The garland-weaver of the 1914 conferment ceremony

In May, the University of Helsinki is again organising several conferment ceremonies. To mark the occasion, our object of the month is the conferment outfit of the official garland-weaver of 1914.

A studio portrait of a young woman sitting sideways turned slightly towards the camera but looking past it. She is holding a laurel garland and wearing a light-coloured outfit, with garland embroidery on the collar, cuffs and side.
Margareta von Bonsdorff, garland-weaver at the 1914 conferment festivities, dressed in an outfit made for the event. Photo: Helsinki University Museum/Carl Klein, Atelier Universal.

Election of the garland-weaver

The tradition of electing a garland-weaver for conferment ceremonies dates back to the 1830s when the daughter of a professor was appointed to weave laurel garlands for all master graduands. When the number of graduands increased, a single person was no longer able to weave all garlands. As a result, in the late 1800s master graduands began to invite a companion to serve as their garland-weaver. An official garland-weaver was elected for the first time in 1890 to guide and supervise the weaving process. The roles were highly gendered, as women were not free to study at the University until 1901.

After the conferment ceremony of 1894, it became customary for the official garland-weaver to be elected on Flora Day on 13 May. Accordingly, on that date in 1914, a Wednesday, graduands met at 11.00 at the Old Student House and elected Margareta von Bonsdorff as the official garland-weaver. They then walked in procession to the von Bonsdorff family home at Bulevardi 11, where a smaller delegation of graduands gave speeches in Margareta’s honour and formally asked her to serve in the role. Her affirmative answer was announced from a window to a waiting audience including singers who responded by cheering nine times.

A baroness with an interest in chemistry and medicine

Baroness Margareta von Bonsdorff (1890–1955) came from an academically successful family of high noble rank. Her father was Professor of Surgery Hjalmar von Bonsdorff, and her father’s grandfather was Professor of Anatomy and Physiology Gabriel von Bonsdorff (1762–1831), who had been Finland’s first arkkiatri (archiatre, the highest honorary title awarded to a doctor in Finland). Margareta, or Greta, von Bonsdorff herself began studying at the University of Helsinki in 1908, where she pursued medicine and chemistry, fields considered suitable for women at the time.
Previous elections of the official garland-weaver had occasionally been contested and affected by political factors, but the 1914 election is said to have been unanimous. This may perhaps be attributed to the fact that Greta’s future husband Kai Donner (1888–1935) was the highest ranking master graduand at the ceremony in question. Kai had undertaken his first expedition to Siberia between 1911 and 1913 and was preparing in early 1914 for his second expedition by learning medical skills at the Helsinki Surgical Hospital at a clinic headed by Hjalmar von Bonsdorff. This was how he met Professor von Bonsdorff’s daughter Greta, whom he married later that year on 19 December 1914.

The conferment outfit of the official garland-weaver

Greta von Bonsdorff’s outfit as official garland-weaver was made by the dressmakers Bergqvist & Wiman, who had a shop in Helsinki at Aleksanterinkatu 11. Sewn from off-white silk satin, the outfit reflected the fashions of the mid-1910s. The strictly corseted style of the early 1910s had been abandoned in favour of a softer, column-like silhouette showing signs of the more liberated designs of the 1920s.

Two side-by-side photos of the same white outfit on a mannequin showing the straight and narrow hem and the voluminous top part.
Greta von Bonsdorff’s outfit at the 1914 conferment ceremony from the front and the back. Photo: Helsinki University Museum / Helena Hämäläinen.

The garland-weaver’s outfit has a narrow hem and a peplum or flounce at the hip, and the top part and chest are emphasised with folds, tucks and embroidery. The flounce is embroidered with a laurel garland, and the collar and sleeves are decorated with foliage. These details are beautifully captured in the studio portrait of Greta von Bonsdorff wearing the outfit.

A fashion illustration of three women in purple, yellow and green festive outfits. Each outfit is different, but all have a narrow hem, a flounce at the hip, short sleeves and an accentuated top part.
Fashions from 1910 to 1913. The designs share features with Greta von Bonsdorff’s conferment outfit. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The outfit appears to be quite simple, but a variety of hidden fasteners, hooks and press buttons keep each fold in its place and make it possible to put on and take off the outfit because no zipper suitable for festivewear had yet been invented. The top part of the outfit has a corset-like, bone-supported cotton lining, in addition to which the waist has an invisible belt. These ensure that the loose-fitting top part does not slide off or look sloppy under any circumstances, but stays in place as designed.

