Sailors’ lonely wives

The wife of a seamen, depicted on the paintings of the 19th century, is standing on the sea side sad and distressed. Next time she sees the husband in a year or two. Maybe never. She is responsible for taking care of the house and the kids alone. I wrote this story to the newspaper Raumalainen, published on 17.07.2019.

Every third man in Rauma was a sailor around the middle of the 19th century. In 1830 Rauma seamen got the right to sail further away from the shores of Finland, on open seas all around the world.  Sailors received new duties at faraway ports and their ships did not return home for years.

The sailor’s wife received a third or half of the man’s wage through the seamen’s house. Not bad! But that was not enough to feed the family. Women had to rent out rooms in order to make extra money. They would take care of the sick, the orphans and the old people and be paid by the seamen’s house (just as if the men on sea would pay their wives, but the money goes to a caretaker). If women had no house of their own, they would have to work as maids and live in the employer’s house (under constant supervision, losing their independence). Most of the women from 1750s to 1840s were engaged in bobbin lace making for extra revenue.

The other men in the family, the grandfathers and the brothers, helped them. Sometimes a grandma would live in the next room, as you can see in Kirsti’s house museum.

One fifth of the seamen earned so well that they could buy the real estate from that income. Only house owners were allowed to practice farming and rent fields from the city. It was a good side income. The owners of the Kirsti’s house kept cattle from 1755 until 1947.

The salary and working conditions of Finnish sailors were not good. No wonder they escaped the ship for a better life in America or for a better paid job on American or English ships. Some got sick on faraway journeys and had to be left at the hospital in South Africa or other remote countries, with no opportunity to return.

According to Jari Lybeck’s dissertation, 270 seamen from Rauma escaped from the ship in 1840-1870 (that is 30 years). The same happened on the other Finnish ships and every third seamen from Turku would desert the ship! The masters would then have to find new personnel in order to continue sailing.

Picture by Juha Sinisalo , Raumalainen. I am looking out of the window at Kirsti’s house to see if my seaman is coming home.

What did the seamen eat on long journeys during the times they had no refrigerators? Pea soup and porridge. Porridge and pea soup. Stomach pains, yes. Weak health from the lack of vitamin C as well. When they reached the land, they would buy meat, fruit, alcohol, tobacco and coffee. It was only after the 1850s that they had any money. And the young boys, of course, went for an “adventure”. Married men wanted the same, but they were afraid the rumors would reach their families at home. They were all from the same town.

Have you seen the porcelain dogs on the windows in the old Rauma? The dogs look in the house if the man is home. According to a rumor these were given to the seamen as gifts by the most expensive prostitutes at English ports.

Later, when china dogs were not available, housewives placed the OMO washing powder box on a window (OMO- like the Old Man Out, you know).

But only a third of the divorces were a result of a woman’s misbehavior. Only? Or too many? I wonder where these extra men arrived to the small town to comfort lonely women, if at some point Rauma had 1000 seamen (sounds like all boys aged 10+ and men were on the sea).

A woman filed for a divorce if a man had deserted the ship for a better life and there was no sign of him for a year. Usually she waited longer, even 10-20 years. A single woman with kids was not a nice status those days. Some did a crime to feed the family. A seamen’s house supported those deserted wives to some extent, but not forever. If she got pregnant, she filed for a divorce. She could keep his belongings, as he was the initial cause of their divorce (not her extramarital relationship). She had to be quick, as he could still decide to return and she would be the only sinful.

It was not only the status of a married woman, the independence from a master and the financial security that lead women to such a lonely marriage. It might as well been love. Why else would anyone walk all the way from Rauma to Turku harbor (100 kilometers!) to meet a husband. It took them days to get there. They helped carry the things home. Gifts? Stockings? Perfumes? No.  All she got from a well-travelled man was a self-made ship in a bottle. Most important was that he came back alive. The captain’s wife might have got a scarf.

Nowadays not only the seamen leave homes and families. Several positions require a trip from time to time. But our spouses come home more often. We have the electricity, washing machines, television, hot water. Food is available at the store; there is no need to grow the potatoes and keep cattle. Children’s diapers go into garbage, not the laundry. Rauma is no longer a city of single mothers.

Enjoy your family summer holiday and why not visit the Rauma museums together. The sailor’s house museum Kirsti is open on summer time only (Tue-Sun 10-17). Rauma Maritime Museum is open every day in summer (from 11-17). On other times it is only on Saturdays. The wealthy shipowner’s Gabriel Granlund house museum Marela is open every day except Mondays.

Article by Kairi Rintanen (just like all the others in this blog)

2 thoughts on “Sailors’ lonely wives”

  1. Thank you, Kairi for sharing these very interesting facts. I like the way your write. Looking fwd to more stories about Rauma life now and in the past.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s