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The History of the Red Cottage

It is approaching the end of the 13th century and the bishop of Västerås is sitting in his office and thinking. He’s in deep trouble economically. To save his own finances, he has used the church’s share in Falu Mine as collateral for a loan. It wasn’t popular, but the bishop does the right thing and buys back the share. To ensure that it cannot happen again, a bill of exchange is drawn up. The king, the archbishop and several of the other bishops put their seals on the letter, which highlighted the importance in securing the mine. Through the letter, it will be possible for the first time to buy shares in a company and thus become a partner in the company. The letter made Falu Mine the world’s oldest limited company, Stora Kopparbergs Bergslags AB.

The Sweden we know today has a lot to thank Falu Mine for.

The mine had been mining copper for over a thousand years when it closed, and for many years the Falu Mine had been one of Europe’s largest industries. And a successful industry brings great benefits. Europe’s best engineers and other experts brought their expertise to the Falu Mine. They made work more efficient and their solutions then spread to other areas where they were useful. Without the mine, that kind of expertise would have stayed on the continent and the big industries there. The engineers also created a multicultural workplace, an exchange where knowledge and culture from the rest of Europe was utilised and improved the mine and Sweden. For many, many years Falu Mine was Sweden’s cash cow and without it, Sweden may never had been a great power. But the mine not only created a Swedish great power era, we got something that we still use today. Something that never stopped being modern. At the Falu Mine, Falu Rödfärg is born, the paint that has come to adorn the whole of Sweden.

1500 - 1700

A desire for more

The history of the Rödfärg begins with a desire for more. And some delusions of grandeur.

In the 16th century, the Swedish king wanted the roof of his castle to be made of copper, just like the great castles in Europe. But even the king couldn’t afford copper for an entire castle roof, so the solution had to be to paint the roof with red paint made from pigments from the Falu Mine. At least that almost looked like copper. This started a trend to paint parts or whole buildings red in order to give the impression that the people who lived there were very wealthy. Red-coloured walls were reminiscent of the brick walls that the Swedish magnates had seen when they traveled around Europe, but they could not yet afford brick.

The 17th century saw a build boom in Sweden and the expensive red paint spread throughout the higher social classes. The king was a great  influencer of his time as what the king did, the nobility wanted to imitate. Painting red was a way of asserting one’s status in society and the nobles soon began to paint red as well. The king gained more and more followers over time. To raise its status, the church began to paint the rectories to make them look like they were built of expensive brick. And when the nobility and priests started painting red, the military followed suit, and soon the residences of high-ranking officers were red. As time went by, more and more of military buildings were painted red, and even the soldiers’ quarters became red over time.

In the 18th century, the colour red was still seen as something very exclusive, a luxury that only the rich could afford. Having a house painted red was a status symbol. It was therefore common for the side of the house facing the road to be painted red, especially if the king was coming to visit. Then the houses along the entire main street could be painted red, while the alleys and walls towards the courtyards were left colourless. But towards the end of the 18th century, the industrial production of red paint began at Falu Mine and it became possible to produce more of the paint. Great farmers also started to paint their houses red. The paint also began to gain attention for its practicality, not just because it was beautiful and trendy. The wood used for the houses simply lasted longer when the house was painted. The 18th century was thus a good century for the red paint, and for the whole of Sweden.

Historien om den röda stugan.
1800 - Today

The great emigration and the home ownership movement

Good harvests, few wars and medical advances meant that the Swedes lived longer. But in the early 19th century, Sweden began to have problems. More and more children survived to adulthood and more would share the land that belonged to the family. The amount of land was simply not enough, so many had to live without their own land. The alternative was either to become agricultural laborers, statare (contract-workers), or to move to the cities with growing industries. Life as an agricultural contract-worker was low paid, meant long working hours and often a very poor standard of living. The wages in industry were certainly higher than in agriculture, but the overcrowding, dirt and disease offered an even worse living environment for the many workers who sought to move to the cities.

