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The Family


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The family has been the basic unit of the community in Finland since prehistoric times. In 1994 80% of the population belonged to a family. The most common type of family consists of a married couple (43%) or an unmarried couple (6%) with children. Couples, married or unmarried, without children make up 18% of the population. Sometimes the family grew when one of the children married and continued to live with the parents. These extended families, usually three generations, accounted for about 10% of rural families at the beginning of the 1900s. The father was head of the family and household and had control over the property and made the decisions.

The status of women in the family and household depended on the prestige of her own family. The mark of the mistress of the household was a bunch of keys. She was expected to be subservient and faithful. The status of women in Karelia and eastern Finland was less certain than in western Finland. Physical violence was forbidden. The position of a widow depended on whether or not she had children.

After the Reformation (1600-1850) the Ten Commandments were framed and hung on the wall and strictly adhered to. Attitudes began to change during the latter half of the 19th century. Women began to go out to work. Even today more women go out to work in Finland than in most European countries (about 60% in 1994). In the past few decades husbands and wives have begun to share household chores. The higher social classes have more children (3-4) than the lower classes.

The Kin

Members of the family had the same surname. Surnames ending in –nen were known in the Middle Ages, and surnames ending in –la and –lä were derived from the names of farms. Surnames derived from nicknames were common in the Middle Ages, though unusual for women (except among the Swede Finns). Surnames were common in the eastern parts of Finland, and Karelian woman retained their surnames even after marriage. In western Finland surnames went out of use about mid-16th century, and only farm names are entered in 17th century land registers. At the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries these were used to form new surnames and also patronymics (Swedish – son, Finnish –poika).

The kin provided security in prehistoric and early Middle Ages by the practice of blood revenge on a killer and his family. King Magnus Eriksson of Sweden repealed this kin fine in 1335. The legal tradition of Sweden was the concept of kin land and the right of first refusal granted to relatives. Not until 1879 was this restricted to apply only to the seller’s children and parents.


In western Finland all children, including girls, were entitled to inherit real estate (land) even before the Swedish Common Law came into effect in the 1370s. The eldest son inherited the estate, or else the son who stayed at home was favored. The co-heirs could redeem their shares in the estate for money, goods or a lease. Girls usually received their share of the inheritance in advance, as a dowry on marriage. A woman’s morning gift was passed on to her children as a maternal inheritance until 1879.

A different kind of customary law was applied in eastern Finland. The decisive factor was the labor and land needed for expansion, so only sons living at home could inherit according to the work they put in. Thus adopted sons, and sons-in-law might inherit just as much as sons. Girls didn’t usually inherit land if there were sons in the family (although they have done so). Instead, they only got a dowry on marriage (cattle, personal property, tools, etc.). A husband had no rights to his wife’s dowry. This customary law existed in eastern Finland until the 20th century. If families couldn’t agree among themselves, the courts ruled according to the law.

Division of Labor

Peasant homes have always adhered to the traditional division of labor for inside and outside work. In general, men and women shared in all sorts of jobs. Women took their place alongside the men in slash and burn cultivation and land clearance (except for cutting large trees), in burning and fencing. In Karelia at the end of the prehistoric era, clearing land with a hoe was women’s work. In western Finland it was men’s work, but women helped hoe weeds. Ditch digging was women’s work in western and northern Finland, but only seldom in eastern Finland. Dung was taken to the fields by men, but spread by women.

Ploughing was mostly a man’s job, but in south and central Ostrobothnia the women also helped. Both men and women harrowed. The farmer usually sowed the seeds but in northern Finland the mistress of the household sometimes did the job. In eastern Finland the women only sowed the flax seed. Harvesting with a sickle was usually women’s work, but men sometimes joined in. After the grain was cut the women raked, bound and made the sheaves. Both men and women joined in hay-making; the men cut the hay and the women raked. Winnowing was primarily the responsibility of the master.

