Norrmalm is the district in Stockholm which contains parts of the historic city centre and most of the modern centre of Sweden’s capital. In the northern part of Norrmalm you will find Vasastan which is mostly a residential area and also, in my opinion, one of the prettiest parts of Stockholm. I am telling you all this because this week’s stories come from this district.
We will begin in a dirty, stinking and unpopular place called Packartorget. At this place, fishermen use to inspect and repackage their goods. Stockholmers throw all their garbage as well as empty their latrines nearby. Moreover, there is a pillory and a wooden horse for punishing citizens.
Well, that is at least what you would have found there in the 18th century. Hopefully, you were able to guess that none of the things described above could be happening in Stockholm these days and you are still reading. Now, I will convey my secret and tell you that the place I am talking about is known as Norrmalmstorg today and everything you can witness there is far from what I described above.
Apart from Packartorget, the square also used to be called Fiskartorget for some time in the 17th century. This name went out of use relatively quickly as there already had been another square with an identical name in the city, specifically in the Old Town (Gamla Stan).
As we have previously seen in the post about the Fersen Palace, names of places in the old Stockholm changed often and these changes can easily lead to confusion. To illustrate my point, I will tell you that before Packartorget became Norrmalmstorg, there had been another Norrmalmstorg in the city, not that far from the current one. Since 1805 it has been known as Gustav Adolf’s Square (Gustav Adolfs Torg) which is where the Royal Swedish Opera (Kungliga Operan) is located.
I said in the introduction that Norrmalmstorg was originally a dirty and stinking place. This was so for several reasons. First of all, at the time there were no rules as to how food should be stored and processed. Therefore, fishermen manipulated with the fish they just brought from the sea directly in the square which, as you can imagine, was a part of the trouble. Second, people were throwing their garbage including the contents of their latrines in the nearby Packaretorgsviken. Again, this was likely to some extent caused by the lack of a better solution. It is unclear why this exact location was used for this purpose, though.
As if all the unbearable smells and garbage were not enough, in the 1770s the penalty gear was moved to the square. Apart from the actual devices used for punishment, such as a pillory and a wooden horse, there was another curiosity. A statue of the “Copper Mate” (Kopparmatte) which was meant to warn citizens against committing crimes. Currently, the statue resides in Stockholm City Museum which is, unfortunately, temporarily closed.
The torturing equipment was moved away from the square some 35 years later and by the middle of the 19th century, things started to change for the better. The garbage from Packaretorgsviken near Packartorget was cleaned and, to help people forget about the ugly past of this place, it was time for a new name. A new resident of the square came with this proposal after he bought a property there. This person, whose name is unknown, suggested that the square shall get rid of its affected name. Eventually, in 1853 Packartorget became Norrmalmstorg as we know it today.
The same year, Berzelii Park, formerly also known as Nybrosquaren and Berezelii Lund, was opened in place of Packaretorgsviken. This park was named after Jöns Jacob Berzelius – Swedish chemist, a professor at Karolinska Institute and secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Berzelius was considered the most eminent Swedish scientist at the time and for a significant period of his life he lived at Nybrogatan 9, only a few dozen metres from the park, which is why his name was given to this particular place.
You will find a statue of Berzelius in the middle of this small park. Interestingly, this statue that the academy had made in honour of their former employee, was the first statue of a Swedish scientist ever made. This act symbolised an important change for the society and did not go unnoticed. The press described it as the beginning of a new era, one in which the power of nations is not represented by the monarchs sitting on thrones but by free people.
Modern times continued to make their way into Norrmalmstorg in the end of the 19th century. In a relatively short timeframe, various places popular among the citizens opened their gates at the square. Taverna degli artisti was one of them. It was owned by a skilled artist Antonio Bellio and as history books put it “artists and writers used to come to Taverna degli artisti to eat spaghetti and drink Chianti.”
Larger shops and more prominent boutiques were opened at the square in the beginning of the 20th century which underlined the status of Norrmalmstorg in the modern era. It is said that when the boutiques in the square offered discounts, the queues of bargain hunting ladies stretched all the way to Nybroplan outside The Royal Dramatic Theatre. The City Palace (Citypalatset) was built in the 1930s as a prominent multifunctional building made of modern materials such as stainless steel, glass and marble. It is still there relatively unchanged and remains a popular place for shopping to this day.
Norrmalmstorg of the 21st century is a place where shopping meets business and relax, nothing like the original Packartorget was only some two hundred years ago. To conclude, I would like to make an important point. Things and places not only can change but they do all the time. This is important to recognise when you walk by a beautiful modern square. Maybe even more so when you see a place desperately needing a change because now you know that if the right actions are taken, it can become the next beautiful place in the world.
Next time, we are going to come back to Norrmalmstorg for one more story. In Saturday’s post, I am going to tell you the story that spread across the world at the time and remains fascinating to this day. To give you a hint, I will tell you that it also gave the name to an interesting psychological phenomenon.
Stahre, Nils-Gustav, Fogelström, Per Anders, Ferenius, Jonas, Lundqvist, Gunnar, 2005. Stockholms gatunamn.
Hellbom, Thorleif, Gullers, Peter, 1996. Stockholm Om livet på torgen.