A 'Swenglish' journey through family photos, notes and postcards
from the early 20th century.


Pandora's Box Re-Opened - Sepia Saturday 641

Last week, for Sepia Saturday 640, I introduced my paternal grandparents: Gustaf (born 1904), who grew up in a small 'croft' cottage with his grandparents (as his mother had to move to a mental hospital some time in his childhood/youth); and Sally (born 1900), who grew up on a farm in the same village. From photos, I've concluded that Gustaf was friends with Sally's younger brother Nils (born 1902) since childhood; but that with the age difference between Gustaf and Sally, serious romance between the two of them is unlikely to have developed until he had reached a more mature age. 

During the past week, I've been searching for further clues to how and when their relationship developed, in some old letters. But while I keep pondering about that, I decided that for this week's Sepia Saturday, I'll re-post an old post that I wrote 10 years ago, on my other blog.  

[Originally posted on Friday, 27 April 2012
Opening Pandora’s Box



Pandora was given a beautiful container which she was not to open under any circumstance. Impelled by her curiosity given to her by the gods, Pandora opened it, and all evil contained therein escaped and spread over the earth. She hastened to close the container, but the whole contents had escaped, except for one thing that lay at the bottom, which was the angel of Hope named Astrea.

No, this is not really Pandora’s box – it’s a small treasure chest that belonged to my grandmother Sally. This was one of the first objects I took home with me from the House after my father died last summer, knowing it to hold some old notebooks and other memorabilia. Until now, however, I haven’t really looked at the contents more than to establish that yes, there were notebooks, and some various old letters and cards and press cuttings and such. 

But as this week I’ve been getting on with the old postcards, I decided to take a closer look at the letters in that chest to see if there were any that related to the same period as the postcards. I found some more postcards of later date than those in the albums, but only two letters written by my grandmother’s sisters.

Most of the letters kept seem to be correspondence between my grandparents in the late 1920’s, before their marriage. (Which may still hold secrets to be revealed – I have not yet read them.)*
*(2022: Now I have!)

However, I also found some other documents I did not know were there, and those are what inspired this post.

I’ve known since early on in life that my grandfather’s mother and uncle both ended their days in a mental hospital. It was not a secret, but also not much talked about. In later years, I understood from my father that back in his childhood and youth too, these things had only been talked of “in a hushed voice”. My grandfather Gustaf was born “out of wedlock” and was raised primarily by his grandparents, while his mother was in mental hospital.

After my dad died last year, I found two files with notes on family history collected by him and his father before him. I was struck by the fact that while my grandfather had dug deeper into the history of earlier generations than I had been aware of, I found no mention of his own mother among those notes. I assumed he might have found that to come a bit too “close”. (I only need to look at myself now to understand that… I’m finding it a lot easier to dig into the history of my grandparents’ generation just now, rather than my own parents who only recently died.)

While trying to lay the puzzle of what I know and don’t know, I have wondered sometimes what kind of mental illness(es) it was that my grandfather’s mother and her brother suffered from; and if it might perhaps be possible to track down some old hospital records to find out a bit more - some time. (It’s not exactly been at the top of my priority list.)

However – I just found out I’m already in possession of more information than I was aware of. In that old chest, there was a scroll of rolled-up old letters, which I’d not properly examined before. When I sat down to sort these out, I realised that besides two or three written by Gerda to her parents – not really saying very much – the rest were official reports from the mental hospital sent to her parents.

Moreover, among the notebooks, I found one which contained my grandfather’s very detailed account of his impressions and thoughts from when he, in 1923, a week before his 19th birthday, for the first time went to visit his mother at the mental hospital Restad in Vänersborg; accompanied by his grandfather (the grandmother having died the year before). He also went there again on his own the following year, and made notes then as well.


“There is no risk that a visit could in any way make their condition worse.” 3/3 1923 – stamped by the chief physician at Vänersborg’s Hospital and Asylum.
My grandfather’s notebook on top. It’s written in such tiny handwriting that I had to use a big magnifying glass to be able to read it.

While there is no specific diagnosis mentioned in any of these documents, the official reports state that Gerda was suffering from visual and audio hallucinations, was often aggressive but also passive and uninterested and mostly staying in bed. She seems to have grown worse over the years and at no time do the staff express any hope of her getting better.