Tending to the cattle and milking were women’s jobs, although the men took care of the oxen and horses. In recent times milking has been mechanized and dairy maids are no longer employed.

The most traditional household tasks for women were spinning, handwork with textiles, making clothes and doing the laundry. Women also ground flour, made butter and cheese, and did the baking and cooking. In eastern Finland the men made malt beverages, but in the west women shared in brewing and distilling. Female brewers are known to have existed in the royal manors of the 16th century.

Old Age

In eastern Finland old people lived with their families until death and in most cases retained their status as head of the family. If a peasant had no sons, the farm might pass on his death to his son-in-law or an adopted outsider who would then look after his adopted parents until their death and then inherit the farm just as if he were the sole heir. However, in western Finland it was common to pay old people, as in Sweden, a life annuity – a custom known from the Middle Ages onward. This practice was known both among the taxable farmers and the crown farmers. At the beginning of the 19th century fathers in different parts of south Ostrobothnia might hand over their farms at the age of 60 or younger. Life annuities were rare in eastern Finland and were not introduced in some areas until the latter half of the 19th century.

Under the life annuity system (Swedish sytning – Finnish syytinki) the master of the farm and his wife handed over their farm, usually to their eldest son, in return for an agreed annuity (often signed and sealed on paper). This included free lodging, a certain amount of land for growing potatoes and crops, the right to pasturage, an agreed amount of grain, money, etc. a year.

It was more difficult for the landless people to provide for the aged. Aging tenant farmers were usually allowed to live with their children. In certain instances servants might be supported by the farm if they had been working there for a long time. Until the 18th century care of the poor was the duty of the church. In the latter half of the 18th century a rota system was introduced based on that of Sweden. Under this system farms were divided into poor rotas and each farm took its turn providing the poor with board and lodging. Children under the age of 12 were auctioned to the lowest bidder. The care of the poor was reorganized in the 19th century and in 1866 responsibility for the poor passed to local authorities. At the end of the century municipalities began building poorhouses (called old people’s homes). The rota system went out of use and the auctioning of minors was prohibited in 1891. At the turn of the century the mentally sick were transferred from poorhouses to hospitals.

Young People

Children were brought up in families, the aim being to teach them rules and to develop their physical and mental powers. Children were classified as infants until they were five and not expected to do any useful work. From then on until they were ten, girls and boys were expected to help with simple jobs. After the age of ten a distinction began to be made between jobs for boys and jobs for girls. By the time they were 10-12 children had certain obligations which increased as they neared the age of confirmation (15-16).

Children were taught to read and count at home by means of ABC rules. Difficulty in pronunciation such as letters R and S was corrected by jingles in which those letters occurred. They were taught it was wrong to lie, swear and steal, or to lose one’s temper. They were also taught good manners, such as the observation of certain customs as to how to behave at the table, in the sauna, in other people’s homes and in dealing with adults and strangers. Parents and grandparents were address by the polite form of “you”.

Corporal punishment was not usually used on young children until about age seven. After that the most common punishment was pulling the child’s hair or birching. With the advent of the primary school system other punishments were used, such as hitting over the fingers, standing in the corner.

Until they were confirmed, young people were considered half-grown. They had to learn how to work, but were not expected to do a full day’s labor. Childhood ended with church confirmation at the age of 15 or 16. Confirmation was a major event enhanced by a change in the style of dress and sometimes (as in Ostrobothnia) adopting a different form of the child’s forename. After age seventeen the youngsters were “big boys” and “big girls”. They acquired many privileges and rights such as being allowed to go to town and market, had their own separate building to sleep in, and could go out with groups of other youngsters. The boys, especially, were taught group customs and were not accepted until they had served the others spirits or coffee. In southwest Finland, Ostrobothnia and Karelia there was enmity between the youth groups from different villages which often led to village fights. These battles were waged according to set rules and were tests of strength between the in-group and the out-group.

Excerpts from “Finnish Folk Culture” by Ilmar Talve

June Pelo

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