Birgitta Sahlgren was an eighteenth-century businesswoman who also ran a sugar factory in Gothenburg.
Birgitta Sahlgren was the daughter of Olof Pehrsson, a merchant, and Christina Stillman. In 1715 she married Jacob Sahlgren. They had two sons and a daughter together. Birgitta Sahlgren outlived not just her husband but also her three children.
Through her marriage Birgitta Sahlgren became involved in the Sahlgren family business which had been established in Gothenburg at the turn of the eighteenth century. The family was one of the biggest exporters of Värmland iron from Gothenburg and was also a major credit-lender to the factory owners there. Jacob Sahlgren was politically active, both within municipal politics in Gothenburg and as a parliamentarian representing the burgess estate. He and his brother Niklas Sahlgren, who is known for having donated significant seed capital to the Sahlgren hospital, further expanded the family business.
Birgitta Sahlgren’s life story is largely tied up with her husband’s financial dealings. He, supported by a family friend named Jonas Alström, invested in two related projects: a 1731–1732 trade expedition to the West Indies and Guyana and a sugar factory in Gothenburg. Jacob Sahlgren obtained the right to produce sugar in 1729 and a few years later he had the monopoly. The trade expeditions did indeed bring raw sugar back to Sweden, and the large factory buildings in Gamlestaden began to produce refined sugar, but Jacob Sahlgren died just three years later. Following his demise Birgitta Sahlgren took over the running of the sugar factory, along with the trade and shipping enterprises. She was clearly well-capable of running businesses. The sugar refinery was, however, expensive to run and importing raw sugar was even more costly. Birgitta Sahlgren thus came to agreements with her three children regarding keeping their inheritance from their father in maintaining the sugar factory. This injection of capital was timely as it was put to good use in rebuilding the factory following a comprehensive fire in Gamlestaden in 1757.
There was heavy demand for sugar and syrup and the output at Birgitta Sahlgren’s sugar refinery was not able to keep pace with this demand. This led to price rises and resulted in smaller places in western Sweden not always being supplied with requested amounts. Competing trade interests sought to break the sugar monopoly that Birgitta Sahlgren had maintained and the sugar trade became a politically sensitive issue. Following two intensive debates in parliament Birgitta Sahlgren lost her monopoly. One of her rivals, Nicolas Jacobson, was given permission to set up a second sugar factory in Gothenburg. Despite the subsequent economic fluctuations Birgitta Sahlgren was nevertheless able to retain the prime position her sugar factory held, both in terms of raw sugar and buyers. From time to time her sugar factory was the biggest in the country, thereby making Birgitta Sahlgren and Gothenburg a part of the Western world’s colonial trade in sugar and slaves.
Whilst engaged in this business Birgitta Sahlgren also took on various building projects. It was not unusual for severe fires, which razed buildings to the ground, to break out in Gothenburg which was enclosed by walls and fortifications. Indeed her own sugar factory fell victim to one of these fires, and ten years earlier even Birgitta Sahlgren’s house had already been impacted by a major fire which had necessitated the building of a new house. It took seven years to build the stately palace which is today known as the Sahlgren building, and which lies at Norra Hamngatan 14, next to the similarly stately building which houses Ostindiska kompaniet (the East Indian company). It is believed that the Sahlgren building was erected according to architect B W Carlberg’s drawings – who was also responsible for the Ostindiska building.
Birgitta Sahlgren died in 1771.