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Saltpeter Production in Finland

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Translated by Norman Westerberg

It was King Gustav Vasa who started saltpeter (1) (in Swedish, salpeter--potassium nitrate) production in Finland during the first half of the 16th century. His plan for armed forces included the need for gunpowder and, if feasible, production would be met domestically. Sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter were the ingredients in the old black powder.

Saltpeter was extracted from the urine-saturated soil beneath stables and cowsheds. Royal "saltpeter burners" or "salpetersjudare" brought along boiler pans and other equipment, and the farmers were ordered to furnish saltpeter soil, fuel, and other needed ingredients.

A saltpeter plant was founded in 1569 on an island in the Kyro River in Voitby, later known as Krutholmen (Gunpowder Island). In the early 17th century, each large farm was obliged to deliver to the saltpeter plant 2 barrels of saltpeter soil, 8 half-pecks (1 peck = 8 US quarts) of ash and a wagonload of firewood annually. During the period of Earldom (1651-75) a gunpowder unit was added to the Voitby plant, but the venture was not especially profitable, due in part to the lack of saltpeter soil, and the plant eventually closed.

During the Freedom Period in Sweden, from the time of the death of Karl XII 1718 to Gustav III in 1772, the government again strived for self-sufficiency and restarted saltpeter production. It reached Ostrobothnia in 1745. A saltpeter production director was appointed in each province to supervise the saltpeter "burners" that were sent by the crown or hired locally. The latter were obviously not very dependable, since it was regulated that any "burner" not producing at least 10 lispound (1 lispound = about 18 lbs) of saltpeter would be flogged.

During the late 18th century, farmers became interested in producing saltpeter themselves. Production was so profitable that in 1781, nine farmers in Mustasaari invested 1700 daler kmt (kmt = kopparmynt = copper coins) in a saltpeter plant. In 1792, some 12,000 lispounds (more than 100 metric tons) of saltpeter were delivered from the Province of Vasa. This competition threatened the crown's own production and the government wanted to return to its monopoly, but Anders Chydenius (1729-1803, pastor in Gamla Karleby, member of Parliament) intervened in favor of free production and trade of saltpeter.

The crown's monopoly on saltpeter ended in 1800. In return, each unit of land (mantal) had to deliver half a lispound (about 9 lbs) of saltpeter at a price of 1 riksdaler + 24 skilling per lispound. Records from 1815 indicate that the Province of Vasa easily produced 30,000 lispounds annually, compared to 10,000 lispounds produced during the crown monopoly. The number one producer was "the plant in Vörå (with 6,000 lispounds, possibly as much as 8,000-9,000), followed by plants in Mustasaari, Laihela, Storkyro, Lillkyro, Närpes, and Malax." At that time, saltpeter soil was already produced in separate barns, where cattle urine was poured over a thin layer of soil.

Saltpeter production from urinesoaked soil depended on the size of the cattle, but also on the availability of fuel. Each batch used up to 10 cords of wood. The demand also fluctuated. Soon after Böcker's journey (2), Sweden announced a ban on the import of saltpeter. But, after the start of the Östermyra gunpowder plant in 1824, the market was secure and the saltpeter likely provided a greater income than any other domestic product. Records from 1815 indicate that sale of saltpeter provided 20% of the income for farmers in Malax. The Crimean War of 1853-56 brought a business boom. The Östermyra plant sold saltpeter for 2 silver rubles per lispound. At that time, a barrel of tar sold for 2.5 ruble, and a barrel of rye for 4.5 ruble. At best, one batch of saltpeter burning could produce 50 lispounds, with a value similar to 20 barrels of rye. That was more than the annual grain consumption of one family.

  1. Kurt Jern: Salpetersjudning, Svenska Österbottens Historia III, p.121-122
  2. Böcker, C.C., Ekonomiska anteckningar om Wasa län, gjorde under en resa derstädes år 1815, p. 1823-24

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