Maria Andersson was an entrepreneur who set up a textile business, introduced a more humane mental health care in Sweden, and established cooperative residences.
Maria Andersson was born on 17 August 1837 at the farm Skogssäter in Vassända Naglum, near Trollhättan. Her parents were Cajsa Maria and Johannes Jansson. When Maria Andersson was two years old the family moved to Ellenö farm in southwest Dalsland, where she grew up as the eldest of seven children. Her father Johannes was her main role model throughout her life. He was a very enterprising and innovative farmer. He was politically liberally minded and served not only on the municipal council and the county council but also in parliament. He campaigned in particular for improvements in the school and poor relief authorities, for women’s rights, and to reduce alcoholism. Maria Andersson carried on fighting for her father’s causes and social reforms throughout her life and she in turn passed her activism in these spheres on to her own family.
When Maria Andersson was 20 years old she married Magnus Andersson and they moved to Östra Stigen manor. Their first child was born the following year, in 1858, and eventually their children numbered ten in total. Upon arrival at Stigen Maria Andersson became exposed to the extreme poverty and dire situation of many of those who lived in the surrounding simple crofts and huts. Shortly thereafter, aged only 22, she set up a textile business in an effort to reduce poverty. This laid the foundation for a textile enterprise, which she and her husband set up 15 years later at Stigen and which eventually created 500 jobs and two offshoots.
At the end of the 1860s a series of terrible harvests caused famine and a massive rise in mortality and emigration figures. Maria Andersson then introduced further developments to her textile enterprise in an attempt at ameliorating the dire situation. She even set up weaving looms in the main room of the manor, where women were welcome to come and weave. She very quickly even established a weaving school at her home.
Johanna Brunsson from Flatebyn in Valbo Ryr became Maria Andersson’s most proficient student. She later established a very famous weaving school in Stockholm. In the same year that Johanna Brunsson arrived at Stigen both she and Maria Andersson were awarded prizes for their accomplished weavings at a handicrafts display in Vänersborg. Governor Erik Sparre, who was a keen advocate of the potential of handicrafts to defeat poverty, was an early supporter of both these women’s enterprises. By the end of the 1860s Maria Andersson was already employing about 40 women who worked both at her manor and in their own homes. In 1872 a spinning mill was introduced. That year Maria Andersson also set up an association called Enighet och Enkelhet (“unity and simplicity”) whose main aim was to fundraise in order to give poor children and youth the opportunity to gain an education. Two years later the Magnus Andersson textile company was established - the name was misleading given that it was Maria Andersson who actually lay behind most of the enterprise.
Maria Andersson had realised from an early point just how important a railroad would be for rural development. She thus became a very active campaigner on behalf of building one. 19 years before the Lelånge track was laid down she wrote an enthusiastic pamphlet directed at the women in the district. This missive contained a fiery appeal and call to the women of Valbo district to come together and use their forces to fund the projected cost of the railroad by producing textiles which could then be sold at auction.
When Maria Andersson was 53 years old she and her husband handed over the running of and responsibility for their enterprise to their sons Hjalmar and Valdemar. Maria Andersson had long harboured a strong vision of establishing a summer camp for the less fortunate of society. When she received her inheritance from her father’s estate she invested it in Mariahemmet in Vänersborg. In 1891, when she was 54, she set up a care centre for women who had suffered nervous breakdowns. This care facility served as a role model within Swedish mental health care. She introduced a humane approach to mental health care including textile work, garden therapy, and simple cooking tasks, in contrast to the incarceration and custody that was usually meted out to those with mental health issues. Maria Andersson’s care facility in turn led to the Östra clinics which could care for more than 1000 patients and became one of the region’s largest employers.
Maria Andersson helped set up a cooperative residence at Stigen long before Alva Myrdal became famous for her cooperative residences. The main aim was to provide an opportunity for women to work outside the home and thus to earn their own livelihoods and not be so dependent on their husbands, or need to hold two jobs. Maria Andersson’s idea of cooperative living included childcare and school meals, snack bars, and laundry and baking enterprises. Smaller residences had access to the larger communal gathering spaces.
Despite having a very conservative husband Maria Andersson was a very liberal-minded individual and fought hard for women’s rights and suffrage. She was also active within the temperance movement and was heavily socially engaged in many different ways. She was involved in setting up several associations working on behalf of social improvements. One supported the weak and poor of society whilst another collected funds to allow the poor to study.
Maria Andersson experienced several great sorrows and difficulties during her lifetime. She lost three of her children during infancy and in 1906, when she was 69 years old, she suffered two great losses just months apart. First her husband died and her son who ran the family enterprise died just three months later. He had been particularly close to his mother. Nevertheless, she carried on indefatigably and kept campaigning for the causes close to her heart and for her own vision of a summer camp and a cooperative residence. However, she no longer had the support of her husband’s wealth and her own strength slowly began to decline.
Maria Andersson died on 20 November 1922, aged 85.