Amalia Eriksson was the first person in the world to make and sell the sweets called “polkagrisar”. She thereby founded the lucrative industry that put the town of Gränna on the eastern shore of Lake Vättern on the world map.
Amalia Eriksson was born in 1824 in Jönköping, in a poor family. The whole of her life was marked by the infectious diseases that constituted some of the most common causes of death during the 1800s. Her mother Ingeborg Andersdotter, a maidservant, died as early as 1833. The following year she also lost her father, the blacksmith Jonas Lundström, and one of her sisters in the cholera epidemic that swept over Jönköping. There is information that the family had five children altogether, but how many of Amalia Eriksson’s siblings survived and what happened to them is unknown. She herself was placed in a foster family, that of artilleryman Anders Bygrén and his wife Maria Berglund.
It is unlikely that Amalia Eriksson had any formal schooling since the school reform had not yet been implemented. She did learn to read and write, as witnessed by the love letters that her husband-to-be later in her life sent to her, and by the proposal that she herself composed to the magistrate in Gränna. It is unclear for how long she lived with her foster parents. Like her mother, she worked as a maidservant for several years. From 1852 she had a position at the home of Jonas Allvin, the head land-surveyor in Jönköping. It is not clear whether she moved to Gränna with Allvin’s household or if it was when she was in service at the Röding sisters’, who owned a summer residence in Gränna. Whichever it was, she moved to Gränna in 1855 and continued as a maidservant at the sisters’ home in the old customs house at Brahegatan 2, which would for posterity be associated with Amalia Eriksson’s life’s work.
The move to Gränna brought with it positive changes for Amalia Eriksson, initially. She met Anders Eriksson, a tailor, and they married after two years’ intense courtship. Amalia Eriksson was soon expecting twins and it is said that this was the happiest time in her life. Sadly, it was to end drastically. In September 1858 she gave birth to two girls, of whom one was stillborn. The surviving girl was named Ida.
Only four days later, Ida was made fatherless when Anders Eriksson died suddenly of dysentery. Amalia Eriksson, unexpectedly a widow and single mother with no support, is supposed often to have said “nobody is as alone as I” after that. She was not however without talents to fall back on. As a woman in the mid-1800s, she was excluded from business life, but if there were extreme grounds it was possible to acquire dispensation. Amalia Eriksson chose to make a request for such dispensation to the magistrate in Gränna, and on 10 January 1859 she received a positive response:
“Since the Applicant according to the Vicar’s Certificate presented here, has attained her majority as well as partaken of the Lord’s Holy Communion and has good health, the Magistrate finds in accordance with the 12 § 1 sentence of the Royal Crafts Ordinance (Kongl. Hantverksförordningen) of the 22 December 1846, that no impediment is met with to hinder the Applicant from with her own hands practising, here in this Town, as a means of providing for herself, ‘Bakery management, of coarser and finer sorts of bread and the manufacturing of so-called Polkagrisar’.”
The polkagrisar that later became so famous were thus included in Amalia Eriksson’s original application. Whether or not she herself had invented the striped peppermint sweets or if they were already being manufactured for domestic requirements and she was quite simply the first person to make money out of their production, is unclear. It is however clear that Amalia Eriksson was the first person in Sweden and therefore in the world to produce polkagrisar for sale. The very name “polkagrisar” was first mentioned in writing in the magistrate’s missive. They would not turn up in the columns of the daily newspapers until around 1880. The name is the result of the name at that time for small hard sweets, which was “gris” (pig), coupled with a very popular dance of the day, the polka.
Amalia Eriksson’s original polkagrisar were made as small cut cushions, then as now of caramel paste made of sugar, water, vinegar and peppermint oil, of which part of the paste was coloured red and the rest that was white was beaten vigorously to make it porous. After a short time, she also started making polkagrisar in the form of long sticks and bars, and sales soon gained momentum even to the degree that she was able to abandon making bread and devote herself to making sweets. She was soon also able to buy the house at Brahegatan 2 that she had up until then rented from the Röding sisters. Amalia Eriksson showed her skills not only by inventing new polkagris shapes but also by her marketing of them. Evidence of this was when Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and his wife Margaretha made a pilgrimage to Gränna in 1915 just to buy her sweets. In a short time, she had gone from being a poor widow to one of the wealthiest and most influential persons in Gränna. Her daughter Ida was trained early as a sweetmaker of polkagrisar, and she was to continue Amalia Eriksson’s professional work after the latter’s death in 1923 at 99 years of age. Mother and daughter rest together in the same grave in the Gränna Cemetery.
After Amalia Eriksson’s death, polkagrisar continued their triumphal march over Sweden and soon over the whole world. After Ida Eriksson’s death in 1945, the manufacturing of polkagrisar was taken over by a Mrs Greta Nordstedt and carried out by several women working in their own homes.
The new motorways of the 1950s led to further marketing and trade, and polkagrisar began to be sold in stalls along Motorway 1 from Stockholm to Helsingborg. Nowadays (2019), over 150 years since Amalia Eriksson started manufacturing them, polkagrisar constitute Gränna’s strongest trademark, and the polkagris producers in the town make about 10 million polkagris sticks by hand every year. Since 1997, a statue of Amalia Eriksson can be seen in the Södra Park in Gränna, and in 2003 her house at Brahegatan 2 was turned into the four-star hotel Amalia’s House (Amalias hus). Amalia’s glasscafé (ice cream parlour) in Gränna harbour is also named after her.