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The Swedish beach that was the Ibiza of the early 1900s

Dubbed the "Swedish Riviera", a beach in Skåne once attracted foreign royalty and tourists with the promise of abandoning conventional morality.

The Swedish beach that was the Ibiza of the early 1900s
Bathers at Mölle taken in the early 20th century. Photo: TT

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In the early 1900s, Europeans who wanted to defy social conventions while on holiday didn't go to Ibiza, they went to Mölle. In this small seaside village on the Kullen Peninsula in Skåne, about 37 kilometres from Helsingborg, they could do something considered quite shocking: swim openly with members of the opposite sex.

At the time, throughout much of Europe, “mixed bathing” was considered by many to be indecent and immoral. Even in the modest swimsuits of the time – which typically covered a great deal of skin and frequently resembled regular clothing – bathers were considered to be practically naked. The temptations this presented would ostensibly be too much to constrain behaviours perceived as licentious and lewd, and, it was feared by some, would lead to moral and social collapse.

As a result, public beaches were usually segregated, with women and men swimming in different areas or at different times. What little mixing of men and women existed was usually limited to “family bathing”, where wives could swim alongside husbands, and children could swim with their parents. Though this was obviously intended to be quite wholesome, it still generally took place apart from the other designated swimming areas.

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What Ransvik, the rocky stretch of beach near Mölle, offered was a chance to break loose from all these conventions. There, men, women and children were free to swim and sunbathe when, with whom, and in what they chose. Those who did – as well as those who looked on – would have experienced displays of bare skin, physical contact with strangers, and other behaviours that scandalized traditionalists. But, as Professor Henrik Ranby of the University of Gothenburg explained in a 2016 journal article in RIG, many others considered it a paradise.

One notable individual who may have held the latter view was Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, who visited the beach in 1907. This royal seal of approval helped make the site a popular destination for Germans, as did the extension of train service directly to Mölle in 1910. According to a 1922 travel guidebook cited by Professor Ranby, in the years before the First World War, Mölle was Sweden's largest bathing and recreation area, with between 2000 and 2500 beachgoers on weekdays and twice as many on Sundays.

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Mölle harbour today. Photo: Apelöga/

“Mölle grew fast, the taxes went up, many new shops were opened and the rate of childbirths rose during this period of optimism”, wrote Danish historian Karen Klitgaard Povlsen in the 2010 book Re-Investing Authenticity: Tourism, Place and Emotions. “Those were the years in which Kullen acquired the name ‘the Swedish Riviera'…”.

Though visitors to the beach at Ransvik were able to push social and cultural boundaries, they were still subject to a few restrictions. One of these was a ban on private photography, which was ostensibly intended as a nod to public decorum and/or a defence against exploitation.

Whatever the exact reason, it became a lucrative opportunity for Swedish photographer Peter P. Lundh, who secured exclusive rights to take photographs at the beach. Between 1907 and 1914, he produced many pictures, which were sold to the beachgoers as souvenir postcards or published in area guidebooks and Lundh's tourist magazine.

The photograph featured here, which represents everything that horrified traditionalists and was enjoyed by modernists, was possibly one of Lundh's as it closely resembles those he took, some of which have been preserved in the Höganäs Museum.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

Member comments

  1. Meanwhile, in my town (Trieste – Italy) there’s a beach where women and men are kept apart. Probably the only European beach still having this peculiar feature. It’s not forced, of course. Beachgoers are happy and quite proud to bathe there. Here’re some links covering the place:

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Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google’s questions

Why is Sweden called Sweden? Why is Sweden so depressing? Why is Sweden so rich?  In a new series of articles, The Local answers some of the most common questions that appear when you type "Why is Sweden..." into the Google search engine.  

Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google's questions
Why is Sweden actually called Sweden? Let's find out. Photo: Google screenshot

The short answer to “why is Sweden called Sweden?” is that it’s not. It’s called Sverige

When The Local asked Henrik Williams, a Professor of Scandinavian Languages at Uppsala University, he also gave the question a short answer: “Because it’s inhabited by Swedes.” 

We can trace some form of the name back to at least the 13th century, when it was called Swearike in Old Swedish. That translates to “the kingdom of the Swear”.

Two thousand years ago, some of the people living in what is now known as Sweden were called Svear or Suiones, depending on which language you spoke and on how you spelled things (spelling varied greatly). 

The Roman historian Tacitus gives the first known description of the Svear in a book written in the year 93 CE, Germania

Everything comes down to this word, Svear, the name of the people. It means ‘we ourselves’. The Svear lived in Uppland just north of where Stockholm is now, until about the 11th century when they started expanding their territory. 

“It’s very common that people call themselves, either ‘we ourselves’ or ‘the people’” said Professor Williams. 

“We are ‘the humans’ and everybody else is something else. Everyone else is ‘them'”.

Of course, nobody uses the word in that way now, but it still forms the basis of the word Sweden.

The 8th century epic poem Beowulf gives the earliest known recorded version of the word Sweoland, land of the Swear

But at that time, there was no Sweden. Instead, the land was occupied by little kingdoms of Swedes and Goths (in present-day Götaland) and warring tribes of Vikings.

It’s unclear when the King of the Swear started referring to himself as the king of a country called Sweden, but it was probably around the time the country adopted Christianity in the 11th century. 

“Sweden” only came into regular use after 1750, when it replaced “Swedeland” in English. But in Scotland, “Sweden” had been used since the beginning of the modern era.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary in the early 17th century, people would use Sweden as the name of the people, and Swedeland as the name of the country. 

The first attested use of ‘Sweden’ was in a Scottish timber accounting log in 1503, which refers to “Sweden boards.” 

Most countries went from the Old Norse word Svíþjóð (which is still used to describe Sweden in Icelandic today) and turned it into something in their own languages, like the Old English Swíoríce, the Middle Dutch Zweden and High German Schweden

But it’s not called Sweden everywhere. 

In Finnish, Sweden is Ruotsi, in Estonian it’s Rootsi, and in Northern Sami Ruoŧŧa.

This comes from the root-word Rod, as in modern day Roslagen the coastal part of Uppland. It means rowing, or people who row. And because Finland was invaded by people from Roslagen, that’s how Finns referred to them.