The Swedish Torp and Torpares

Privacy Level: Open (White)
Date: 1700 to 1900
Location: Swedenmap
Surnames/tags: Swedish_Torpares Torp Swedish_cottage
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The Importance of the Torp & the Torparproletariat

Example of a Soldiers Torp

Example of a Soldiers Torp

Excerpted: The secondary meaning of the word torp has to do with its use when, in the 19th century the Swedish population grew explosively. This was due in part to the introduction of the cowpox vaccine, which drastically reduced infant mortality, and – where a family had experienced that only one or two children survived infancy – now with the introduction of the vaccine, the parents could view their families of seven, eight, nine, and even ten children growing up to adulthood. As the families grew, the farms, which had been in the same family, perhaps for centuries, suddenly were no longer able to feed the many additional mouths. Add to this the fact that the nation’s laws precluded that, at the death of the farm owner, the farm could be carved up for the heirs.

Swedish soldier, Carl Nystrom Sr.
Usually the farm was therefore inherited by the eldest son. The remaining children had to make their own way, either by hiring out as farm hands and maid servants to a neighboring farmer, joining the army (see Swedish soldier photo), or taking up a village trade such as that of a cobbler, a tailor, or a carpenter. For those who wished to remain on the land and at the same time to stay at least semi-independent, there was one other choice, that of establishing one’s own existence on land which belonged to a farm owner. This land, a croft, usually the most unproductive, was quite often located on the outskirts of the village near the edge of the forest. This was of course encumbered land, and the settler who worked it was obligated to provide the owner with a certain number of free work days during the year.

A torpare was a so-called crofter (tenant farmer) to whom a landowner leased land and a smaller cottage with compensation in the form of day labor. The torpare worked his plot of ground, seldom larger than a couple of acres, where he could plant potatoes, grow vegetables and a bit of hay for the lone cow, a couple of pigs, and a few chickens. Occasionally the land area was large enough also to support a horse.

But there were problems, inasmuch as the farm owner wanted his torpare to work during the busiest seasons, the time of planting, harvesting, slaughtering, fence mending, and the repairing of roads. The crofter had to adjust his own schedule to the demands of the owner, thereby finding himself scrambling at odd hours accomplishing his own tasks.

The social conditions under which the torpare worked varied greatly from farm to farm, from village to village.Where the farm owner and his crofter worked together harmoniously, life was tolerable at least. Where the owner and his farm laborer could not agree, or where the farm owner made unreasonable demands which the crofter could scarcely meet, life could be frustrating, humiliating and miserable. This state of affairs has been amply illustrated in Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants.

These conditions were of course one of the prime motivating factors for Swedes to immigrate to America. The farm owner and his crofter usually signed a contract which stipulated what each was to furnish the other. If the crofter became ill or incapacitated and thus could not fulfill his number of working days, he had to provide a substitute whom he was obligated to reimburse. If this were not possible, the crofter’s wife had to step in and carry on her husband’s duties, though she had a houseful of children which had to be raised, fed, and clothed. As a last resort it might become necessary for a half-grown son to shoulder his father’s responsibilities.

A basic Swedish Torp
The torp itself often left much to be desired. Consisting of one or two rooms, having most of the time nothing but a dirt floor, it was an unhealthy environment in which to raise a family. The crofter could, if asked by the farm owner, work extra days for a stipulated amount in cash, usually less than the going labor rates. But by doing so, he sacrificed his own time, which was necessary to keep his cottage in repair, to plant, to reap and to busy himself with countless other chores.

How many Torps were there? The proliferation in Sweden of torp and torpare during the 19th century was no less than astounding. It is estimated that by the year 1860 there were no less than 100,000 Swedish torpare who with their families accounted for 457,000 persons. By the year 1900 that number had dropped to 70,000 torpare embracing 357,000 persons. The gradual lessening of the torparproletariat and its eventual demise can to a large extent be credited to the ongoing industrialization of Sweden.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the number of torpares were greatly reduced by emigration. There was a transfer to cash leases. In 1943, day labor was banned, and thus the torparproletariat ceased.

Swedish Torp at Enebacken

The Torp Today | In today’s Sweden the torp has regained some of its romantic aspect. Modern Swedes want to go back to their roots, and thousands of city dwellers have returned to their parishes of origin, there to purchase the old family torp, if it still was in existence. If this was not possible, any other torp would do, so long as it was a torp

Sources: Nystrom and Strandberg family history and The Swedish American Genealogist Vol. 30, No. 2, Issue, June , 2010, first published in the Swedish American Genealogist 1991, Issue 3. Online access:

NOTE: Much of the material for the S-AG article has been taken from the entry torp in the Swedish encyclopedia, Nordisk Familjebok, second edition IXXXVIII (Stockholm 1904-1936), YXIX, cols. 418-422.

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