Protecting and Educating the Sons of the Fatherland – The Finnish Association for Sailors’ Homes

Kyläkirjaston Kuvalehti 1.7.1907 copy

Sailor’s home in Helsinki, Finland, built in 1907. Source: Kyläkirjaston Kuvalehti 7/1907.

Previous posts on this website have made references to the stereotypical image of sailors as engaging in immoral activities such as drinking, gambling or visiting prostitutes when they were in harbours. This same image was invoked in late 19th century and early 20th century Finland by advocators of sailor’s homes, reading rooms and Seamen’s Mission’s stations. The lack of alternatives for healthier pastimes in harbours or the fact that sailors were forced to essentially live in bars were seen to pose a threat to both the personal future of sailors and the future of their home country, Finland. As a part of a fight against such threats, in 1923 the Finnish Association for Sailors’ Homes was founded and in 1926–1927 the Association opened homes for Finnish sailors in Hamburg, Antwerp, and Rotterdam.[1] In this article I look at how these homes were organised in a way that supported the educational and moral improvement of the sailors as well as fostered the connections between sailors and their homeland.

In his article about royal naval officers’ cabins, Quintin Colville states that for the officers their personally decorated cabins became “a means of mediating the dislocations of naval life.”[2] Finnish sailors did not have much room to exhibit their personal tastes in ships or in sailor’s homes, but, nonetheless, on a more general level the sailor’s home can be seen as an antidote to the conditions and consequences of life onboard. The advocators of sailors’ homes saw that also sailors deserved and needed to enjoy the comforts of home.[3] Such comforts and elements of homeliness included bedclothes and fresh linen, warmth, flowers, curtains, table cloths, wallpaper, pictures or paintings on walls, running water, a toilet, a bathroom, a dining room, and a room meant for socializing, reading and the writing of letters.[4]

Providing tasty food also contributed to the homeliness of the homes and increased their lucrativeness in the eyes of sailors. Furthermore, offering specifically Finnish dishes cooked by a Finnish chef or national foodstuffs such as rye bread or sour milk was a way to strengthen the sailors’ ties with their home country and their national identity.[5] The sailors needed to be made to refocus their attention from pleasures and vices to their responsibilities towards their nation and families. If the sailor spent all his money in bars and brothels, there was none left for his family nor did their earnings benefit the national economy of Finland.[6]

Moreover, strengthening the ties between sailors and their homeland was an aim but also a means to protect, care for and educate the sailors. It was seen as important that Finnish sailors had a Finnish sailors’ home to go to.[7] It represented a piece of their homeland in a strange country. Only people from one’s own homeland could truly make one feel at home and have one’s best interests at heart. Besides food, Finland was brought to the foreign land through the use of Finnish language in the form of newspapers, books, discussing in Finnish with the staff and the other residents, sending and receiving letters from home, as well as by celebrating national holidays such as the Finnish independence day or following Finnish traditions at Christmas.[8]

By employing Christian values, abstinence, morality, nationalism and middle-class ideal of home and masculinity, the homes were aiming to transform the sailors into modern citizens.[9] Once the sailors were in the home, it was easier to keep them out of trouble, educate them to be responsible individuals and citizens, and try to instil the right kind of values into them, including what kinds of homes they should set up for their families or what kinds of lives they should lead. For example, the rules of the homes promoted a regular lifestyle, attention hygiene, respectable behaviour, and complete abstinence from alcohol.[10] The Association can thus be seen as one example of the wide arrange of different organizations that the upper and middle classes founded since the latter part of the 19th century in order to train and civilise the members of lower classes into being obedient “citizen-subjects.”[11]

However, such educational aims could not turn to too obvious or blatantly aggressive paternalism. The sailors needed to feel that they were welcome and respected, that their freedom was not taken away, and that they were understood and not condemned by the workers of the home – or the institution behind them. If the manager of the home or the priest at the Mission did not know how to communicate with the sailors or looked down upon them and “frightened with the hardships of hell”, the sailors preferred to go somewhere else.[12]

Unfortunately, I have not found many sources that would tell us about the experiences sailors themselves had of sailor’s homes. In an article published in the magazine of the Finnish Seamen’s Union in 1934, the homes were written about in a positive tone and it was stated that most Finnish sailors were grateful for their existence.[13] However, as the Union finally managed to organize itself more properly also its stance towards the homes changed: In a meeting of the Union’s representatives in 1943, it was demanded that control of the sailors’ homes should be transferred from the Association to the state as the Association was described as “completely unfamiliar to sailors.”[14]



[1] In Finnish the Association was called ”Suomen Merimieskotiyhdistys”.

