▲ 50-year old Minna Canth
Text: Outi Vuorikari

1. Ulrika “Mina” Johnson

Minna Canth, author, newspaperwoman, social influencer, broker of new international ideas and cultural flows, single parent of a family of seven and a businesswoman, born as Ulrika Wilhelmina Johnson. She was born 19.3.1844 in Tampere and died 12.5.1897 in Kuopio.

In the year 1853, her father Gustaf Vilhelm Johnson and his family moved to Kuopio to run the Tampere Yarn Shop, which was founded here by the Finlayson cotton mill.

With him came the family’s mother, Lovisa Ulrika, son, Gustaf Vilhelm and daughters, Augusta Katharina and 9-year-old Mina or Miinu, as she called herself before the name Minna she introduced at the Jyväskylä seminar.

Mina Johnson attended two preparatory schools and a Swedish-speaking girls’ school in Kuopio. In the autumn of 1863, she was one of the first female students to start studying to be a primary school teacher at the newly established Jyväskylä seminary.

Her studies were interrupted in the autumn of 1865, when she married Johan Ferdinand Canth, a natural science teacher at the seminary. Seven children were born to the family in Jyväskylä: Anni, Elli, Hanna, Maiju, Jussi, Pekka and Lyyli.

While living in Jyväskylä, Minna Canth wrote in the newspapers (Central Finland and Päijänne) not only about the news, but also about topics that interested her herself: sobriety, female education and public education. Her debut Novels and stories came out in Jyväskylä in 1878. In November 1879, a few months after her husband’s death, Minna Canth sent the manuscript of her debut play Burglary to Helsinki for Kaarlo Bergbom, director of the Finnish Theatre.

2. Education of the merchant’s daughter

Miinu was given the opportunity to study more than many other daughters of a cotton mill foreman or small-town shopkeeper at the time.

Miinu attended the Swedish-speaking Finlayson factory school in Tampere before moving to Kuopio. Before the grammar school system was born, schools run by patrons provided initial education for a working-class child. There children learned to write and read, using mainly The Bible and Catechism as textbooks. In Kuopio, Miinu, now calling herself Mina, continued at the Swedish-speaking Elise Heintzie Infant School. Elise Heinzie was a skilled teacher, but there weren’t many school supplies. The writing paper and blackboard were replaced by sand spread out on the bottom of a low box, where letters and numbers were drawn.

The next stage was a three-year school run by the Soldan sisters, Alexandra, Augusta and Edla. The school was for girls only. Edla Soldan was later Mina’s teacher at the Jyväskylä seminar.

The highest school for girls in Kuopio during Mina’s childhood was the two-year Swedish-speaking state girls’ school, “Ladies school for the most sophisticated parents’ daughters”, founded in 1857. At the time Kuopio was very caste conscious and the gentry was Swedish-speaking. It was a miracle that the merchant Johnson’s daughter got into the school. The parents of Mina’s friend Selma Backlund were less “sophisticated”, and Selma was not admitted to the school. This early experience of social inequality made them both fight later for equal education and a just society.

In 1860, the girls’ school changed to be three years in length, so Mina Johnson had had three years to attend it. The subjects included biblical history and larger catechism, general history and geography, natural history and calculation, which included four calculation methods in totals and fractions. German, French and Russian were also studied, as well as handwriting. Almost half the hours were reserved for handicrafts. Handicrafts weren’t the favorite subject of the lively Mina.

Very little is known about Mina’s actual schoolwork. Lucina Hagman says she was a good essay writer, an avid actress on a school night out and a storyteller in a circle of companions. In some of Canth’s works, such as Hanna, The Wife of Lecturer Hellman and the short story Eräs Puijolla käynti the author is likely to describe her own moods, feelings, comrades and incidences mostly from the summer holidays of her own school-years.

After the girls’ school in the autumn of 1863, Mina Johnson was one of the first students to start in the newly formed seminar in Jyväskylä, even though her merchant father had already looked for a husband for her daughter. At the seminar, Mina started using the first name Minna.