A close-up of the outfit on a mannequin, with the front opened so that the cotton lining can be seen at the neckline.
The top part of the outfit has a cotton lining as well as a long line of press buttons and hooks for fastening. Photo: Helsinki University Museum / Helena Hämäläinen.

It is thought that Greta von Bonsdorff wore this outfit during the actual conferment ceremony. No photos of the event are known to exist, but an article in the Hufvudstadsbladet daily features a photo of the garland-weaving ceremony organised the day before at Restaurant Kaivohuone. The article reports that Greta von Bonsdorff wore a tasteful light-coloured outfit with two red roses attached to the front.

A cropped black-and-white photo taken outdoors on a sunny day showing two people from the knees up standing side by side. On the left is a man in evening dress looking straight at the camera, while on the right is a woman, smiling and relaxed, wearing a white long-sleeve dress, not posing but looking to the left of the camera, as if she were talking to someone.
Kai Donner and Margareta von Bonsdorff at the garland-weaving ceremony of the conferment festivities of the Faculty of Philosophy. The Kaivohuone roof and a lamp can be seen in the background. Photo: Helsinki University Museum.

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A.W. Ingman, pioneering advocate of Finnish

Our object of the month is a portrait of Professor Anders Wilhelm Ingman by the German-born portraitist Bernhard Reinhold. A.W. Ingman (1819–1877) was Professor of Biblical Studies at the Imperial Alexander University from 1864 to 1877. He was not just a clergyman and theologian, but also a passionate advocate of the Finnish language. His skills in Finnish exceeded those of most of his colleagues at the University, and he was the first theology professor to lecture in Finnish at a time when Swedish remained the official language of teaching.

An oval-shaped half-length portrait, in a gold-coloured frame, of a man turned slightly to the right. The man is bald on top, with brown hair at the side extending over his ear. He is wearing a white shirt, a black jacket and a black bow tie.
Portrait of A.W. Ingman by the German artist Bernhard Reinhold from 1878. Photo: Helsinki University Museum / Timo Huvilinna.

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The letter of the law

The ballpoint pen replaced the refillable fountain pen in popular use in the 1960s. Since then, many accessories for fountain pens, such as ink bottles, cartridges and blotters, have largely vanished from desks and offices, and fountain pens have become collector’s items. Our object of the month, a wooden ink blotter, dates back to a period when fountain pens were still widely used. Its original owner was President and Professor Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg.

A wooden ink blotter. The round handle is secured to a flat lid. Underneath the lid is a curved base to which blotting paper has been attached.
K.J. Ståhlberg’s ink blotter. Photo: Helsinki University Museum.

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Beautiful birds from Karelia

Our object of the month in February is an embroidered piece of cloth from Eastern Karelia, brought over by Aino Ollila during the Continuation War between the Soviet Union and Finland (1941–44). Ollila was a craft teacher and member of the auxiliary paramilitary Lotta Svärd organisation for women, and this piece of cloth is part of a collection of Karelian embroidery samples. The object is a white linen cloth embroidered with a stylised bird in red thread and a folded and sewn hem at the bottom. On the right is the selvedge, the bound side edge of the fabric. The top and left edges have been cut with scissors. The embroidery threads have snapped at the left edge, which indicates that the embroidery was originally wider and the piece has been part of a larger cloth, possibly a rushnyk (in Finnish käspaikka), a long, narrow cloth common in the Karelian and Eastern Orthodox cultures. Although that is just about all we know about this particular piece, it can still tell us quite a bit about Finnish history.

A rectangular piece of cloth with a stylised tree embroidered in red at both ends and, in the centre, a bird looking to the left depicted from the side.
: A piece of cloth embroidered with a bird motif, possibly one end of a rushnyk. Photo: Anni Tuominen/Helsinki University Museum

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A life-saving soda bottle

This time our object of the month is a soda bottle. It has never contained a beverage, however. It has been used to store and transport blood for transfusions. In addition to a flip-top bottle, the set includes a needle, a rubber bulb syringe, and a metal cannula that branches into two detachable rubber tubes. Unfortunately, as is often the case with old objects, the rubber parts are perished and in quite bad condition.

Blood transfusion apparatus: the bottle and the rubber components. Photo: Helsinki University Museum, Katariina Pehkonen.

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Snapshots from the Children’s Castle

“A love of flowers and children was one of Sophie Mannerheim’s defining features,” writes Tyyni Tuulio in a biography of Mannerheim. Upon her 60th birthday, Mannerheim received a photo album as a gift from the Children’s Castle hospital she had established. Enclosed within the album’s brown leather covers are 26 black-and-white photos of the old Children’s Castle and its patients and staff. This photo album is our object of the month.