[2] Quintin Colville, ”Corporate Domesticity and Idealised Masculinity: Royal Naval Officers and their Shipboard Homes, 1918–39,” Gender & History 21, no. 3 (2009), 513.

[3] Merimieskoti Turkuun!, Sanomia Turusta, October 27, 1899, 1. Turun merimieskoti, Turun Sanomat, May 22, 1906, 1. Turun Merimieskoti ja Kokki- ja stuerttikoulu, Länsi-Suomi, March 18, 1909, 3–4. Satamalähetys Turussa, Turun Sanomat, November 24, 1909, 3.

[4] Finnish National Archive: archive of the Finnish Association for Sailor’s Homes: Ba:1, Furniture inventory; Ca:2, Minutes of the board, 19.6.1931, attachment A/ travel report; Minutes of the board 25.4.1931, attachment/a newspaper clipping from Helsingin Sanomat; Da:1, Sent letters, board to the Seamen’s Committee (merimieshuoltokomitea), 27.1.1928. Annual reports 1932–1939 in K. W. Hoppu, Suomen merimieskotiyhdistys 1942: vuosikertomus ja 20-vuotisvaiheet (Helsinki: Suomen merimieskotiyhdistys, 1943).

[5] Finnish National Archive: archive of the Finnish Association for Sailor’s Homes:Ea:1, Received letters, from Lindroos/Rotterdam to the board, 4.12.1928; from Lindroos/Rotterdam to the board, 13.10.1928.

[6] Vaikuttava syy, Suomi, September 12, 1891, 2. U. D. Blomberg, Suomen merimieslähetyksen merkitys kansallemme, Kansan Lehti, 2/1895, 12–14. Esitelmä, jonka rouva Aina Panelius piti Turussa sinne perustettavan merimieskodin hyväksi toimeenpannussa iltamassa, Rauman Lehti, November 16, 1899, 1–2. P. G. K., Merimieslähetyksestä, Kansan ystävä, November 23, 1899, 2–3. Kirje Saksasta. (U:n A:n kirjeenvaihtajalta.), Uusi Aura, April 12, 1906, 3–4. Suomalaisten merimiesten lukusali Lontoossa, Kotimaa, December 16, 1907, 3.

[7] Finnish National Archive:archive of the Finnish Association for Sailor’s Homes:Ha:3, a grant application to the Malm Foundation.

[8] Finnish National Archive: archive of the Finnish Association for Sailor’s Homes:Ca:2, Minutes of the board, 19.7.1932, attachment 1/travel report; Ea:2, Annual report of the Home in Antwerp in 1932. Annual reports 1932–1939 in Hoppu, Suomen merimieskotiyhdistys 1942.

[9] Irma Sulkunen, Raittius kansalaisuskontona. Raittiusliike ja järjestäytyminen 1870-luvulta suurlakon jälkeisiin vuosiin (Helsinki: Suomen Historiallinen Seura, 1986), 18–19.

[10] Finnish National Archive:archive of the Finnish Association for Sailor’s Homes:Ea:2, Rules of conduct for the home in Hamburg.

[11] In Finnish ”alamaiskansalaisuus”. Sulkunen, Raittius kansalaisuskontona, 38–39. Anneli Anttonen and Jorma Sipilä. Suomalaista sosiaalipolitiikkaa. (Tampere: Vastapaino, 2000), 45. Anneli Juntto, Asuntokysymys Suomessa. Topeliuksesta tulopolitiikkaan (Helsinki: Sosiaalipoliittinen yhdistys, 1990), 117.

[12] TYKL-collection at the at the Archives of Cultural Studies, University of Turku/questionnaire K19&20/informants 12 and 81. Elis Bergroth, Sananen Merimiesten elämästä, Suomen lähetyssanomia, 1-L/1881, 6–8.

[13] K. A., Suomalaiset merimieskodit, Merimies, December, 1934.

[14] Merimiehet tasa-arvoisiksi muitten kansalaisten kanssa, Merimies, November 1943.

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