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.