The few letters which she wrote herself to her parents and her son are from the earlier years. The first report and letter are from January 1919. This could mean she was first admitted to the hospital in 1918, when she was 40 and my grandfather Gustaf 14.


From Gustaf’s notebook it seems there was a time in his childhood when his mother was living at home and working at factory in the village (he was trying to find out when visiting her at the hospital, if she still remembered those days too). 

Her brother was committed to the same mental hospital already back in 1909 or earlier.

The hospital had separate wards for men and women, and the brother and sister seem not to have been in contact with each other. All the official reports include notes on both of them, though. On each report there is a typed line that says: “Enquiries about patients should be made by letter, not telephone, and must include return postage.” The actual reports, however, are all written by hand.

The brother was obviously physically strong and usually spent his days doing outdoors work; but is said to be performing his tasks “like an automaton”. (I was a bit surprised to find that word used in psychiatric context back in the early 1920s.) He suffered from strange delusions and kept talking nonsense about wars and of going hunting for exotic animals like elephants and tigers. His condition seems to have remained more or less unchanged through the years.


I went searching on the internet for some facts about the place. The Hospital/Asylum at Restad was built between 1900-1905. It was a huge institution which housed over 1000 patients, long-term and short-term. Back then it was a very modern facility for its time, situated near the river and surrounded by a big park.


It was a self-supporting community. They grew their own crops, kept their own livestock, cooked their own food, baked their own bread; there were workshops for carpentry, paintwork, tailoring, shoemaking and whatever. They had their own water tower and electricity and even their own tram system for transportation of food and washing. (You can see the tracks in the photo above, I think.)

What I have not been able to find out on the internet is what kind of treatments they gave the patients back in those early days, except trying to keep them occupied!

Gerda seems to mostly have talked of the nurses as being kind, and had no complaints about how she was treated, except perhaps for one remark that her son makes note of on his second visit in 1924: “The other day they had put Gerda on a table and held her there. ‘I suppose they were angry with me,’ she said.”

For young Gustaf it was obviously a heartwrenching experience to visit his mother in this environment, among a lot of other mentally ill people.

Between 1906 and 1957, nearly 2000 people were buried in the hospital’s own cemetery, most of them anonymously, their crosses only marked as male or female. In 2009, a memorial was raised to honour them all posthumously:


My grandfather seems to have arranged for a proper gravestone for his mother though (she died in 1933); and later when her brother died (in 1956), his name too was included on that headstone. (*)

While Gerda spent perhaps about 15 years in this institution, her brother lived there for 47 years or more.

From Wikipedia I learn that the first antipsychotic drugs weren’t discovered until in the 1950’s. When they were introduced, they revolutionized psychiatric treatment.

In 1989, most of the psychiatric care (I assume a lesser number of hospitalised patients by then) was moved from Restad to a new general hospital.

Currently, the old Asylum area is being turned into a modern housing estate with the old buildings now used for hotels and businesses and cultural activites etc.


In 2011, a brand new unit for psychiatric care was built  quite close to the old one. This will take 82 patients, with 54 of those places set aside for forensic psychiatry. (Compare that to 1080 back in the early 1900s.)

image image

The first three photos in this post are my own; the rest I found at nyheter.vgregion.se, www.restadgard.se and www.nusjukvarden.se (2022: These links no longer work)

In the summer of 2015, my brother and I visited the Restad estate of "today", now housing a variety of offices and businesses:

Lots of old red brick buildings dating back to when it was an Asylum. Also still vast park areas with old trees and lawns, and some modern sculptures/memorials added.

Surrounded by vast open areas and various small roads and footpaths.

We also went looking for the old cemetery

(*)  Although we knew that there once was a proper grave stone rather than just an anonymous cross to mark the grave of our great-grandmother, we couldn't find it now. All the standing stones with names on them seemed to belong to staff who had lived and worked there. Changes were probably made in connection with putting up the new memorial in 2009. (By then, it had been a long time since anyone in our family last visited 'our' grave. I know I visited it with my parents back in my childhood/youth, but when coming back there in 2015, I had no idea of the exact location.)

Linking to Sepia Saturday 641


  1. How interesting your post is. And how sad that illnesses such as you describe were not spoken of in the family - or in any family of the time. So many of those poor patients could have been helped in this modern day instead of locked away. And yet so many people are still suffering mental conditions even in this modern day and have to cope with insufficient support in our modern world.

