The story of L.O. Smith

A child is born

On October 12, 1836, farmers Lusse Pehrsdotter and Ola Persson had their third child in Kiaby, Skåne, east of Kristianstad in southern Sweden. They gave the child the name Lars Olsson. Later in life, he would reinvent himself as L.O. Smith.

1837 World events

The beginning of the Victorian era

Victoria ascended the throne and became Queen of the United Kingdom shortly after her 18th birthday. The era named after her lasted until she passed away on 22 January 1901. An acclaimed and popular queen, she is also known as “Europe's grandmother”. A number of her descendants are represented in the royal houses of Europe, including King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden.

The farm Sjöarp in Blekinge ca 1860. Picture private.

1843 Private life

A life-changing meeting

When Lars Olsson was seven years old, he met the wholesaler Carl Smith. Smith was impressed by the boy and before he left he said, “If something happens to your father, you can always come to us.” A few months later, Lars turned up at Smith's home in Karlshamn and said, “The consul may take me, because it's over with father”.

Landowning farmers in Blekinge

On July 21, Lars Olsson’s parents became landowners when they bought the farm Sjöarpsgården in Blekinge. The building had two floors and was 3.2 meters high, 18.29 meters long, and 4.57 meters wide. Looking after the farm was hard work, and their sons had to help out to make ends meet.

1845 World events

Sweden’s drinking habits

In the 1830s and 1840s, it was common for Swedish people over 15 years to drink at least two liters of spirits a week. On a regular day, this would include four drinks before midday: the breakfast drink ("frukostsupen"), the rooster drink (“tuppsupen”), the bitter drink (“bäsken"), and the coffee drink ("kaffesupen"). At dinner there would be another five drinks (the appetizer, the fish drink, the half drink (“halvan”), then "the third drink" (“tersen”) and the heel drink ("klacken"). In the evening, many people would take “something strengthening” and finally end the day with the so-called "flea drink" ("loppsupen") before going to bed.

Skottsbergska Gården where L.O. Smith got his first employment. These days it is one of Sweden's best preserved merchant buildings. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1846 The entrepreneur

L.O. Smith’s first job

At the age of 10, Lars did not want to be a burden to his benefactor Mr Smith any longer. After getting his approval, he started working for the shopkeeper A.J. Skottsberg. The young boy realized that the business was not doing very well, and promptly set up what might have been Sweden’s very first PR campaign. He went down to a busy sea lane and simply informed every passing merchant of Skottsberg’s high quality goods. It didn’t take long before the turnover had multiplied.

L.O. Smith’s second job

The PR success at Skottsberg’s shop did not pass unnoticed. Within one year, Smith was offered an annual salary of SEK 300 from the competitor Cervin. The 11-year-old Smith kept his old customers and also managed to boost Cervin’s business.

1848 World events

The American gold rush

On January 24, 1848, James W Marshall found gold at the Sutter's Mill in Coloma, El Dorado in California. The news spread and some 300,000 people from South America, Europe, Australia and Asia traveled to the site. They found gold for billions of dollars. In two years, San Francisco was transformed from a small place with 1,000 people to a town with 25,000 inhabitants. The gold rush in the area lasted until about 1850, when the gold diggers moved further up the American west coast.

1851 World events

The first World Exhibition

On May 1, 1851, the first World Exhibition was held at the newly built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. During six months, six million visitors met 14,000 exhibitors from 94 countries. The exhibition presented modern inventions such as machines, factory equipment, raw materials, and handicrafts. A related event that took place at the same time was the sailing competition America’s Cup.

L.O. Smith Stockholm - The Vasa Bridge between Tegelbacken and Riddarhusgränd in Stockholm. Source: Atlas Copco.

1853 Private life

Heading for Stockholm

After the commercial success of his early shop work, L.O. Smith was keen to pursue his career. Through his friend commander Bengtsson, Smith was offered a seat on the ship Carl Oskar, which was headed for Stockholm.

1853 World events

Long working days, short lives

In L.O. Smith's Stockholm, a regular working day was 18 hours. People rarely lived longer than 40 years.

Photographer: Hugo Hallgren, source: Bohusläns museum.

1854 World events

Swedish vodka – a constantly evolving product

The development of technology and raw materials in the 19th century gave rise to new beverage trends. Today, Swedish vodka is still an evolving product that constantly changes.

View of Slussplan from Stadsgårdssidan, approx. 1887-1889. Source: Frans Svanström & co, Esseltes historical archive at the Centre of Näringslivhistoria.

