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The Early Towns of Finland

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During the Middle Ages there were only six towns in Finland, and eight in the 16th century. By the end of the 17th century there were 14 new towns. There were 28 by the end of the Swedish rule and in 1870 there were 33 towns. During the period 1639-1765 only three towns had the right to engage in direct foreign trade. They were: Åbo/Turku; Viborg/Viipuri, and Helsingfors/Helsinki. The towns were small. In 1640 Åbo had a population of 5,400 and it was the 6th largest town in the Swedish realm. By 1870 the population of Helsingfors was barely over 28,000. Swedish was the official language of administration and town councils until 1886, and later in many towns.

Very few of the old buildings have been preserved in the oldest towns because they were destroyed by war and fire. During Stora Ofreden, the Great Northern War, all the buildings in nine large towns were destroyed. In the 18th and 19th centuries large fires swept through the towns. Between 1809 and 1856 there were eleven towns destroyed by fire. Except for churches and castles, Finland doesn’t have a single medieval bulding completely preserved. Only Åbo and Viborg had stone buildings; the other towns had only stone cellars.

In the Middle Ages and 16th century, the most common type of town dwelling was the smoke cottage. It had only one room. In front of the door there might be a windbreak made of trees. Two smoke cottages might be built together with doors facing each other. Of the 321 dwellings in Viborg in 1602, sixty were smoke cottages. In 1675 they were removed. The smoke cottages were also used for bathing purposes and drying the malt. Until the 16th century, the dwelling had a single room, and two rooms after that time. The first 2-story buildings were built in the 17th century and were public buildings. The dwellings had roofs of peat with beams or planks over a birch-bark frame. The fireplaces were open fires with an adjoining baking oven. Sometimes the baking oven was in a separate building in the yard. The dwellings of merchants had window-panes in the 17th century, but lesser folk still had thin leather or parchment in windows. In the country houses, the furniture was mostly built-in.

After the Great Northern War of 1710-21 there was a period of reconstruction in Finland’s towns. The wealthy people built 2-story houses. The yards were enclosed and the house was entered through the yard via a gate from the street. In the 1870s-1890s the entrance to the houses was still via the yard. This custom can still be seen in some of the oldest houses. By the end of the century, the entrance shifted to the street. Red paint became common in mid-18th century; yellow oil paint appeared at a later date. Houses in the small towns weren’t usually painted during the 18th century.

The interiors of houses changed a lot in the 18th century. Open fireplaces were replaced by tiled stoves. Floors were unpainted but the walls were half-paneled and decorated with wall cloth of paper. In the 18th century 14 new glassworks were founded and some towns prohibited parchment windows.

In the 1820s the features of the little towns of Swedish-type vanished and the towns began to resemble those of the Russian provinces. During the Russian Empire period houses were built using upright weatherboards. In the first half of the 19th century these boards were replaced by planed horizontal boards. The living rooms were usually heated by high tiled stoves, and from the 1820s onward by lower Empire stoves. At the beginning of the century cast iron cooking stoves were used in the kitchens of the homes of merchants. In the early 19th century the walls were covered with hand-painted wallpaper.

Duty was imposed on goods brought from the country into the towns; the roads leading into the towns had storehouses equipped with gates and huts for the customs officers. Few of the huts have remained. The streets of the big towns were not surfaced and there were no sidewalks, but some towns had cobbled streets in the latter half of the 17th century. The streets of Åbo were lit by lanterns since 1805, but smaller towns didn’t install lanterns until the middle of the century. Oil lamps replaced candles in the 1860s, and larger towns had gas lamps.

Because of the frequent fires, fire inspections were held 3-4 times a year and watchmen were employed in the 17th century. In the small towns the merchants took turns to fire watch. One of the watchman’s duties was to tell the people the time. His shout also informed the people he had not fallen asleep. In the case of a fire it was his job to ring a fire alarm, beat a drum or ring the church bells. In the 1870s many towns built watch towers that were manned around the clock. Fireplace inspections, lost animals, auctions and market times were also cried on street corners after first beating a drum or ringing a bell. In some towns it was the custom to announce the quiet period at night by beating a drum on the steps of the town hall. In some towns a “work bell” was also rung from the town hall tower at 4 a.m. and 7 or 8 p.m.

Town dwellers kept their own cattle and horses until the end of the 19th century. Cattle grazed on town land and were tended by a town herder, who was fed and housed by the owners of the cattle. The fields were rented in strips to the wealthier citizens. The fishing waters were divided into sections that were also rented to those citizens.

After the grid plan was introduced, the town square and main streets around it was the most prestigious area and stone houses were built there. The merchants and officials lived around the square while artisans and cottagers lived in smaller houses on the outskirts of towns.



Excerpted from “Finnish Folk Culture” by Ilmar Talve

June Pelo


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