’ political sympathies, the family felt more at home in the relative anonymity of the city than in the conservative community where he was born. Or the family, like so many others at the time, simply realised that there were more opportunities for work and education in town rather than on the island.

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

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