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Stockholm in Carl Michael Bellman's time


Petrus Tillaeus General Charta öfwer Stockholm med Malmarne Åhr 1733

[Petrus Tillaeus, General Map of Stockholm in the Year 1733]

By Olof Holm © 

Translated into English by Monia Hanafi

The main character in Fredman's Epistles is Stockholm—Ulla, Movitz, Mollberg, Fredman himself and others are excused.

In the 1600s, Stockholm was the capital of the Swedish great power. The state's central administration, which greatly expanded, was placed here. Following continental patterns the nobility built palaces in the city to guard their interests in parliament and state council, and to participate in court life and administration. The population grew and the city expanded onto the boroughs. In several stages, mostly under the reign of over-governor Claes Fleming in the 1640s, large rectangular blocks were built, with broad streets between them, even far outside of the real city development. The city was to have a representative character; it would be the public space in which the state executive and the leading estate acted.


During the 1700s Stockholm was struck hard. The Swedish great power collapsed and hard times with starvation and famine followed. The plague haunted the city in 1710-1712. Devastating fires wreaked havoc; in 1723 Katarina parish burned down, in 1751 Klara and in 1759 Maria. In the impoverished times that followed the reconstruction was slow.

Stockholm had approx. 70 000 inhabitants in the 1700s. The city had changed character. The new palace and other buildings in classical style had been raised and others were to follow. The city between the bridges was a city of stone. The stone house construction was decreed by the 1763 building code on all the boroughs, except for where the ground made such construction impossible. However, the decree was often ignored, which was noticeable by the frequent existence of wooden houses on Södermalm's secure mountain ridges.

The city character was only present in the parts near Stadsholmen. Söder has the most blocks. In the north, even Klara Norra Kyrkogata was considered the countryside. Kungsholmen was a rural idyll, and in Ladugårdslandet only huts and pastures were visible. Tobacco plantations were the closest to the city – and beyond them the manors took over. In the outlying areas were lakes of filth from whence infections spread. Tuberculosis and epidemics were common, and the cemeteries suffered from lack of space.

The city's street cleaning was poorly managed, but there were also complaints of ”untimely polishing,” when householders let their maids scrub the entryway of the house before Sundays; the dirt would get stirred up every Saturday night so that passersby would get dirty. At night it was dark in the city, pitch dark. In the wintertime, householders in the city blocks were ordered to keep lanterns burning every 30th step from dusk to midnight, except for when  moonlight was present. These ”wolf eyes” shine didn't reach far, but were possibly enough for orientation.

Indoors, people worked in the pale light of the open fire, the tile oven or the homemade grease lamp. The heating and cooking demanded great quantities of wood. The city districts had woodsheds, stables, warehouses and other buildings; with their chickens, horses, cows and swine inner courtyards were reminiscent of farms. Mortality was high; next to Paris, the infant mortality rate was the highest in Europe. The population amount remained balanced by those moving from rural areas and immigration. In the winter people stayed indoors and lived in close quarters to avoid lighting fires in all rooms. There was no airing, and people washed as little and as seldom as possible. Fragrant substances burned on the stove to mask the stench. Thorough cleaning, scrubbing of the floors, airing and washing linen and people belonged to the summertime. In homes, the baroque fixed benches, chests and heavy cabinets were replaced with loose furniture such as chairs and bureaus. Those who could afford it had silk chair cushions.


Pehr Hilleström En piga höser såppa utur en kiettel - i en skål, 1700-talets mitt

[Pehr Hilleström, A Maid Ladles Soup From a Cauldron, mid 18th century]

The weekly menu for servants could look something like this: Sunday, cabbage soup with pork; Monday, warmed soup; Tuesday, soup and salted meat; Wednesday, warmed soup, herring and potatoes; Thursday, pea soup and sausages; Saturday, beer cheese, potatoes and herring. The food was salted properly. Carl Michael Bellman writes about his own diet, ”eating according to appetite, small and good, Sunday white cabbage—Thursday peas, Saturday Baltic herring”. The school order of 1724 placed responsibility on parents to teach their children to read edificatory texts; the sacristan helped with catechisms, priests controlled everything and at last the parishes were ordered to hire teachers. But well-off families and the growing middle class hired tutors for their children.

Stockholm was the capital, and work opportunities followed: the palace, as well as the state institutions, were large workplaces. The nobility and wealthy merchants had large households and just as the state magistrate and officials they had servants and everyone consumed what the surrounding world produced. Thereby they occupied many boutiques, import companies and factories, as well as artisans with their apprentices, washers, barbers, coachmen and rowing madams. Gustav III's grand cultural politics inhabited the city with actors, opera singers, painters, sculptors, dance masters, theater workers and so on. A new kind of work was offered at the factories that opened in the boroughs. The lively harbors offered plentiful work opportunities, just as the royal yards that supplied the royal navy with ships. The navy was a clear influence in the cityscape. Stockholm was a garrison town, and uniformed soldiers and sailors could be seen everywhere. Working hours didn't exist: such things belong to the later industrial age. Shop assistants worked as long as there were customers, servants had no real leisure time, officials would come and leave their offices as necessary. But when people could break free from work the capital had many pleasures to offer: balls in public celebration halls such as Börssalen and Vauxhallen in Kungsträdgården, bars, skittles, concerts, plays and excursions to suburban green areas.

