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The History of Marholmen

On this spot, you’re standing right in the midst of history.


Take a look around and imagine what it was like just over 100 years ago. Back in 1917. That’s when Selma Blomberg stepped ashore on Marholmen Island.


She was 41 years old and had been a widow since her husband, Herman, died 13 years earlier. Her days consisted of assiduous work at the Rörstrand Porcelain Factory, for which she earned SEK 100 a month. That had to suffice to support her and her two children. The small family lived in an apartment consisting of one room and a kitchen on Helsingegatan (street) in Stockholm. They had no central heating and a dry privy in the yard as their toilet.


Selma was a labourer. Poor, hard-working and with failing health. She had not had a single day off in her entire adult life. Until that day, when she stepped ashore on Marholmen Island. She had come to stay at the rest home here for two weeks. Free of charge. She could hardly believe it. How was it even possible?


To find the answer, we need to go back in time four years to 1913, when wholesaler Nils Berg and his wife Hanna made a decision. They resolved to donate their beloved island, Marholmen, to the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, LO, and build a rest home there for working-class women. Nils had succeeded in amassing a fortune, and Hanna was involved in women’s rights issues. They had both retired from their working lives and had everything they wanted. They thought, why don’t we do something meaningful and important with our money? So that’s what they did.


Skogsstugan was built as a holiday home for female workers along with the Vilohemmet rest home. One year later, Semesterhemmet, a holiday home for men and their families, was completed. But Nils had more plans.


In 1924, two years after Hanna passed away, Nils donated the rest of his fortune to the independent adult education college Birkagården Folk High School in Stockholm. He wanted to promote adult education, especially “the educational needs of female factory employees”. This gave birth to his next idea, and the adult education centre Folkbildningshemmet opened on Marholmen in 1926. The first course for women was held there that same year.


The educational and training activities were expanded to include those in the trade union movement. The first trade union course, a week-long course for members of the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union, was held in 1937. And so it went on. Thousands and thousands of trade union members acquired a wealth of new knowledge through the courses. The Swedish Municipal Workers’ Union (Svenska Kommunalarbetareförbundet) bought Marholmen in 1983. Eighty per cent of its members were women, making it Sweden’s largest women’s organisation. It is hard to imagine a better heir for Nils and Hanna’s work.


Back to Selma. Selma spent two weeks at the Vilohemmet rest home here on Marholmen Island along with 13 other female labourers. They went bathing, took walks in the lush summer scenery, enjoyed excursions on land and on the water, picked flowers, chatted while they relaxed in the white garden chairs and did everything that makes a summer. On rainy days, they sat indoors and read or played cards or other games together. In short, they rested.


By the end of the summer, a total of 52 women had been to the rest home. The committee summarised that: “…most of the women have put on weight and regained health and strength, and the result thus corresponds to the objective of the foundation.”


For Selma, two weeks’ leave was an unattainable dream. As a female labourer, she had neither the financial nor political means. It took a further five years before women in Sweden gained the right to vote. A law that gave workers the right to two weeks’ annual leave was not passed until 1937.


It is easy to imagine what a hard life many people had in those days. But, in fact, not everyone can afford a holiday nowadays either. Nearly one in ten children in Sweden live in economic poverty. For many of these 186,000 children, going away on holiday, staying in a cottage or caravan, is exactly what it was for Selma: just a dream. Can we do something for them? Yes.


On Marholmen, we continue to work towards creating a sustainable society in many ways. These include giving families who lack financial resources the opportunity to come here and relax through our Familjetid (Family Time) initiative. You can read more about our commitment on our website.


Why? Because we can. And we want to. Just like Nils Berg and Hanna did. Hanna died in 1922; Nils four years later. But their idea lives on. History continues.