A brown photo album with a dedication inscribed on the cover in gilt letters.
Sophie Mannerheim received the album as a gift on her 60th birthday. Photo: Helsinki University Museum.

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Wise old woman’s ointment: Highlights from the museum’s chemicals project

This summer and autumn, the Helsinki University Museum reviewed its fascinating collection of over 2,000 chemical substances, including drugs, samples, analysis series, teaching collections and dental fillings.

To celebrate the end of this review, nicknamed the Poison Project, the object of the month in November is the liniment known as ‘Wise old woman’s ointment’, which intrigued the museum staff participating in the project. We would like to remind all readers that the drugs and recipe mentioned in this text are historical, and we do not recommend that you prepare or use them at home.

An ointment for all ailments

Viisaan muijan voide, or Wise old woman’s ointment, is a liquid medicine brushed or rubbed on skin. Liniments have been used for various ailments, such as rheumatism, sprains and burns. They were manufactured in pharmacies or on commission.

A brown angular glass bottle.
Bottle of ‘Viisaan muijan voidetta’, with the contents listed on the back. Photos: Helsinki University Museum / Jenni Jormalainen.

The ointment is in a brown glass bottle covered with a paper cap, with a label showing an old woman who wears a scarf on her head. The object was originally part of the collections of the museum of medical history and was purchased in the 1930s from a pharmacy in Enso (now Svetogorsk). The label indicates that the Enso pharmacy was the only manufacturer of the ointment at the time. The label and contents are original, although only traces of the ointment remain at the bottom of the bottle.

The label describes the ointment as an all-purpose medicine used for rheumatism, muscle pains, stings and pricks, headaches and toothaches, as well as accidental injuries.

According to the instructions on the side of the bottle, the liniment is for external use only. While located in a warm place, you should rub the substance on the affected area with a woollen patch for ten minutes, after which the same area should be covered with a woollen cloth moistened with the drug.

The sting of capsaicin

Liniments often contained substances that soothe or protect the skin or cause a sensation of heat. The active ingredient was frequently capsaicin, derived from chili peppers, which affected the nerve endings and produced a burning or stinging sensation. However, if swallowed, capsaicin is toxic, irritates the skin, seriously damages the eyes and may cause difficulty swallowing and breathing.

The ‘Wise old woman’s ointment’ contains, for example, a pepper or chili tincture, ethanol, camphor, potassium soap, water, ammonia and various oils, such as rosemary, lavender, thyme and clove oil.

 Memorable names

In addition to the ‘Wise old woman’s ointment’, liniments used in the 20th century had other peculiar names, such as Viisaan ukon voide (‘Wise old man’s ointment’), Kyrön äijän voide (‘Old Man Kyrö’s ointment’)’, Ojan isännän linimentti (‘The Oja farmer’s liniment’), Hota-linimentti (‘Hota liniment’) and Sloan’s liniment. Today, some of these names and images may appear disrespectful.

The developer of Sloan’s liniment was Andrew Sloan, a self-taught veterinarian and horse harness maker. Originally, his liniment was used to ease muscular stiffness in horses. The liniment began to be marketed and sold for human use by Andrew’s son Earl Sawyer Sloan, and industrial manufacture commenced in the early 20th century.

In addition to the Hota liniment, a powder version of Hota, Hota-pulveri, was manufactured for pain relief by Star, a pharmaceutical factory based in Tampere, Finland. This version was also known as ‘Indian powder’ because of the Native American man pictured in the label. The powder remained popular until the 1960s.

Two medicine packages, a black-and-white cardboard box and a sachet bearing the likeness of a Native American man against a blue and yellow background.
From the beginning, the labels of Sloan’s liniment packaging have featured the moustachioed Earl Sloan, the man who started the industrial manufacture of the liniment. The flower on the Hota packing referred to the hota flower, considered sacred by many Native Americans. Photos: Helsinki University Museum / Timo Huvilinna.

The Poison Project of 2022

Helsinki University Museum has previously explored the chemicals in its collections when they have been moved. Earlier blog posts on the topic can be read in Finnish here and here, and a Finnish-language article is also available in the Konservaattori magazine (2018).

As part of the museum’s 2019–2021 relocation, all of the museum’s chemicals were moved to the Collections and Conservation Centre of the Finnish Heritage Agency. In the new facilities, the chemicals were placed in air-conditioned cabinets, but it was soon discovered that the space was insufficient. To separate and remove safe chemicals from the air-conditioned cabinets, the substances were again reviewed.