1854 The entrepreneur

L.O. Smith’s Stockholm: Places associated with the vodka king

L.O. Smith came from Blekinge in the southeast of Sweden, but he moved to Stockholm at a young age. Here is a guide to some of the places in Stockholm that are connected to him.

The picture from Stora Badstugugatan 42 is cropped but shows the gate to the shop where L.O. Smith worked in 1849. The picture dates back to 1900. Source: Stockholm City Museum.

1854 The entrepreneur

Conflict with a new employer

L.O. Smith took up employment with a Mr Åkerman in the Old Town of Stockholm. The shop owner tried to trick the youngster, but Smith had full control of the accounts.

1854 Private life

Four lifelong promises

At the age of 17, Lars Olsson left his hometown and went to Stockholm. On the boat, he made friends who took him out to see the city lights when they arrived in the capital. The next day, Lars reflected on the terrible state of many people he had seen out at night. He set up four principles that he would stick to throughout his life: 1. Do not abuse alcohol 2. Do not engage in card games 3. Do not get involved with harlots 4. Avoid poverty at all costs

Ships of the line and frigates at Skeppsholmen, 1850. Drawn by the artist Per Wilhelm Cedergren. Source: The Maritime Museum.

1855 The entrepreneur

Smith’s career in the harbor

L.O. Smith started working on a ship in the harbor. He quickly became one of the most important ship brokers in Stockholm’s Old Town, and had soon figured out how to get his business to flourish even more.

1855 World events

Ban on homemade spirits

Until 1855, it had been allowed to make spirits for personal consumption at home. To reduce the country’s increasing drinking problems, a ban came into force. The ban would prove to be to L.O. Smith’s advantage.

L.O. Smith in his youth. Private picture.

1856 The entrepreneur

Thriving business for the king of vodka

During the world economic crisis in 1856, L.O. Smith saw a golden opportunity to dominate the liquor market in Stockholm. He decided to take his chance and moved forward at full speed. Six years later, he had built the foundation of his wealth.

Darwin’s theories

In his book About the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin presented his revolutionary ideas. Darwin questioned the view of human origin and evolution as presented in the Bible, which was the generally accepted version at this time.

L.O. Smith with his first wife Marie-Louise Collin. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1859 Private life

Smith the family man

At the age of 24, Lars Olsson got married to the six years younger Marie-Louise Collin. The couple settled in the Old Town in Stockholm. During their first happy years together, they had four children.

1860 Social reforms

Supporting workers

L.O. Smith looked after his staff. This is one of many quotes he is remembered for: “I have always been able to rely on my workers, and that’s why I give some of my profit back to them.”

Drawing in the newspaper Fadersneslandet, 1889. L.O. Smith in the First Chamber of the Swedish Parliament. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1860 Social reforms

L.O. Smith for extended voting rights

In 19th century Sweden, only those with an annual income of at least 800 SEK per year were allowed to vote. Far from everyone earned that much. During a disagreement about suffrage rights in the Swedish parliament, L.O. Smith is supposed to have exclaimed: “So pay them that 800 SEK - that will solve the problem!”

Coloured postcard. The railway station in Karlshamn, 1906. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1860 World events

The travels of L.O. Smith

Join us on a historical around the world trip!

1861 World events

The American Civil War starts

Shortly after Abraham Lincoln became president of the United States in 1860, 11 of the 36 states left the federation and formed America's Confederate States. In April, the American Civil War broke out. The war would last for five years and cause around 620,000 deaths. When the war ended in 1865, the Confederate States were incorporated again and slavery was abolished.

L.O. Smith with his daughters, Mary and Lucie. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1862 Private life

L. O. Smith the father – a stormy story

Charlie, Otto, Lucie and Mary – the names of L. O. Smith’s four children. For a long time their relationship with their famous father was strained and ultimately ended in great turbulence.

1864 World events

Business freedom introduced in Sweden

No more guilds, obligatory apprentice certificates and monopolies based on wealth. From now on, everyone had the right to start a business.

Jean Bolinder, Fredrik Bünsow, August Wicander, Knut Ljunglöf and Knut Agathon Wallenberg were contemporary with L.O.Smith.

1865 World events

Smith’s colorful contemporaries

L.O. Smith’s contemporaries included several ambitious and successful entrepreneurs, often nicknamed “kings” or “princes” within their respective fields. This colorful crew came to symbolize the new industrial Sweden and lay the foundation of the economic prosperity for the 20th century. They had in common a broad business sense and a contagious enthusiasm for everything from politics and society to art and philanthropy. Here is an introduction to a small selection of these entrepreneurs, from “the mechanics king” Bolinder to “the finance prince” Wallenberg.