As a result of the fires and the recurring recession many citizens’ private economy was ruined.  Drunkenness and immorality spread and the city was full of the infamous marginalized figures that Carl Michael Bellman came to sing about. Stockholm had about 700 bars, one for every hundred Stockholmer. The outlets were usually small, and could, for example, be run as an extra source of income or by a widow, who could, in suitable quarters, serve a drink and a sandwich with brawn. In coffee shops events of the time and city gossip were discussed, and newspapers created after the inception of the freedom of press 1766 were read. In Bollhuset, French theatre was performed from 1737, but in 1773 Gustav III instituted the Royal Theatre where both plays and opera were performed in Swedish. Even Carl Michael Bellman wrote a dozen plays, mostly meant to be performed among his friends, but some meant for the king and the court. Bellman himself played his shining role as a quack in Hallman's play Tillfälle gör tjuven (Opportunity Makes the Thief), an interpretation that was mostly improvised.

There were many green areas around the city, where Stockholmers could make excursions. At Haga, which was still a forest region in the 1760s, a park in English-style was built in the 1780s; this is where Gustav III planned his Versailles. Djurgården consisted mostly of forest, but even then there was a small new town, inhabited by a rowdy and depraved population. Here were Gröna Lund and Dunderhyttan (present day Hasselbacken), famous from Carl Michael Bellman's poetry, two of many speakeasies. Officially there were no taverns at all; it was even prohibited to import liquor to Djurgården.

Stockholm was the country's leading commerce city. More and more people made a fortune on industry and commerce. As the staple town for Norrland and Finland and with exporters and merchant ships in port, it offered a rich field of activity for a dynamic merchant class. Its upper stratum could be found in Skeppsbron's grand terraces, with rooms for business and representative floors for the owners. The so-called ”skeppsbro nobility” were even richer than most noblemen. Perhaps their merchant ships traveled to Cadiz, where Carl Michael Bellman's uncle, Jakob Martin Bellman, was a consul? The iron scale where Bergslagen's iron was weighted before being exported stood at Slussen; there was the largest stockpile of iron products in the world. Many languages were heard in the streets and in the harbor: Stockholm always had approximately 5% Finnish speaking inhabitants, oftentimes more. In Carl Michael Bellman's time, Stockholm was also the capital for the inhabitants of Pomerania, which belonged to the Swedish king's countries, and Pomeranians often sought themselves to Stockholm to make a career and reside in the city. Dutch, Russian, Danish etc, came in with other people who shopped or resided in the city. At the court and higher estates French was often spoken. At parliamentary meetings the city was filled by representatives for the four estates: the representative for each noble family, all the bishops and high priests, bourgeois from all cities and peasants from all landscapes all bearing their local dress customs. But toward the end of the century the classes leveled and threatened the old division. The peasants got richer, the traditional bourgeois, artisans and merchants were outrun economically by factory workers. Capitalists and the noblemen lost many of their privileges, at the same time a new ”middle class” arose, consisting of  everyone from rich directors of the East India company, brewers, property owners and publishers to the younger, lower workers in the agencies, to which Bellman was counted. He and his peers toiled for years as unpaid extra workers, waiting to be promoted to regular workers with minimal pay. While waiting for a promotion that might never come they pulled themselves forward with loans to sustain their living. Carl Michael Bellman worked as a public servant from 1758 (at the Riksbanken, Manufakturkontoret, Tulldirektionen and finally at Nummerlotteriet), but he didn't receive any salary until he became a regular tracer in 1768.


Johan Sevenbom, Utsikt från Brunnsbacken över Saltsjön, Stockholm, 1770-talet

[Johan Sevenbom, View from Brunnsbacken Overlooking Saltsjön, Stockholm, 1770's]

The palace was the city's most spectacular building. In the center of the spectacular court life stood the almighty king, Gustav III. After the political revolution in 1772 many of the city's circuits tied grand hopes to his political persona, and the first part of his reign was characterized by a widespread optimism. His lasting effort for the city and kingdom was through a magnificently organized and systematically executed cultural politics. The institution of the Swedish and Musical academies, the royal theaters, etc. are manifestations of this. A new generation of writers, musicians, actors, opera singers, composers, architects, carvers, painters and other artists created for a couple of decades the Gustavian classicism. From that point of view, Stockholm was a brilliant city. 


-      Afzelius, Nils, ”Stockholmsskildraren Bellman”, ur Sankt Eriks årsbok 1951, Stockholm 1951

-      Afzelius, Nils, Staden och tiden. Studier i Bellmans dikt, Stockholm 1969

-      Bellman var där. En vägvisare till Bellmansmiljöer i och kring Stockholm, sammanställd av Marie Louise Andersén, Bo G Hall, Olof Holm och Torkel Stålmarck och med fotografier av Julie Rito, Värnamo 1997

-      Britten Austen, Carl Michael Bellman. Hans liv, hans miljö, hans verk, Malmö 1970

-      Lundin, Claes och Strindberg, August, Gamla Stockholm. Anteckningar ur tryckta och otryckta skällor framletade, samlade och utgifna af CL och AS, Stockholm 1882

-      Schück, Henrik, ”Stockholm på Bellmans tid”, ur Bellmansstudier [Första samlingen], Stockholm 1924

-      Selling, Gösta, Johansson, Gotthard och Axel-Nilsson, Göran, Si Ulla dansar. En bilderbok om Bellmans Stockholm, Stockholm 1945

-      Svanberg, Victor, ”Stockholms förfall och Bellman”, ur Kring Bellman, red Lars-Göran Eriksson, Stockholm 1961

-      Söderberg, Elov, Stolta stad. Glimtar från Bellmans Stockholm idag, Stockholm 1988

-      Yppighet och armod. Sankt Eriks årsbok 1994, Stockholm 1994