Three people standing by a desk, wearing blue protective aprons and powered respirators, i.e., helmets that cover the face and from which a tube leads to a belt-mounted motor and filters.
Members of the toxin team sorting chemicals. Photo: Helsinki University Museum/Katariina Pehkonen.

Keep calm and keep sorting

The team soon discovered that it needed chemistry expertise and, having been encouraged to cooperate with students, decided to hire Maija Montonen, a chemistry student, for the summer.

The team listed over 2,000 chemicals in a spreadsheet file for Maija to review. The chemicals were investigated with the aim of finding missing information by identifying substances, labelling hazardous chemicals and assigning CAS numbers. (CAS, or the Chemical Abstract Service, is a chemical identification system.) In addition, storage recommendations were issued, and the chemicals were colour-coded in accordance with a hazard assessment. The substances were sorted based on their properties (organic, inorganic, acidic and oxidising, flammable) and state (liquids, solids).

After being examined and sorted, the chemicals were repackaged, photographed and sealed using Parafilm. Toxins were packed in transparent plastic boxes, and an absorbent cloth was placed at the bottom of each box containing liquids to protect against possible leaks.

When handling chemicals, the team members used personal protective equipment, such as powered respirators, nitrile chemical gloves and protective aprons. A sticky mat was placed in front of doors to prevent the spread of harmful substances to other facilities. Chemicals requiring more detailed examination were handled in a fume hood.

During the review, some chemicals were disposed of. This was done if, for example, medicine packages were found to be in poor condition or too hazardous to be stored. The items disposed of included chemicals that are lethal when inhaled if the container breaks despite precautions.

 Shelf life

The Helsinki University Museum is also involved in the MUHA project (Perceived and measured hazards in Finnish museum work environments). During the chemicals project, volatile solvents were measured from the packaging area using a 3M diffusion collector. The results will be published later.

Sorting, repackaging and shelving chemicals and recording information on their location was a huge task, but it resulted in a better-organised collection of chemicals and a great deal of useful information about them. The most hazardous chemicals were separated into air-conditioned cabinets to ensure safer handling.

White cabinets with transparent plastic boxes with red, yellow or green labels on the sides.
Colour-coded chemical boxes on shelves. Photos: Helsinki University Museum / Jenni Jormalainen.

Maija’s experiences of the chemicals project:

Who are you and what are you studying?

My name is Maija Montonen and I’m a third-year student in the Bachelor’s Programme in Chemistry at the University of Helsinki.

Why were you interested in participating in this project?

The project enabled me to use the chemistry expertise I have developed through my studies, but also taught me many new things, which I’m sure will be useful in the future. This was also a unique opportunity unlikely to be repeated. The recruitment ad stated that the museum collections include a wide range of chemicals and medicines, and I was interested in exploring them in detail. I also appreciated the fact that this was a summer job that allowed me to work remotely and independently.

What did your duties involve? What are your top tips for investigating chemicals?

My duties included finding out what the chemicals contained, what their CAS numbers were and how they should best be stored. When deciding on the place of storage, I assessed the hazards involved and determined the state of the chemical and whether it was inorganic, organic, oxidising, etc.

My sources were mainly websites, such as PubChem, Sigma-Aldrich and the ILO’s International Chemical Safety Cards. Many of the chemicals were so old or unlabelled that the information available was very limited, which meant I had to do some painstaking detective work and trawl through many websites. In some cases, I conducted a hazard assessment based on another similar chemical. Various types of machine translation software were also useful because information on many of the drugs was available only in German, for instance.

: A young woman with dark hair is holding a stack of papers in her hand.
Maija presenting a printed version of the chemicals spreadsheet. Photo: Helsinki University Museum / Helena Hämäläinen.

What were the biggest challenges and successes?

For many chemicals, the biggest challenge was finding reliable information on their content. I had a lot of difficulty particularly with the dental collections because the packaging and jars often indicated only the manufacturer. The collections also included some old medicines which are currently available in new versions under the same name. With them, it was difficult to determine whether the old version contained the same substances as the new ones. On the other hand, with some medicines I had information on the active ingredient, but could find no information on the properties of the substance.

When carrying out further studies, it was nice to notice that I was able to find more information on many chemicals whose properties had previously been indicated as uncertain, enabling me to determine an appropriate storage solution. I’m also happy that we were able to carry out the project pretty much on schedule, considering the size of the chemicals collection.

What was it like for a chemistry student to work at a museum?

