Copyright © Hans Högman 2020-07-16
The Old Agricultural Society and
its People - Sweden
In Swedish agricultural society, especially during the
18th and 19th centuries, one didn’t really speak
about the family on the farm but rather about the
people on the farm. The people on the farm
included the farmer and his family, of course, but
also the hired hands: pigor (pl.) and drängar (pl.).
Piga was the term used for a female employee, i.e.
Dräng was the term used for a male farmhand.
Farmhands and maids could be either young
people who took positions as hired hands until they
could get enough money to get their own place or
elderly people who hadn’t been able to get their
own place as farmers or tenant farmers.
The image to the right is
from the kitchen in
Kvekgården farm near
Enköping town (C).
Kvekgården is a today
an old homestead
museum. Photo Hans
At most Swedish farms there were seldom more
than 10 persons. It was difficult to feed more than
A farmer often hired farmhands and maids if he
and his wife were young and had small children.
When the children grew up and could help out with
the work on the farm, the farmer really didn’t need
the help of farmhands and maids or at least not as
Farmers usually didn’t have many children. They
married late. Women were often 25 years old or
more when they married, and men were around 30
years of age. It took a while before they could
afford a farm. However, traditions were different in
the various parts of Sweden.
Tenant farmers (torpare/landbo) and the backstuge
people didn’t have any farmhands or maids. They
themselves worked for others and couldn’t afford
to hire anyone else. These groups often had to
send their young ones away to take positions as
“lillpiga” (a young girl serving as maid) or “lilldräng”
(a young boy serving as farmhand) to a farmer to
earn their own living.
In the agricultural society of former days, it wasn’t
love that determined who one married. The family
of the person one married and the size of their
farm were much more important.
You don’t have to go further back than to the
beginning of the 1900s to find that it was
unthinkable for a married woman in Sweden to be
outdoors without any coverage of her hair. A
woman couldn’t go out without covering her hair
with a hat or scarf etc. This custom was very long-
lived in the countryside.
There is a story – true or not - about a woman a
long time ago in a small country village who was
outdoors in the early morning doing an errand. She
was only wearing her night chemise and hadn’t
covered her hair (and in those days the countryside
women didn’t use any underwear because it was
too expensive). Even though it was early, she met a
neighbor. Quick-witted as she was, she lifted her
chemise so that the hair was covered. It was
obviously more important to cover the hair then
the rest of the body.
Undantag was a system of caring of elderly. In the
old agricultural society the old ones on a farm were
placed in “undantag”. This meant that when an old
couple signed over their farm to one of their
children (to a son, for example), the old couple
could stay on the farm – usually in a smaller cottage
that was provided for them. This smaller house or
cottage was called undantagsstuga. The older
couple signed a contract
with the child who took over the farm which
stipulated that the old ones would receive a certain
amount of firewood, grain, hay, milk etc every year.
This was called födoråd and the old people taking
benefit of this were födorådstagare.
This system was also used when someone else
than a family member bought a farm from an
Undantag (exemption) or undantagskontrakt
(exemption contract) means the right of the seller
to retain for his remaining lifetime the right to use a
small dwelling or a small area of land, that is
exempt from the buyer's right to dispose of the
transferred property. The beneficiary retains this
right even if the property was resold.
Födoråd was a personal right which meant that the
födorådstagaren (the recipient) received from a
farm property certain goods such as daily needs of
milk, potatoes, or hay.
Pigor (maids) and drängar (farmhands) who
perhaps had worked all their lives on a farm could
stay on the farm when they got older and couldn’t
work any more, as inhysehjon. There were no
social welfare programs or homes for the elderly
back then so this was an early way of providing
welfare: they took care of each other.
An inhysehjon was someone in need of help from
the society – public care, i.e. poor, sick, infirm
However, not everyone in the countryside lived on
farms. There were many poor, disabled, and sick
people who had to survive on what the farmers
could give them. It was a kind of charity.
Auctions of Poor Children
In the middle of the 19th century there even were
auctions of poor children as well as infirm
elderly to farmers who made the lowest request
for compensation for taking care of them. It was
the local village council, the socken, which held these
auctions. Very often the children were submitted to
hard work on the farm they were placed at. This
was a kind of early foster-home placement. The
auctioning of poor people continued until 1918
when the practice was abandoned.
Drängar and Pigor
Drängar (pl.) and pigor (pl.) were employees
working on farms. However these terms once also
referred to unmarried sons and daughters who
were still living and working at their parents’ farm.
This meaning is still used in Denmark as terms for
boys and girls. In Sweden, employees at farms were
called tjänstrdrängar and tjänstepigor to distinguish
them from the sons and daughters on the farms.
