Work in the cities attracted many rural women. Most famous were the Kullorna, unmarried women from Dalarna province who hiked south in summer to work for the ‘fine folk’ of Stockholm. Many of the women took gardening work in cemeteries or private homes.
Freedom and Sweat
In the 19th century unmarried rural women gravitated to the towns where they could earn a living and live independently. They took manual labour as servants and hospital workers as well as in breweries, laundries, the textile industry or on construction sites.
‘Mortar girls’ carried mortar in buckets up shaky ladders.‘Rower dames’ were strong ladies who ferried Stockholmers between the islands or fished for Baltic herring.
The Kullor were good workers and well liked for their ethnic costume, often worn as work clothes. Most Kullor were garden help but some were sawmill workers and others paddle-wheelers ferrying people, or brewery workers and even hair artisans weaving intricate patterns for sale.
Working Girls at the Graves
The Kullor began working at the Northern Cemetery (Norra begravningsplatsen) in the 1840s and subsequently at the southern, later Woodland, cemetery. Screening of applicants was ruthless, with high demands for rigour and respectability.
The women were either ‘grave ladies’ or ‘garden ladies’. Labour included sowing, planting, weeding, clearing and sweeping using fir twigs they sourced themselves. May and June were the hardest months. The heaviest job was the watering, initially with buckets hanging from yokes, later using heavy hoses on carts.
On Sundays, four Kullor in formal folk costume did duty as guides at the Northern Cemetery.
Quarters for Women
Accommodation in the early days was spartan, often in rooms attached to the hothouse. The Northern Cemetery had a barracks for approximately 260 Kullor, with a kitchen, a laundry, dressing rooms and dormitories. The women had mattresses which they filled with straw themselves.
At the Southern Cemetery a barracks was built for the Kullor, and a dormitory was also planned for the Woodland Cemetery’s female summer staff. A caretaker kept an eye on the boarders and the rules were like for a military barracks: lights out and silence at 10pm, and “tobacco, dancing, accordions or other noises strictly forbidden.”
The name of at least one of the gardening Kullor at Woodlands lives on: Buffils Anna, famous for her superb doughnuts served up at coffee breaks.
Women earned roughly half men’s wages for the same jobs. In 1890 the working day was 12 hours and a daily wage was SEK 1—1:25. In 1956 workmen were paid SEK 2:98 per hour with wages withheld if it rained. It took seasonal workers 29 years to rise to the highest wage grade. After a few years, women were finally paid piecework wages, which favoured hard workers. After the day’s grind, housework and upkeep was still to be done. The seasonal treks diminished from the 1920s onwards, but a few Kullor were still making the journey in the 1960s.