Continuity and Change

The social mobility of servants in rural Sweden, 1740–1894

a1 Department of Economic History, Lund University


For most people in pre-industrial Sweden, the occupation of being a servant was not a lifetime job but a temporary one at which they tried their hand for a limited period during their lives. The Western European marriage pattern with its late age at marriage meant that most individuals spent about 10–15 years preparing for adulthood: saving up, being trained and seeking a partner for life. During this phase of their lives they worked as servants, changed employer frequently and therefore migrated.

Until the late eighteenth century the social structure in the Swedish countryside was quite homogeneous. The nobility possessed large estates which formed an important source of employment. These were, however, few in number, and the dominant social groups were peasants, freeholders (skattebönder) and tenants on crown or noble land (kronobönder, frälsebönder), as well as servants in peasant households or on the estates. There were, of course, people with other occupations, but they did not constitute large social groups. Thus, servants formed a special social category, but, as I mentioned, very few people belonged to the category for life. Let us contrast this homogeneous picture with the diversified social structure in the late nineteenth century.