Tjänstepiga could be translated into servant “piga”.
Collectively they were called “tjänstefolk”.
However, later on, the terms dräng and piga were
only used to refer to the hired people on farms.
Other words used when referring to farm
employees, besides tjänstefolk, were tjänstehjon
Drängar (pl.) were, in other words, male farm
laborers doing heavy work on the farm. They were
usually unmarried and hired for a year at a time.
Their employment was regulated under a law called
On larger farms, farm laborers lived in special
quarters for farm hands. This could be a room on
the farm (drängkammare) or a separate building, a
The image to the
right is a farm-
near Enköping town
(C). Kvekgården is a
homestead museum. Photo Hans Högman, 1992.
During the 18th and 19th centuries there were
more pigor (maids) than farm laborers on farms.
Bohuslän and Skåne, where fishing and heavy farm
work required more male laborers, were
Pigor (pl.) were servant girls or maids working on
farms. They were usually hired annually to perform
many different tasks. At larger estates or manors
they had more specialized duties such as kitchen
maid (kökspiga), cowshed maid (ladugårdspiga), etc.
Between 1664 and 1926 the legal relationship
between a farmer and his employees was regulated
in a number of different lawful acts, the so-called
Up until 1920, these acts allowed the farmers to
use corporal punishment. After 1858 the farmer
could only use this type of punishment on male
employees younger than 18 and female employees
under 16 years of age.
Wages and working hours were also regulated by
these legostadgor. Besides food, lodging and
clothing, employees also received a small amount
The first legostadga (statute) was issued in1664 and
was followed by new statutes in 1686, 1723, 1739,
1805 and 1833. The last one wasn’t abandoned
The slankvecka or frivecka were terms for the free
week when the agricultural laborers could take new
positions at other farms, all according to the
legostadga. The dräng or piga had to report to the
new employer within 7 days from the day (flyttdag)
they left their previous employer.
The “flyttdag” was the day when a legohjon (maid
and farmhand) contract came to an end, normally
after 12 months. Outside of Stockholm, this day
was usually October 24. In Stockholm the flyttdag
was also April 24 (according to the 1833
legostadga). Before that time employees were hired
on September 29 for a period of 12 months.
However, this date was changed because it was
during the busy period on a farm. When laborers
changed employers they were entitled to a free
week, the so-called frivecka (free week) or
slankvecka (slender week).
Husaga - Corporal Punishment
The farmer (master) also had the right to use
corporal punishment (husaga) on his wife and
children. According to the medieval provincial laws
(medeltida landskapslagarna), the master had the
right to moderately use corporal punishment. In
the laws of 1734 there are no references to the
husband’s right to use corporal punishment on his
wife; however it contains the right for parents to
physically punish their children.
The master’s and matron’s right to use corporal
punishment on their employees was regulated in
the different legostadgorna (laws of employment).
The right to use corporal punishment was
completely abolished in 1920.
A landbo was a farmer that didn’t own his
farmland, i.e. a farmer that was farming land
owned by someone else (leasehold land). In other
words, a landbo was a type of tenant farmer.
The land he was farming could belong to the
church, the nobility, the Crown or other farmers.
Depending on the type of landownership, this type
of farmer was called kyrkolandbo (a landbo on
church land), frälselandobo (a landbo on noble
land), kronolandbo (a landbo on Crown land) or
bondelandbo (a landbo on a farmer’s land).
The legal relationship between the landbo and the
landowner was regulated by a contract (lease)
called landbolega and in order to be able to farm
someone else’s land a landbo needed to obtain this
The landbo had to pay an annual fee/rent (called
avrad) for the lease.
When a new landbo took over the lease or when
the landbolega (lease) was due for renewal the
landbo had to pay an extra fee.
The landbolega was replaced in the 19th century by
the free tenancy lease. The system with landbolega
was abolished in 1907.
The system of landbo dates back to the Middle
The corresponding term for landbo was called
fästebonde in Denmark and leiglending in Norway
Åborätt (Åbo Right) was an inheritable right of
tenancy for lanbo tenants on Crown land. This
right was introduced at the end of the 18th century.
The Åborätt made it possible for a landbo and his
heir/heiress to stay put on their farms as long as
they paid the tenancy. This right was adjusted by
new regulations in 1808 and 1863 and is still in
This right of possession of the tenancy gave birth to
the expression Åbo. An Åbo is a tenant farmer who is
farming a leasehold land with an inheritable right of
There is also another more wide definition of an
åbo and that is a small-scale farmer farming his
Backstugesittare was a term used for people living
in small houses or sheds etc on a landowner’s land
or on the village common land. These poor houses,
backstugorna (pl.), were exempted from taxation.