Design for an extension at Vin & Spirituosa AB in Kristianstad. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1865 The entrepreneur

The vodka empire in the Swedish potato belt

During his glory days, L.O. Smith opened several factories. The headquarters for his liquor empire were located in southern Sweden.

1865 World events

L. O. Smith and Karlshamn

Get to know the bustling port town of Karlshamn was where L. O. Smith spent his formative years.

1866 World events

Swedish dynamite

At the age of 34, the Swedish entrepreneur and inventor Alfred Nobel secured a patent for dynamite. During his career, the eminent chemist and engineer obtained almost 250 patents. He died in San Remo, Italy in 1896.

Hello there!

In July 1866, the first commercially successful transatlantic telegraph cable was set up. The cable made it possible to make phone calls between the United States and Europe.

L.O. Smith may have been known as King of vodka, but he was far from alone in producing and selling it in Sweden. Source: Spritmuseet.

1866 The entrepreneur

L.O. Smith’s Swedish competitors

Get to know Smith's competitors in Sweden. Some of them were even known as local vodka kings!

Portrait of consul general, J W Smitt, approx. 1900. Source: Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology.

1867 World events

Johan Willhelm Smitt – L.O. Smith’s investor and enemy

L.O. Smith and Johan Willhelm Smitt were close business partners, but ended up as bitter enemies in court. Their disputes could be followed by the public, as they were published as open letters in the newspapers. Smitt was the man behind the so-called Reymersholme coup, and some say that he was also responsible for the Spanish export failure. What else do we know about Smith’s worst enemy?

Letterhead of a circular letter from Win- & Spirituosa-Aktie-Bolaget, 15th of July 1872. Source: Spritmuseum.

1868 The entrepreneur

Podcast: The history of the Reimersholme liquor factory

Join expert Jenny Stendahl on a walk around the small Stockholm island of Reimersholme, as she looks for traces of the extraordinary entrepreneur L.O. Smith.

Source: Spritmuseum.

1868 The entrepreneur

Poor quality spirits and the first vodka war

In the 19th century, Swedish vodka generally contained fusel alcohol, which could be hazardous to health. For L.O. Smith, this meant a great a business opportunity. He started researching the subject and traveled abroad to learn more. In France, he found a company that had a way to remove harmful substances. Once Smith was convinced that the method worked, he bought a factory at Reimersholme in Stockholm and started producing his own vodka. However, he had to fight for the right to sell his produce as the city council had exclusive rights to sell alcohol in the central parts of the city.

Carlshäll, L.O. Smith's exclusive home on Långholmen island in Stockholm. The surrounding park was seen as the most beautiful in Stockholm. Photo: Stockholm City Museum.

1873 Private life

Smith’s luxurious summer residence Carlshälls

From 1873 to the beginning of the 1900s, Smith had a summer residence at the Långholmen island in southern Stockholm. Smith turned the house into something truly magnificent, adding a ballroom and a billiard lounge, among other things. Around ten people were employed to look after the house and the lush garden, which is supposed to have been the most beautiful in Stockholm.

Label Goutte d'Or/Gulddroppen. Source: Spritmuseum.

1874 The entrepreneur

Smith’s visionary idea: Champagne for the masses

In the 1870s, L.O. Smith’s budget champagne called Gulddroppen received a great deal of attention. Were the people of Sweden ready for a “sparkling wine for the masses”?

Incoming application regarding Flaggpunsch, The Swedish Patent and Registration Office. 10th of April, 1885. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1876 The entrepreneur

The classic Swedish drink “punsch”

As L.O. Smith's business grew, he opened more and more factories across the country. Meanwhile in his hometown of Karlshamn, he bought a purifying plant called Hellerströmska. The purchase allowed him to refine the classic Swedish drink called punsch.

The Bolinder Palace, on the right side of Grand Hotel. Source: Grand Hotel's historical archive at the Centre of Näringslivhistoria.

1877 Private life

The Bolinderska Palace – a study in luxury

In 1877, the businessman Jean Bolinder built The Bolinderska Palace next to the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. The architect behind the magnificent building was Helgo Zettervall. L.O. Smith was impressed by the luxurious flat, and decided to move into one of the two main apartments.

Panoramic photo of Paris, 1865. Source: Library of Congress.