The difficulties in acquiring a home and farming, the poor standard of living for workers, together with poor growth during the 1860s drove emigration. The large country in the west attracted people with opportunity to create your own home on your own land, jobs and a higher standard of living. In total, approximately one million Swedes emigrated, which was a fifth of Sweden’s population. To achieve the same population reduction today, around two million Swedes would have to leave Sweden. It is almost as if everyone who lives in Greater Stockholm were to leave Sweden today.

This was clearly a problem for Sweden. After all, they preferred to have the Swedish population remain in Sweden so that the workforce that was necessary for the country’s economic development did not go to North America. They were afraid that Sweden would completely lose its youth and enterprising population through emigration, and without young people the country had no future. Would Sweden survive this crisis? At the beginning of the 20th century, an investigation was started that would provide answers to what could be done to get the Swedes to stay in their homeland. One of the proposals the inquiry made was to provide Sweden’s population with better housing. We recognise the reasoning from today, they wanted to eliminate the housing shortage. The Swedish home ownership movement began. Swedish people should have their own, well-ordered and hygienic homes, but not just any home. It had to be a Swedish home and a real Swedish home was in the country, not in the overcrowded and dirty cities. It was clearly there that the Swedes’ new home would be located.

Can you imagine the feeling of owning your own home for the first time? Few Swedes had had the opportunity to own their own home, many had received food and accommodation instead of wages in money for their work. No job, no housing, no food. Others had lived extremely cramped as boarders in small apartments. We recognise the overcrowding and uncertainty today, when many young people stay at home with their parents for longer and longer, live with friends or move around with second- and third-hand contracts because no other solution is available. Just like many people today want a first-hand home contract, the Swedes at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century wanted a home they could call their own, not just somewhere to live but a place to live. The home ownership movement gave many Swedes their first chance in life to get a loan to buy or build a home. It gave others a chance to improve the accommodation they already had. The home ownership movement could be said to be the start of the housing career that many in Sweden have come to do over the years until today.

The home ownership movement is also the origin of many of the red houses we see around Sweden today. They were often built according to type drawings which assumed that the houses were painted red, or according to red-painted models. At this time, the colour red had begun to become a symbol of national romanticism, which celebrated the homeland and rural life on red farms. When new Swedish homes began to be built, red was the obvious colour of choice. Sweden had experienced an identity crisis at the beginning of the 20th century because so many Swedes had left the country and the Swedish-Norwegian union had dissolved. Then the red paint was perfect to recreate the image of the nation. It literally came from the Swedish soil and industry at the Falu Mine, which had contributed to making Sweden so successful during the great power era. In the colour red, Sweden found both the memories of the country’s strength and the secure, down-to-earth that the country lacked during the years of emigration. The red paint thus not only became the symbol of the freedom of owning one’s own home, but it also became a symbol of the entire nation. The colour could almost be said to be of as great value to the image of Sweden as the Swedish flag. No wonder we long to go home to the red cottage when we have been away from home for a long time.

A colour for Sweden

Today we look at the red cottage with love and a strong sense of freedom. How the building itself looks doesn’t matter, big or small, it’s the colour we recognise and love. Today we see the red paint on everything from old mansions to outbuildings and modern villas. We see red-painted cultural centres and the occasional newly built office building. Who knows what buildings we will see painted red in the future? Because that is the charm of the colour red. It is always modern thanks to its ability to adapt to today’s construction trends. It can stand for old charm and new attitude. And one thing is certain, there is no other country where the colour of a house binds the population together the way the red colour binds Sweden and the Swedes together. The colour red has made a journey from being an exclusive commodity that few could afford in the beginning to a democratic, inclusive colour today, several centuries later. Today, it doesn’t matter what position you have or what life you live because the colour red knows no class boundaries. Many have a relationship with some kind of red cabin, so when we wish for something more today, it is not necessarily a more luxurious looking roof or brick walls. Rather, we wish for somewhere where we can feel truly free. Where we are independent and have all power over our lives. Like in our own red cottage.

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