I noticed I had a fairly limited idea of what museum staff do. It was interesting to listen to the discussions and learn more about what the staff do on a daily basis. I’ll look at exhibitions with a new perspective and appreciation.

What is your favourite chemical? 

My favourites are, of course, the ones I could easily find information on 😊.

Personally, I was fascinated by the slightly more scary substances that meant the project really deserved to be called the Poison Project. Many of these were derived from plants and fungi, including the belladonna (Atropa Belladonna), the henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), the thorn apple (Datura stramonium) and ergot fungi. The group of homeopathic remedies also included interesting active ingredients, such as the monkshood (Aconitum napellus) and venom from the bushmaster (Lachesis muta) viper. Other favourites came with a story, such as the Rimpelin elixir or the poppy seed crispbreads leading to a positive drug test.

 An angular glass bottle with remnants of a brown liquid, and a plastic bag with three or four crispbreads and a small plastic drug test.
In 1908 Adolf Rimpelin began to sell his eponymous drug, claiming it cured consumption. A hospital bearing his name was established in Helsinki, but closed after just five months. Recipe for the Rimpelin elixir: Mix two litres of fine cognac with half a litre of salt. To this, add a mixture obtained from boiling one tablespoon of pitch oil or tar in one litre of water until half of it has evaporated.
The crispbreads in the other photo have been used to teach students. If you eat the amount of poppy seed crispbreads in the bag and then take a urine sample, you will test positive for opiates.
Photos: Helsinki University Museum / Jenni Jormalainen and Henna Sinisalo. 

Jenni Jormalainen



Bay Bottles: Sloan’s Liniment, Kills Pain. Sloan’s Liniment.

Ryhmärenki: Apteekkimuseon aarteita.

Toriapteekki: Kamferitippoja, Kyrön äijää ja Viisasta muijaa.

Vahvike, ryhmä- ja viriketoiminnan aineistopankki: Apteekki: Linimentit.

Wikipedia: Earl Sloan.

Wikipedia: Adolf Rimpiläinen.

Yle, Priima: Muistatko mummon ihmerohdot.




Heaven on Earth: The meteorite at Helsinki Observatory

Old objects are usually not to be touched in exhibitions, but the meteorite at Helsinki Observatory is an exception to the rule. Despite being far older than any other object at the Observatory, the public are expressly invited to touch it. To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Observatory’s permanent exhibition, our object of the month in October is the meteorite at Helsinki Observatory.

A shiny metallic meteorite resting on a blue table. A hand emerging from the top right corner of the photo touches the meteorite with one finger.
Please touch! Photo: Paula Kyyrö / Helsinki University Museum.

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A marble likeness of Porthan

Henrik Gabriel Porthan (1739–1804), librarian and professor of rhetoric and verse at the Royal Academy of Turku (the predecessor of the University of Helsinki), was a popular figure during the period of national awakening in 19th-century Finland. He is considered the father of Finnish historiography. The University of Helsinki’s Galleria Academica portrait collection contains a large number of sculptures, including a marble bust of Porthan wearing a wreath and a toga – our object of the month. The artist who created this work is Swedish-born Carl Eneas Sjöstrand (1828–1906). The sculpture is fairly heavy, coming in at 82.5 cm in height, and is accompanied by a mahogany pedestal measuring 151 cm.

The white bust of a man wearing a wreath and a robe, the top of which is visible. The sculpture stands on top of two wooden pallets of different sizes placed on a pallet stacker.
The marble bust of Porthan is currently kept in the University’s collection facility. Photo: Johannes Keltto, Helsinki University Museum.

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Dental panoramic radiography – A Finnish invention

After the end of the Second World War in 1945, Yrjö V. Paatero, Doctor of Dental Science, worked at the University of Helsinki’s Institute of Dentistry, overseeing X-ray examinations and diagnostics. He longed to do research work, but had little time for it because his days were filled with routine tasks. At the time, dental X-rays were taken by placing a film in the patient’s mouth time and again because several X-rays had to be taken to determine the condition of the entire dentition. Paatero was keen to find a less time-consuming solution, and the seed of the idea of panoramic radiography began to germinate. However, the road to this point had been far from simple, and several stumbling blocks still remained.

A woman sitting on a chair with a metal contraption encircling her head. On her right is an X-ray camera and on the left a man in a white coat is adjusting a curved X-ray film placed on a stand.
A pantomograph being used at the University of Helsinki’s Dental Clinic on Fabianinkatu street. Yrjö. V. Paatero on the left. The photo is from an article published in the Uusi Suomi newspaper in 1953. Photo: Yrjö V. Paatero Archives, privately owned.

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