The seminar taught religion, educational studies, Finnish and Swedish, history, geography, mathematics, natural sciences, art subjects, free drawing and map drawing. An hour a day was for gymnastics and another one for walking outside. “Even the most careless, like me, is forced to take better care of her health here”, wrote Minna to her friend Ida Grahn about the seminar, urging her to go outdoors and not just sew. This healthy practice, to exercise and walk daily, Canth followed throughout her life.

Although Minna Johnson had to drop out of her studies after marrying J. F. Canth, a lecturer in natural science at the seminary, in the fall of 1865, she had had time to get in touch with many things and subjects that the women of that time had not encountered. Now she knew how much information would be available in the world for girls and women as well, if only they were given the opportunity to study. She was able to observe herself, other women and society in a new way and came to clear the way over time for generations of women getting equal education.

3. Return to Kuopio

After becoming a widow, Minna Canth moved to Kuopio in March 1880 with her children and settled in her childhood home, where her mother and brother lived and had run the shop after her father died in 1877. In June 1881, Minna Canth acquired the Tampere Yarn Store.

After three years, she also took over the “upper shop”, a general store that her brother had run. After Minna Canth’s death, her heirs continued to operate under different business names in Kuopio until 1974.

Minna Canth’s own life stages led her to observe life and its phenomena realistically and socially critically from a female perspective. She published ten plays, seven short stories, stories and newspaper articles and speeches. She handled her shop’s business correspondence. More than five hundred private letters she wrote have been preserved and published.

Minna Canth is a major Finnish-language playwright after Aleksis Kivi. She is also the first Finnish-language newspaperwoman.

Minna Canth became a reformer of our literature and a pioneer of Finnish realism. She boldly participated in the social debate both as a writer and as a newspaperwoman. With language skills and curiosity, she was an intermediary of new European ideas and an important influencer of opinion in Finland at the time.

”The issue of women is not just a women’s issue, but an issue of humankind.”

Minna Canth’s Kuopio home, Kanttila, developed into a literary and ideological centre, Minna’s Salon, over time. Kanttila was visited by significant cultural influencers of the time. Canth was equally interested in the religious and social ideologies of the time: the labour movement, the issue of women, the ideas of sobriety and peace, language and nationality policies, Darwinism, spiritism, medicine and soul science, and the new currents of literature, but above all the human being in midst of these ideas in their everyday struggle.

Kanttila gathered the so-called Kuopio Women’s Intelligentsia, five women with language skills and awareness, who influenced the discussion on language, school, sobriety and women’s issues throughout Finland with their statements, writings and activities. They were Elisabeth Stenius, Selma Backlund, Elisabeth Ingman, Lydia Herckman and Minna Canth.

Minna Canth died on May 12th, Snellman’s day, in 1897 at the age of just 53 from a heart attack. She was buried in The Great Cemetery of Kuopio. The funeral turned into a great and impressive mourning ceremony.

4. Free ideologies and dreams of a women’s magazine

Minna Canth was the first Finnish-language newspaperwoman. She wrote more than eighty articles, speeches or presentations published in various newspapers, magazines or albums. More than half of them were written in Jyväskylä between 1874 and 1879, the rest in Kuopio.

Minna Canth used the pseudonyms Wilja, Teppo, Airut, X, Syrjäinen (Secluded), Syrjäinen nainen eikä herra (Secluded woman and not a mister) and M. C. She also wrote anonymously, especially while living in Jyväskylä, but also published articles under her full name.

Canth’s newspaper writings are sharp and opinionated. In them, she touched on sobriety, the issue of women, religious freedom, the status of the Finnish language, socialism and gender morality. She wrote as well about women’s penchant for a simple garment, the national dress, as about new inventions, such as the arrival of the telephone in the Jyväskylä region. She was just as passionate about grasping grain tariffs as she was about women’s education when she felt she had something to say about it.

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