1878 Private life

The places where L.O. Smith made business

L.O. Smith had a global outlook from the start. He was keen to do international business, and wanted to deepen his knowledge about the industry. He also traveled for recreation and spent time in the Mediterranean seaside resorts from time to time. As somebody who did several around-the-world-trips, he even became a bit of a globetrotter.

One of the early liquor purification appliances. The Prussian spirits maker Pistorius patented this appliance in 1817.

1878 The entrepreneur

The method that revolutionised the vodka industry

Smith was the first person in Sweden to introduce a new method for purifying vodka on a large scale. But what was actually so new and revolutionary about his method?

1880 World events

Mass emigration to America

Between 1880 and 1900, about 10 million Europeans emigrated to America. By 1920, some 1.5 million people had left Sweden to start a new life on the other side of the Atlantic. With 100,000 Swedish residents, Chicago was even Sweden’s second largest city at this time.

The Boer war in South Africa

In 1877, the British annexed the Transvaal in northeast South Africa. Led by Sir Theophilius Shepstones, they were met by powerful protests from the farmers. The Boers rebelled in 1880 and war broke out. With the help of guerrilla warfare, the farmers managed to win the war and gained independence in the region. In 1900, Transvaal was occupied again. The second Boer war would have a devastating effect on L.O. Smith’s life. Transvaal became an English colony before it became a South African province in 1910.

Pictures: Pelle Berglund's private collection.

1880 Private life

Smith’s five most spectacular disputes

L.O. Smith’s short temper is well documented. He had countless arguments in his life, with everyone from businessmen to governments. Read about five of his most spectacular disputes.

The king of vodka on the extra train. The satirical newspaper SöndagsNisse 1881-01-09. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1880 The entrepreneur

L.O. Smith in the press

L.O. Smith figured frequently in the Swedish press, and this suited him perfectly.

Source: Karlshamns museum.

1882 The entrepreneur

The second vodka war at Fjäderholmarna

As the distribution license for selling spirits in Stockholm was about to expire, L.O. Smith applied to deliver vodka from his new factory in Karlshamn. His request was not approved this time either. Full of confidence from his recent victory in the first vodka war, he decided to repeat the same strategy. This time, he organised a boat shuttle service to the island Fjäderholmarna in the Stockholm archipelago.

The yellow letter was printed in bulk and recieved a large spread. Source: Spritmuseum.

1883 Social reforms

The yellow letter – Smith’s first tactical mistake

In 1883, workers were invited to buy shares that would form a Workers’ Bank, under generous conditions. Smith saw the bank as a solution to social problems, and hoped that the system would spread to the rest of the world. He wrote an open, over six pages long letter on yellow paper and had it printed in 20,000 copies. The letter explained his ideas on how Sweden should be governed, and proclaimed himself as the best person to implement the proposals. In return, he required loyalty and trust. The letter had the opposite effect.

The organisation Arbetarringarna. Facsimile from Walter Sjölin's book, Brännvinskung och socialreformator.

1883 Social reforms

L.O. Smith’s workers’ groups take shape

In the early 1880s, L.O. Smith had the ambition to help workers get organized and improve their living conditions. Workers’ groups were established, and Smith became the chairman of a dedicated workers’ bank (“Arbetarringens bank”). He also suggested that Sweden ought to introduce a post bank to make it easier for the working population to save money. The post bank was established a few years later, but Smith was never recognized as the initiator. On the other hand, perhaps it motivated him to get more involved in politics?

The liquor factory in Karlshamn. Photographer: Hjalmar Dahl. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1884 The entrepreneur

The liquor factory in Karlshamn

L.O. Smith’s grand liquor factory in Karlshamn was an important employer in southern Sweden. It also played a crucial part in his plan to conquer Europe.

L.O. Smith's steam kitchen was situated in the house on Stora Kungsholmsgatan 2, right across the street from Bolinders workshop. Photograph from approx. 1900. Source: Stockholm City Museum.

1884 Social reforms

The steam kitchens – tasty, healthy, affordable food

L.O. Smith wanted his workers to eat well. This would make them healthier and at the same time make them work longer and harder. His so-called steam kitchens were cooperatives with state-of-the-art equipment that offered workers tasty, healthy food at a reasonable price. Despite Smith’s best efforts, the steam kitchens never became as popular as he had hoped.

1885 Social reforms

From workers’ groups to suffrage rights

L.O. Smith’s workers’ groups didn’t last long. He was disappointed with the workers’ involvement and the groups lacked suitable leaders. Nevertheless, his efforts bore fruit in the long run.