Backstugesittare were without any assets and were a
motley crowd of people consisting of craftsmen,
farm workers as well as old people and the very
In the south and southwest parts of Sweden they
were called gatehusmän (their houses were called
gatehus) and in the southern parts of Norrland
utanvidsfolk. On the westcoast they were also called
The backstuge houses were often collected in
groups of houses outside the cultivated land area
of a landowner’s land (with the permission of the
landowner). Normally there were a small strip of
land belonging to these houses where they could
grow potatoes and keep some pigs and poultry.
Sometimes they also had the possibility to use the
farmer’s farmland. However, normally they earned
their living as farmhands, craftsmen etc. They had
no permanent employments and the
backstugesittarna were often underemployed and
underfed. The number of backstugesittare increased
a lot between 1750 and 1850.
It was common that the backstuge houses only had
three proper walls, so-called dugouts. The fourth
wall was made of earth if the house was built in a
In other words, the backstuge houses were more
or less hovels/shanties.
Most Swedes know about the expression ”att sitta
på undantag” – to be on benefits, however not
everyone knows what this means. This was a term
used in the old agricultural society.
“Undantag” was a kind of pension benefit for the
old couple on a farm. It was common that the old
farmer signed over the farm to for example a son,
prematurely, i.e. the son took over the farm while
the parents were still alive. The law of property
Undantag meant that the old couple was provided
with free lodging, normally in a smaller
house/cottage on the farm for the rest of their life
(undantagsstuga). Further they got the right to a
certain amount of firewood, seed for sowing etc
Undantag could also be negotiated when the farmer
sold the farm. Normally the old farmer then
obtained right to free lodging on the farm,
firewood, milk etc. He could also obtain a certain
right to the yield of the farm in the negotiating
See also Undantag above.
Inhysehjon was a term used for the agricultural
workers who didn’t own any land and were
regarded as a lower class in the countryside. An
inhysehjon was a lodger at a farm and normally
wasn’t closer related with the family on the farm.
Neither were they part of the employees on the
farm. Socially they had a lower standing than the
backstugesittare mentioned above. About 20% of
the agricultural population was inhysehjon in 1855.
To take on an inhysehjon was a way of social welfare
back then. The inhyshjon were people that couldn’t
An inhysehjon could be orphans, disabled, infirm
elderly, the very poor etc.
See also Inhysehjon above.
Fattighjon / Fattighus - Paupers /
The fattighus (poorhouse) was a building where
the poor and the infirm had a shelter/lodging.
These people were called fattighjon (paupers).
In the 1686 church act it was recommended that
the parishes should build poorhouses. According to
the law of 1734 the parishes had to build them but
that didn’t happen everywhere. Inmates at a
poorhouse were called fattighjon
From 1860 and forward there were also a kind of
poorhouses where people of small means, but still
being able to do agricultural work, lived.
Statare were agricultural laborers receiving
allowance (payment) in kind. They were
employed for 12 months at a time at larger estates.
Normally they were married because the wives
also were expected to work at the estate, milking
cows for example. The word statare indicates that
they were paid in kind (stat). Normally statare only
existed on large estates even if they also could exist
on a few larger farms. Statare were without
property, didn’t own any land or farm animals. In
other words, they were poor agricultural workers
hired for 12 months at a time and lived in the areas
where the large estates were located, primarily the
southern half of Sweden in the flat country areas.
The estates had special kind of barracks for the
statare called statarlängor. They were often in a
poor condition damp, cold and draughty and with
bugs and cockroaches.
The hiring was done during the last week of
October every year. During this week you could see
horse and wagons with statare moving from one
estate to another – it was always greener grass on
the other side – they hoped for a better life at
another estate. It was often the miserable lodging
conditions that made the statare to take position as
a statare at another estate.
There were different kinds of statare depending of
what kind a laborer work they did.
They system of statare began in the middle of the
18th century and wasn’t abolished until 1945. The
number of statare families reached a peak in the
beginning of the 1900’s.
The system of statare did not exist in the other
Scandinavia countries. However, there was a similar
system in the Baltic countries as well as in
It did not exist in the English spoken world, which
means it is difficult to find an English expression for
More information of the system of statare.
Croft and Crofters (Torp and Torpare)
Agricultural Yields and Years of Famine
The Conception of Socken (Parish)
Swedish National Encyclopaedia, NE
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The Old Agricultural
Society and its People