Retirement Contracts – On Aging as a Farmer and a Burgher II

21.12.2021 hrs 14:47
The signings of retirement contracts (Swe. sytning) remained important up and into the 20th century – a fact that proves their importance to the denizens of the Finnish countryside. The last people living as so called sytningshjon lived to experience the birth of the national pension system in the 1930s, before national pensions and urbanisation eventually made the retirement contract system redundant as a primary form of retirement. The contracts could also be signed by burghers and their relatives. Read more below!

The year is 1725. Customs officer Petter Wetter, at this point 66 years of age, signs a retirement contract with his son Abraham, who is about 30 years old. Father and son agrees that as long as Petter is alive, his son will care for his living arrangements – this includes the services of a maid and servant, as well as feed and care for a horse. In return, his father signs over several properties in the modern Helsinki region to him, including Herttoniemi manor and all of its grounds. Petter, who at this point has had a long successful career both as a civil servant and businessman, moved to Turku for a few years before returning to Helsinki. 

But in 1737, Abraham Wetter dies – not even 50 years of age. During his lifetime he had accomplished many things and is first and foremost remembered as a well-liked mayor of Helsinki (according to the bourgeoisie, at least) from 1722 until his premature death. He had been married since 1721, and at the time of his death he had several living children. 

A situation where the elder signee of a retirement contract survives the younger probably wasn’t very common – Petter had already celebrated his 66th birthday when the contract was drawn up and couldn’t possibly have known that his son would pass before him. So, who were to take ownership of Herttoniemi manor, and all other estates, now?

Turns out, old Petter, now 78 years old, still sees himself as the rightful owner. The whole affair is eventually taken to court, where the city judges decrees that the ownership should fall to Petters grandchildren, no matter their young ages. The young Wetter siblings had lost their mother the year before, and the oldest child, also named Abraham, was only 16 when their father passed the year after. Abaham the younger died young in 1741, the same year as his grandfather Petter. It only took until 1750 until the Wetter heirs sold the Herttoniemi estate to Berndt Johan de la Motte.

A retirement contract like the one between the Wetters had been a common thing in Finland for centuries. It generally meant that one person, the owner of property, signed over the rights to this property to another (often a son, a daughter, or a son-in-law) in exchange for regular payments in natura and a place to live (typically, but the contents and conditions varied accordingly to the needs of the people in question.) This was usually done as a means to acquire security in one’s old age – which explains why many signed over the property to one’s children (typically only one child). In many places it was legally regulated who could or couldn’t be offered property in this way; relatives had to be asked first, non-relatives only after relatives declined. This rule is connected to another old law custom, which assumes that children have a duty to care for parents and relatives who are old or otherwise struggles to make ends meet. It was also generally thought that those who care for the old and sick had priority when time came to divide the assets for the inheritance. The rule to offer these contracts to direct relatives before non-relatives makes a lot of sense considering this, since questions of inheritance could (and probably often did) turn into very complicated affairs.

The custom of drawing up specific retirement contracts is very old – they are already mentioned in the oldest form of Swedish-Finnish laws, the different regional codexes called landskapslagar, as well as in old national laws and city law codex. This means that contracts of this sort had been around since, at the earliest, the Middle Ages, and their existence tells us that care and property management has been deemed best formalised in writing, rather than taken for granted or loosely agreed upon face to face. Retirement contracts were especially common in southwestern Finland, where households usually consisted of one couple that formed their own household at the time of marriage. In central and eastern Finland, households generally consisted of several families, which rendered the retirement contract system unsuited and unnecessary. 

In the Wetter case, the retirement contract probably didn’t have the same meaning as for the majority of Finns of that century. Most people who entered into these contracts were farmers, whose entire capital usually consisted of the family farm and land. It’s fair to assume that Petter Wetter didn’t have to fear poverty in his old age, but still felt that signing over his properties to his son provided an extra measure of security. The son himself probably gained much from the use of his father’s holdings – at the time of his death, Abraham Wetter was believed to have been the richest man in Helsinki. One can only assume that his fortune stemmed from the profits he made off his lands and the businesses made possible from land use.

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