Olga Herlin was the first female map engraver in Sweden. She introduced new production methods and spent almost half a century working for the national general mapping agency and its precursor.
Olga Herlin was born in 1875. She was the first of seven children born to Claes Ewald Reinhold Herlin, a map engraver and engineer, and his wife Claudia (née Sjöberg). The couple had married in 1873 and at that time lived in the Skvalberg area of Stockholm at Grev Turegatan 31. Throughout Olga Herlin’s childhood the family moved between several residences in Stockholm.
When Olga Herlin was fourteen years old she accompanied her father to the topographic department of the ‘Generalstab’ (military general staff) where he had worked since 1862. On Sundays her father would teach her about contouring and topography as well as how to represent different terrain contours so that she could then focus on producing a copper engraved map complete with text and contouring.
From June 1889 onwards Olga Herlin began to produce engravings at home by agreement. During the initial year she engraved bogs and forests on the maps of Kebnekaise and Kaalasluspa. Upon completing her school education at age fifteen she began to work more regularly and even began to undertake ink transfers, corrections, and retouching. By 1902 she had worked on about 50 maps, for which she either engraved sections or sometimes did the entire map.
Ink transfers, that is, the transferring and reduction of a drawn map onto a copper plate, was traditionally done by pantography onto coloured paper, which was subsequently traced on gelatinised paper. Olga Herlin improved this aspect of production in 1901 by direct pantography onto the gelatinised paper, which was then used to print an image onto a copper plate. This reduced the number of opportunities for errors to occur and similarly shortened the production time.
From 1 January 1903 Olga Herlin was paid was an extra engraver by the national general mapping agency for a daily work-rate of 5 hours. This agency had been set up in 1894 by merging the ‘Generalstab’ topography department with the ‘Ekonomiska kartverket’ (financial mapping agency). It was not until 1908 that she was able to take annual leave.
In 1906 Olga Herlin was awarded a 500 kroner stipend through the Arbetarnas resanslag (workers’ travel subsidies). It was intended for in-service training in copper engraving and to deepen her knowledge of heliographic retouching procedures and to execute engraving in various colours. Between June and September she visited mapping agencies in Copenhagen, Berlin, and Vienna. Her travel reports to the Board of Trade department describe in detail the methods that were applied at these particular agencies. The Danish maritime cartography agency was using a new method to cut copper plates and she subsequently introduced this method in Sweden.
In 1912 permanent staff was established at the national general mapping agency. Given that female engravers were not included Olga Herlin could not seek a permanent post. From 1 July 1923 she was employed as an adjunct employee/engraver at a rate of 6 hours’ daily work. It was not until 1927 that she was able to apply for and obtain a regular position as an engraver. On 1 February that year she was formally employed as a regular engraver at the national general mapping agency.
At this point Olga Herlin had worked for the agency for 37 years. If her previous working hours were tallied as per a male engraver this period of employment would equal 24 and a half years. Despite this lengthy period of service it did not equate, according to the current employment laws, to promotion to a higher rate of pay. Instead, she was immediately placed into the lowest wage bracket for her competency.
In February 1927 Olga Herlin humbly petitioned the king to have her previous period of employment taken into consideration and promote her into a higher wage bracket as this would also ensure she got a pension. She had the support of most of the Allmänna civilförvaltningen (general civil service) wages commission although the chair opposed it. The government agreed with the chair.
In 1928 the parliamentary member Kerstin Hesselgren put forward a motion in the first chamber that Olga Herlin should have half of her period of service recognised so that she could be promoted into a higher wage bracket. Kerstin Hesselgren emphasised how ridiculous it was that younger engravers received higher wages than someone with 37 years’ experience. It was not until the law of competence was passed in 1923 that all official and government positions became accessible to women. If this had happened earlier Olga Herlin would have been able to have her previous years of service recognised. The agricultural commission found the motion worthy but felt it was in the remit of the government to decide. Kerstin Hesselgren appealed to the king to consider this motion which was now supported by parliament. The government directive of June 1929 for the mapping agency finally saw Olga Herlin promoted to a higher wage bracket.
Olga Herlin retired on 1 January 1935 and was entitled to a pension. That same month she was awarded the För nit och redlighet (zeal and devotion in service) medal of the fifth degree for service to the kingdom. She did not completely lay down her tools, however, and still undertook engraving and retouching work until 1940.
Olga Herlin was known as a particularly prominent and skilful map engraver. She completed difficult tasks in meritorious fashion and the copper plates that she engraved are instantly recognisable. She often completed similar jobs faster than her male colleagues could. She was the first woman to be elected into the Kartografiska sällskap (cartographers’ society) in 1920.
Olga Herlin never had a family of her own. She died on 24 April 1965. At that time she was living at Östermalmsgatan 82 and a member of the Hedvig Eleonora parish in Stockholm. She is buried in the family grave at the Norra cemetery in Solna.