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“You could say that Polarn O. Pyret started before I was even a gleam in my father’s eye,” laughs Tommy Adamsson.
“My grandfather, Nils Adamsson, started selling condoms in his tobacconist shop in Falköping in 1909. He went on to sell them by mail order, but only via left-wing newspapers because they were the only ones that accepted adverts for condoms.
Condoms were a class issue. They were only sold in barber shops, which in effect meant only the upper class had access to them.
But selling condoms over the counter in a tobacconist shop was controversial. Some people in Falköping tried to get rid of him by calling in the Bishop of Skara. Although the Bishop found nothing he considered to be objectionable from the church’s point of view during his inspection, he did advise Adamsson to move to Stockholm, where people weren’t “as small-minded as they were in country areas”.
Nils Adamsson took his advice, and went on to meet and marry Karin. They started Adamsson, a chain of shops with a range of children’s and medical products, where a special permit allowed them to sell condoms.
The first shop was located on Tegelbacken and had separate entrances. A medical supplies section with a blue door and a children’s section called Pyret (Little One) with an orange door. Condoms were sold behind the blue door.
When the shop was closed, there was a vending machine on the wall outside.
Although it was legal to sell condoms, explaining what they were to be used for was illegal under the Swedish Contraception Act.
“Granddad was sent to prison for two months. Not, as many people think, for selling condoms but for circulating information about contraception in a catalogue.”
In prison, he shared a cell with Hinke Bergegren, a social democratic politician who supported the same cause. Some people in Sweden still remember the slogan “love without children is better than children without love” from Hinke’s political campaign in 1910.
“The campaign was unsuccessful and the Act wasn’t repealed until 1939. And since the penalty for second-time offenders was more severe, my grandmother (Karin) became the legally responsible publisher of the next catalogue. This earned her two months in the women’s prison on Östermalm. My father always claimed to be “the only man who’s ever served time in a women’s correctional facility”. Karin was pregnant with him when she served her sentence,” explains Tommy.
“My grandparents wanted everyone to have children, but only when they wanted to and absolutely no more than they could afford to bring up. My grandfather had cycled around the Västgöta plain as a travelling salesman and the enormous broods of children living in poverty and destitution there made a lasting impression on him.”
He equated birth control with freedom of choice and condoms were the key. The association with children’s products wasn’t such a stretch either.
“I usually say that we looked after our customer complaints and made sure they were nicely dressed.”
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