Farm girl who became shipping queen
Ambergris. Musk. Roses and jasmine. Those are the fashionable scents for the early 20th century nobility and higher strata of society. But on Åland, an upper class has never really existed. Each person that climbed the societal ladder had to teach themselves a new way of being. That included Finström-girl Hilda Bergman, who married ship owner Gustaf Erikson, travelled the world and brought the trends of the big world to small-town Mariehamn. A few drops of Hilda’s own perfume remain in her vanity case. Now, traces of her scent from the 1930s will be recreated.
Droplets from the world beyond
A small delicate perfume bottle in a wash bag for ladies – what relevance has it in the collections of a maritime museum? Sailors brought luxurious and exotic objects, customs and practises to the small Åland society. The ship-owning families became the island’s nobility. Highest in rank was Gustaf Erikson – King of the Windjammers. Gustav was famous for spoiling his young wife, Hilda, with beautiful clothes and expensive gifts. According to him, a sailing ship and a woman are equally beautiful! And the most beautiful of all was his own Hilda.
Hilda’s personal blue vanity case from 1928 has white lining and an outer layer in oilskin as protection against wind and weather. This type of toiletry bag is today’s cabin bag. There is room for necessities. A nightgown, slippers, and all kinds of beauty products – perfume bottles with silver stoppers, hairbrushes, clothes brushes, shoehorns and other things that a woman needed for her journey. Each lid and shaft are engraved with Hilda’s own monogram.
When my father-in-law returned from a trip to Helsinki, he could bring a couple of furs, evening dresses and day dresses as presents. He had exquisite taste and he knew his wife’s measures to perfection. Nothing was good enough for her.
Hilda’s daughter-in-law cited in the book Gustaf Erikson by Eino Koivistoinen
Scents carry memories
The human olfactory nerve is a fast track directly between our noses and the amygdala, the deeply embedded part of the brain that is sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain. That’s why our sense of smell is the strongest carrier of emotional memories. When we encounter a particular scent, we can be transported in time and space.
Despite troublesome interwar times, many of the world’s most exquisite perfumes are launched in the 1920s and 1930s – the classic Chanel No. 5, the daring Tabu from the House of Dana and luxurious Joy from Jean Patou that remins one of the world’s most expensive perfumes. In the world of scents, hope and romance prevailed. This is also the period when the fashion houses move into the perfume business. That was a way for women who could not afford the garments still get a taste of the opulence and glamour that surrounds haute couture.
A small town with big ambitions
Founded in 1861 by the Russian Tsar Alexander II, the imperial town of Mariehamn is named after Alexander II’s wife, Maria Alexandrovna. The town plan was regal, resulting in straight boulevards and a grand avenue. At the turn of the 20th Century, the town became a popular spa resort with a beautiful spa hotel in the Western Harbour where tourists could enjoy pine needle baths and shower treatments, as well as socialize at skittle alley and the dance pavilion.
Shipowners and Master Mariners were quick to settle in town and where shipping goes, global trends and practices followed! Hilda Erikson was known for being a wonderful hostess, organizing business dinners at home and big events onboard ships that were laid up in Mariehamn.
Women and shipping
Few Åland women worked aboard ships at this time yet they held significant importance to the shipping industry. Whilst the men were at sea, often for years at a time, the women remained, taking care of homes and farms. There was a clear class divide between the wives of the Master Mariners, who lived comfortably in their villas, and the property-less sailor wives who worked hard in the countryside. Although worry and longing was something they all lived with.
Communication was done through letter writing – love and longing, events, big and small, and daily chores were all put down in writing. Just how the wives felt when their tired sailors returned, and how the couple adjusted to daily life together, is something we can only imagine.
It was fairly common for a master’s or first mate’s wife to join her husband on a voyage. Usually before any children had been born. One of the unwritten rules stated that women on board were to remain aft of the main mast. In that way, contact with the crew was minimised. Women were thought to disturb the daily work on board. According to old tales it was also supposed to be bad luck to have women on board. Tales that lived on, despite changing times.
Texts in the film
Hilda Othelia Bergman was born in 1890 in Finström, Bergö, into a family with six children. To relieve the family, she is sent to live with her aunt Ida Lindblad, a midwife living in Mariehamn.
It has been said that Hilda meets Gustaf Erikson for the first time when she is ten years old. When she is fourteen, Gustaf is thirty-two. At that point he visits the Bergman family at Södergårds for the first time. His business is to ask for Hilda’s hand in marriage. A year later he receives his answer, Hilda accepts.
In September 1906, the couple is married on board the frigate Albania, lying at anchors in Swansea. To become a captain’s wife at such a young age was a bit of a chock, Hilda later confesses to her daughter-in-law, Solveig.
Initially, the relationship is that of teacher and student. Rumour has it that Hilda asked for a doll but instead Gustaf got her a piano, a more suitable wedding gift. He gives her gentle advice about how she is expected to dress and behave. Hilda learns and adjusts. That is a woman’s role in the early 20th century.
The honeymoon is a long voyage to South Africa, during which Hilda gets to know everything about the sea and seasickness. To keep her busy, her husband gives her a sewing machine and cloth. Her job is to make underwear to sell to the crew. Hilda hasn’t got a clue how to make pants but takes a pair of Gustaf’s as a sample. The first pants don’t come out so well, but Hilda adjusts and learns from this too. On several occasions, Hilda accompanies Gustaf on long voyages and she crosses the equator eight times in her life.
Despite the significant age difference, letters and stories indicate that it was a marriage of love. When apart, Hilda writes lengthy letters to Gustaf, filled with strong emotions:
My dear Gustaf if you knew how infinitely vast my love for you is. I could never see another man, only you are everything to me. And I pray to God that your love for me will not falter and that we will once again embrace each other. My dear, wouldn’t it be fun if you came home for the winter? Wouldn’t that day be joyous? I haven’t really got anything more this time., many thousand warm greetings and many thousand kisses to my always remembered sweet little Gustaf.
Auntie sends her regards.
After 30 years at sea, Gustaf steps ashore in 1913. This is when his ship-owning career starts. He builds up one of the world’s largest fleets of windjammers and for many years manages to hold his own against the steamships. His wife Hilda is the jewel of his crown. A prudent housekeeper, a good mother and a charming hostess in one person. But despite shipping families belonging to the upper class of Åland society, daily life at Erikson’s is simple. Coffee at two and herring for dinner. But when they entertain, Hilda is an excellent hostess. Together with housekeeper Ethel Ahlqvist, she plans and manages parties, banquettes and dinners.
The family is also hit by tragedies. Two of the four children pass away too soon, the daughter Greta and the son Gustaf Adolf. Hilda gets seriously ill, loses a kidney, from which she never quite recovers. The shipping company struggles during the two world wars and the interwar depression. But the family remains strong, with Hilda and Gustaf at its core.
When Gustaf dies in 1947, the age of the windjammers is irrevocably over. Hilda passes away in 1950.
Material: lether case with fabric lining. Glass bottles with silver caps. The owner’s monogram engraved in the caps.
Content: glass bottles, glass jars, hair brushes clothes brushes, comb, mirror, shoe horn et cetera.
Previous owner: Hilda Erikson
Used: probably 1920s-1940s
Material: glass bottle and silver lid
Innehåll: fragment av parfym
Previous owner: Hilda Erikson
Used: probably 1920s-1940s