- Museum number
Birch bark bag with strap (tuohikonntti), formed of plaited strips of birch bark, square in shape with a front flap that closes with a leather thong wrapped round a carved wood toggle attached to the front of the bag by passing it through one of the bark strips. Glued to the front of the bag is a paper post office label that reads: SORTAVALA 0845. The shoulder strap also formed of plaited birch bark strips is attached to the back to the bag with leather thongs threaded into the body of the bag.
- Production date
Height: 33.50 centimetres (bag only)
Height: 71 centimetres (including strap)
Width: 36.50 centimetres
Depth: 17.50 centimetres
- Curator's comments
- Acquired by vendors in Karelia, Eastern Finland. Bags of this kind (tuohikontti in Finnish) were a staple necessity of rural life, used like baskets all over Finland by men, women and children, for carrying provisions or gathering produce. They were made with double straps, like a backpack, or a single strap, as here. They typically have a flap secured with a leather thong, often of reindeer skin, wound round a toggle of carved bone or wood.
Birch has special resonance in Finland where it is the national tree. It withstands extreme cold, its bark is lightweight, flexible, and its resinous oil makes it almost imperishable. The bark is gathered in the early summer, peeled off in sheets, cut into strips, rolled up and put away for future use. Plaited birch bark was made into salt-tubs, sieves, boxes and even cords.
During the Finnish national movement of the 19th and early 20th century, these everyday shoulder bags became symbols of Finnishness, owned and worn by those who supported independence from Russia. Karelia is a large area that has long been divided between Finland and Russia, and became a symbol of Finnish nationalism in these decades. It was the oral poetry tradition of the Karelia region that gave rise to Finland’s epic poem, the Kalavala, published in 1835. The region gave its name to Sibelius’s Karelia suite.
Sortavala is now in the Russian Republic of Karelia. Up till 1917 the town was part of independent Finland. After the Winter War of 1939-40 between Russia and Finland, it was ceded to the Soviet Union through the Moscow Peace Treaty of 1940. Finland retook Sortavala along with the rest of Finnish Karelia during the Continuation War (1941-44), but in 1944 the town, with a large part of Eastern Karelia, was handed back again and the Finns evacuated.
Birch bags of this form have retained their symbolism into the 20th century, appearing for example on post-war Christmas postcards, shown filled with presents, toys and oats, a traditional Christmas meal for birds.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2016-2017: 12 November - 22 January, BM, G90a, 'Modern design and graphics: a selection of objects and prints from post-war Europe in the British Museum'
2019 4 May – 28 Jul, Weston Park Museum, Sheffield, Nordic by Nature
2019 5 Aug- 31 Oct, Old Gala House, Galashields, Nordic by Nature
2019-2020 16 Feb – 1 Feb, Thurso Art Gallery, Caithness, Nordic by Nature
2020 15 Feb – 19 Mar and 22 Jul – 20 Sep, Kirkleatham Museum, Redcar, Nordic by Nature
- Quarantined April - June 2017
- Acquisition date
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number