    1. Thanks Liz. I think most of us still have difficulties handling mental health issues. One reason being the inpredictability usually involved, and no knowing how to help. And in family context, also a fear of heredity.

  2. What an interesting post. Finding details of your great grandmother's life through documents by your grandfather, and then visiting the hospital buildings and grounds...all excellent efforts to understand what her life had been like. Thanks for the two sets of records.

    1. Thanks Barbara. I did find it interesting to visit the actual place, after having read about it - even if it's only the buildings that remain now.

  3. Thank you, Monica, for sharing this troubling story since in your last post I had wondered about the background for Gustaf's mother's and uncle's mental illness. So many maladies in earlier times were misdiagnosed or just misunderstood that many people were placed in asylums because there were no treatments for difficult behavior conditions.

    As a young man during the depression my grandfather found work as an attendant at St. Elizabeth's asylum for the insane in Washington DC. I don't think he liked it and soon left for a better job on the railroads. But for years afterward he would often answer his phone by saying, "St. Elizabeth's hospital" to jokingly surprise callers. Though he never told me anything about it, I suspect it was very distressing work that went against his natural compassionate temperament.

    Recently I acquired a photo of a young musician who was a member of the famous U.S. Marine Band in Washington. In my research I discovered that in 1910, while still in military service, he was committed to St. Elizabeth's asylum at age 37. His name was listed in the census that year on a page with 50 "patients". But more disturbing was learning there were 68 pages just like this, recording over 3,400 people who were incarcerated at this huge institution. The hospital was then considered one of the best in America and cared for many veterans too. But the history of the "treatments" used is horrific to read. The man died in 1912 but unfortunately the records for the asylum remain sealed except for family descendants so I may never learn anything about his condition. One of my other stories had a similar ending for a institutionalized person whose records also were sealed by the state. You are very fortunate to have Gustaf's notes about his mother. Many families have secrets like this that sadly will forever remain in the dark.

    1. That's interesting, Mike. Yes, back then for a while, big institutions obviously seemed like the best solution for these people. Perhaps it even was, if their families and neighbours weren't able to cope, and there were no helpful medicines yet available either. It can't have been easy for the staff working at these hosptials either, though!

  4. It is rather sad to think how much more we know in this day & age about mental illness - at how much easier it is to diagnose and how many can be helped easily with the right medication. It's 'funny'. If something goes wrong with our body - there's some lacking enzyme or chemical imbalance, it can usually be taken care of with a prescription to some medication more often than not and no one thinks a thing about it. But let that occur with the brain and suddenly it's looked upon as something to be embarrassed or secretive about - even now, but so much more so in the past.

    1. Good point, La N. Seeing people change, behave abnormally and losing the ability to communicate in a ratiional way is always a rather frightening experience, though. My own father, for example, suffered from (vascular) dementia during his last years in life - and eventually had to move to a nursing home as well. Knowing that physical changes in the brain are behind it only helps "so far" - it doesn't always make it easier to deal with.

  5. I have a box with letters, postcards and legal papers in in from my grandparents but it isn't so nice. It's just a plain green metal box. I wonder why they didn't identify the graves of the patients when they died and I'm sorry you couldn't find your great grandmother's grave.

    1. Kristin, I can only guess that a lot of the patients that died there may not have had relatives left who would visit the grave anyway. I have a letter from the hospital showing that my grandfather had written to enquire about having a proper headstone put up, three years after the death of his mother, though. He got the reply that it could be arranged, at a cost. I also have a faded xerox copy of a photo that proves it was done, and that later, my great-grandmother's brother's name was also added to that stone.
      I was not really surprised I did not find it in 2015, because a grave here (in an ordinary churchyard) needs someone to be responsible for it - and either look after it oneself or pay to have that done. If such a contract is not renewed, and the grave is left neglected, the stone gets removed after a certain time. And when going through things after my own father's death, I did not find any papers concerning that grave other than that old xerox copy of a photo.

  6. A heart-wrenching story and amazing that you were able to find family notes and do your own background research to draw it out. Today, with the help of medication, Gerda and her brother would likely have led productive lives outside of an institutional setting. Stories like theirs make us appreciate the everyday importance of science and the development of treatments and vaccines that are available to us today.

    1. Thanks Molly. Yes, comparing our own lives to those of our ancestors does tend to give "food for thought"...