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Aaro Harju
Julkaistu 13.11.2020

National awakening (1850–1900)

Finnish national awakening in the late 19th century formed the basis for an active civil society.

Aikajana: Kansallinen herääminen (1850–1900)

A strong national awakening took place in Finland in the 1860s and 1870s. Alexander II (1855–1881) had acceded to the throne in Russia, and a politically more liberal period began. At the same time societal activities were liberated.

In the background were the following factors: the increased value of wood causing the economy to improve, freedom of trade, the development of traffic conditions (railways, canals, roads), the birth of the Finnish-language intelligentsia and its national enthusiasm, the Finnish-language press, elementary schools, libraries and reading societies.

Nationalism was the core of the civil society

The basis for the educational and cultivating national and social activities of civic organizations, political parties and trade unions was created during 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. Most of the popular movements are still going strong today, and they have formed the basis for the numerous Finnish civic organizations.

The activities of popular movements were laced with a clear view of what needed to be improved. Ethos, commitment, and a burning passion for action were the typical characteristics of the late nineteenth century organizational, party, trade unionist and cooperative activities.

Without all this, the nation would not have been mature enough to declare independence.

Nationalism was the core of the late nineteenth century civil society in Finland. The Finnish nation, in the societal sense, was created to a large extent by popular movements, civic activity and co-operation. These raised and educated Finns, created national sentiment and taught people how to take care of common issues and interests. Without all this, the nation would not have been intellectually or materially mature enough to declare independence in 1917.

Sports, sobriety, and language disputes

The first of the big popular movements to come to Finland was the gymnastics and sports movement. The first Finnish athletic club was founded in 1856. Besides bringing together children and youth who were interested in athletics, the clubs’ goal was to bring to them order, discipline, sobriety and education.

The goal of the sport clubs was to bring youth and children order, discipline, sobriety and education.

The decades of national awakening also gave birth to party activities. The first Finnish political groupings, not parties in the modern sense, were the Finnish Party and the Swedish Party. Their activities began in the 1860s.

During the 1880s and the 1890s the Finnish party gradually became a fullyfledged political party which split into conservative and progressive wings. Two parties emerged: the Finnish Party and the Young Finns Party. The liberals, too, became active in the 1860s but their activities faded soon.

Temperance Association Raittiuden ystävät in 1899.
The meeting of the temperance association Raittiuden ystävät in Viipuri in 1899. / Photo: Thorvald Nyblin, Finnish Heritage Agency, Historical Picture Collection

Both children and adults were educated

Finland has always believed in education. In addition to children’s elementary school (founded in 1866), adult education activities were developed. From 1874 onwards, the KVS Foundation started to organize systematic educational activities. People also organized public festivals which aimed at educating and cultivating the citizens.

From the year 1889 onwards, following the Danish example, folk high schools were founded to meet the educational needs of rural youth in particular. Employers and gentry founded the first lyceums for working people in the years 1866 and 1869.

Cooperative systems evolved

In the years of national awakening, the co-operative systems began to spread their strong networks in the towns and the countryside. The first co-operative societies were born in the Rochdalean ethos in the 1870s and 1880s.

In the following decades a strong network of cooperatives was established in the countryside. The network covered the delivery, processing, trade and financing. In towns people started up cooperative stores especially.

Women’s rights

The women’s movement started to advocate improvements in the woman’s position in the family, education and the administration system. The First Association of Women in Finland was founded in 1884 following the North American and European examples.

During these years of national awakening religious organizations also started to develop into civic organizations of large memberships. Similarly, home district associations were formed to cherish the culture and environment of people’s own neighbourhoods.

The rural youth’s bad habits

In the 1880s, alongside the workers’ educational activities and the trade union movement, the civic activities of the rural young adults started to develop. The Finnish Youth Association Movement begun to educate the rural youth and root out alcoholism and other bad habits.

Youth societies formed the civic organization with the largest membership before the turn of the century in Finland.

Workers’ associations

In the early twentieth century the memberships of cooperatives and workers’ associations multiplied, exceeding the memberships of youth societies.

The first worker’s association was founded in 1884.

The first workers’ association was founded in Helsinki in 1884. By the year 1890 there were around twenty such associations in the biggest industrial towns. These educational ambitions of the workers gave rise to the adult education centres. The first adult education centre was founded in 1899, and in the year 1917 there were eleven centres in the biggest towns. At the time, there were 43 folk high schools in operation, mainly in the countryside.

The Publicity committee of Labor Association Tampereen työväenyhdistys in 1897–1900. / Photo: Finnish Heritage Agency, Historical Picture Collection

Labour movement and trade unions

In Finland, the political labour movement and the trade union movement are closely linked, and their development was intertwined. In 1884, one year after the founding of the first workers’ association, Helsinki printers founded the first trade union. In the 1880s, painters, tailors, metal workers, carpenters, bricklayers and shoemakers set up their own trade union branches which often also had employers as members.

The first national trade union in Finland was the Finnish Printers’ Union.

The first women’s trade union branches were founded before the turn of the century. Seamstresses, shop assistants and maids were the path breakers in the unionization of women. Foreign trends, disputes with the employers and the political organizational activities of the workers were the catalysts of the trade union movement.

The first national trade union in Finland, the Finnish Printers’ Union, was formed in 1894. By the turn of the century many other occupational groups had founded national organizations.

Article is based on the text “The national awakening” by Aaro Harju, published earlier on this web site.