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Early Industries in Finland

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Tar Burning:

One of the early industries was tar burning and places can still be found in the woods and near farms where tar was burned. It was time consuming to get ready for tar burning and the process took four years. Some farmers along the coast burned tar for domestic use. The tar was taken to Nykarleby where it had to sit four hours so the tar water could drain; the tar water was taken home for all kinds of uses. For example, at Back farm there is a 100-year old earthen floor prepared with tar water.

Small quantities of tar were an export item in Finland in the 16th century. By the next century tar was a leading export item, especially in Ostrobothnia, Savo and Karelia. Tar burning came to an end in the eastern parts of the country when the water route from Lake Saima to the coast was severed when Viborg and Savonlinna were ceded to Russia. The main tar burning areas in the 18th century were the inland regions of Central and North Ostrobothnia, and the tar was exported via Oulu and Gamlakarleby. These two towns handled 2/3 of all the exports, reaching a peak in the 1770s. During the period of Swedish rule Finland accounted for 80-85% of all Sweden’s tar exports. Until the 1860s tar burning was an important secondary occupation around Kainuu.

Tar burning began to decline in the 1860s. But as late as 1875 tar production was 175,000 barrels, many times more than the 50,000-70,000 barrels a year in the 17th century. In the beginning of the 20th century, 75% of all Finland’s tar came from North Ostrobothnia.

The tar burning technique was already highly developed in the 17th century. First the pine trees had to be debarked in the spring; this continued in the following and possibly the third year. The dried resinated trees were cut down in late autumn and driven to the burning site. During the winter the trees were cut into suitable lengths with an axe. In the early spring the tar barrels were made at home; beginning in 886 they had to hold 125 liters. The barrels were inspected and stamped by a crown officer. Five to six cubic meters of distillation wood were needed to make one barrel of tar.

There were two types of tar burning pits, but the pipe type was used only for home burning. Tar for use in the home could also be made with a tub upended on a base. For large scale production round pits tapered at the bottom were used. The oldest pits did not have a pipe for drawing off the tar, which collected at the bottom and was drawn off when the burning finished. Around the 17th century a pipe was added to draw off the tar during burning. The bottom of the pit was covered with beaten clay and lined with rough fir bark or strips of bark, with a pole in the middle. The pit master supervised the filling of the tar pit. Once it had been filled, the pit was covered with moss and earth. Holes were left around the base so that the fire could be lit on a calm evening. Depending on the size of the pit, the burning usually took four days or more. As a safety precaution, certain words could not be spoken during the burning.

In the Oulu waterway the tar was transported in special long, narrow tar boats holding as much as three tons. The distance from Kuhmo to Oulu was about 26 km and the journey for a 2-man boat took an average of 10 days – or 3-4 weeks in the autumn. The tar was then inspected in the town tar vaults. From 1641 all the ports had their own tar inspector. Tar was also carried on rafts with as many as 80-100 barrels on one raft.

Tar ovens are mentioned in literature as early as the 17th century and some attempts at distillation were made the following century. Ovens were reintroduced in Central Ostrobothnia in the latter half of the 19th century.

Birch bark was also used to make birch tar for domestic use, such as lubricating vehicles. Pine tar was also used to make pitch for export. In the mid-eighteenth century Finland was exporting 11,000-15,000 barrels of pitch a year.


Charcoal Burning:

Until the 17th century, charcoal was made only for domestic use for smiths and for iron smelting, probably in small earthen pits or piles. Towns and castles of the 16th century had their own professional burners. The demand for charcoal grew as iron works were established in the southwest in the 17th century. These iron works were supplied by their own tenants and crofters. Peasants from the surrounding areas also sold charcoal to the iron works.

The charcoal was burned in horizontal and vertical pits. Horizontal pits were used mainly for domestic purposes. Charcoal for the iron works was usually burned in vertical pits, which were probably introduced into Finland by professional burners. In the 1820s –30s iron works began building charcoal ovens.


Lime Burning:

Lime burning was a minor occupation in the 16th-17th centuries in Finland proper, North and South Ostrobothnia and in places where there was limestone. The peasants quarried limestone on their own or village lands. The lime was burned in simple earthen kilns dug into a slope and lined with fireproof stones. In the kilns the stones were piled around and over the fire. The burning usually took 3-5 days, depending on the size of the kiln. The the kiln was left to cool for a few days before the lime could be shoveled out and extinguished. The lime industry went over to modern lime kilns in the 1860s.


Potash and Saltpeter

Potash was used at glass works, dyehouses, etc. Its production was a secondary occupation from the 18th century for the peasants of Ostrobothnia, but it was also known elsewhere. The potash was made from birch or aspen trees. The trees were felled and burned in the forest, after which the ash was collected and placed in large barrels at home to turn into lye. The hot water used to rinse the ash was thrown away and the residue was boiled until was dry. Then it was baked in ordinary ovens. About 40 square feet of timber were needed to produce about 8 _ kg. of potash. The annual output in the 1820s was about 850,000 kg.

The advent of firearms brought with it a need for saltpeter to make gunpowder which, from Gustavian times, began to be made in Finland. During the 16th century there were 11 production plants in Finland. In the 17th and 18th centuries Finland was divided into districts toured by a saltpeter maker and his assistant with their copper pots. The peasants were obliged to donate earth steeped in urine from their cowsheds, ash and firewood. From 1644 they could alternately pay a saltpeter tax in the form of money. The peasants of the 18th century made saltpeter themselves to sell to the crown.. At the end of the century there were special saltpeter farms in South Ostrobothnia, mainly in the Vasa region. The annual output in the 19th century was about 85,000 kg. Production ceased in 1864.


Iron Melting

Iron has been made in Finland from bog and lake ore ever since prehistoric times, but there are few traces of the pits. Iron ore has been found in bogs and lakes over most of the country with the exception of the coasts, but mostly in Savo and North Karelia. The lake ore was used both by the peasants and by the small iron works founded in the 18th and 19th centuries in Savo and North Karelia. As late as 1850-75 three quarters of the ore used by the Finnish iron industry came from the lakes. When rolling mills began to be founded in the 1880s, iron of lake ore could no longer be used because of its high phosphorus content.

The peasants of Savo, North Karelia, Central Ostrobothnia and the Kainuu region made iron in the 17th and 18th centuries mainly for their own domestic use, but some was also sold. The lake ore was found in granules on the lake bottoms. It was raised by means of a raft, nets and scoops. First it was dried in piles along the shore, and then it was cleaned.

In the Middle Ages and 16th century the ore probably was melted in small pits or bellow furnaces similar to those found in large numbers in Sweden, especially in Småland. A clay-lined pit was filled with ore, dry wood or charcoal and the fire was kept burning with two pairs of bellows. When a new smelting furnace became known in Sweden about 1300, a simple version (a bloomery furnace) was adopted by the peasants of Finland. A bricked furnace was surrounded with an outer shell of logs. Between the furnace and the shell was sand. Simple furnaces such as this were still being used by the peasants of Kainuu and South Ostrobothnia in the 19th century.

One smelt took about 12 hours and produced a bloom weighing 85 kg. The blooms were then hardened with a water-driven hammer in Ostrobothnia in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even after this the iron was still not very suitable for making cutting tools, and it was mostly used by the peasants of Central Ostrobothnia to make anchors, nails, etc. which were sold in the towns.


Excerpts from “Finnish Folk Culture” by Ilmar Talve, ISBN 951-746-006-6

June Pelo


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