"L.O. Smith - grundare af Arbetarnes ring", embroided cloth. Photographer: Pelle Berglund. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1886 Social reforms

What happened next – Smith’s labor groups

L.O. Smith set up labor groups to get his workers involved politically, but the groups did not work out in the long run. He was disappointed both with the workers’ engagement and their economic contribution. What happened when the groups had been dissolved?

Hand colored postcard of Stilleryd with handwritten greeting. Hj. Falk Photo. Mission Bookstore Publishers. Source: Karlshamn Museum.

1886 The entrepreneur

L. O. Smith’s many businesses: from railways to large-scale agriculture


The spirit of the age: 1888–1913

At the turn of the century around 1900, Sweden experienced an economic golden age. The main political issues concerned national defense and suffrage. The emerging labor and women’s movements demanded more influence, and emigration to America hit record levels. The country was also shaken by the dissolution of the union with Norway.

Coloured postcard. The railway station in Karlshamn, 1906. Source: Karlshamns museum.

"In Spain, proud Spain, where he did a bad liqour deal. His aquavit is auctioned away - it's going to be dry in Sweden!" - The newspaper Fäderneslandet is writing about L.O. Smith's loss year 1888. Facsimile from Walter Sjölin's book, Brännvinskung och socialreformator.

1888 The entrepreneur

Smith loses “the vodka war” with Spain

L.O. Smith saw an opportunity to export vodka to Spain. He hired 700 people for his factory in Karlshamn, making it the biggest distillery in the world. After a few successful years, Spain increased the customs tariff. Without support from the Swedish government, L.O. Smith made personal losses of around SEK 700 million, and all employees were made redundant.

Prins Constantin Karadja ca 1916.

1889 Private life

L. O. Smith’s Grandson – The Prince who saved tens of thousands of lives

The Swedish-Romanian prince Constantin Karadja was the grandson of the brännvin king L. O. Smith and grew up. Under the threat of Nazism, he became a human rights advocate and saved the lives of tens of thousands of people, mainly Romanian Jews.

The sugar factory in Trelleborg, 1930s. Source: Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology.

1890 Social reforms

What happened next: The sugar plants

L.O. Smith and Consul General Johan Wilhelm Smitt decided to grow sugar beets, and set up the company Inedals Sockerfabriks AB. The business venture failed, but the project proved that it was possible to grow sugar in Sweden.

Auction catalogue of the art dealer A. Matsson, Stockholm. List of the entire inventory of L.O. Smith in the Bolinder Palace that was auctioned on 13th of May, 1891. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1891 Private life

L.O. Smith’s art collection – historical romanticism and classical art

Smith liked to surround himself with art and antiques. He was particularly fond of classical Italian art and the historical paintings of his time.

Workers in an unknown gold mine i South Africa, approx. 1890-1930. Source: Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection (Library of Congress).

1895 The entrepreneur

L.O. Smith and the South African gold mines

During the latter part of his life, L.O. Smith traveled extensively and got involved in several risky business ventures. One of these was to invest in gold mines in South Africa. His goal was to build up the fortune he had lost in the so-called vodka war with Spain.

1896 Private life

Anna Viktoria Kalldin – L.O. Smith’s second wife

In 1896, L.O. Smith met Anna Viktoria Kalldin, who would become his second wife. When Smith’s daughter Mary found out about their relationship, she left the house where they lived. Mary would never talk to her father again, but Anna Viktoria and Smith stayed together until his death. Following the Boer war at the turn of the century, they led a life in poverty.

Representatives from the wine- and liqour industry, systembolagen and Sweden's wine merchants gathered at the liqour factory in Helsingborg 1908. This group prompted the cartelization of the liquor industry. Source: Spritmuseum.

1910 World events

The entrepreneur behind Sweden’s alcohol monopoly

Nils Peter Mathiasson started his career modestly as an office clerk, but ended up as the leader of almost the entire Swedish liquor production industry. Together with Ivar Bratt, Mathiasson implemented Sweden’s monopoly for wine and spirits - another part of L.O. Smith’s legacy.

L.O. Smith's death notice, Karlskrona 11 December 1913. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1913 Private life

A genius leaves this world

L.O. Smith passed away in December 1913, due to complications from pneumonia.

Source: The Absolut Company.

1913 World events

Sweden’s alcohol policy

Sweden’s attitude to alcohol changed dramatically at the end of the 19th century. Influenced by the international Independent Order of Good Templars, the growing Swedish temperance movement started campaigning for stricter measures. They no longer accepted wine and beer, and started demanding complete abstinence from alcohol. Their views made a deep impact on Swedish drinking culture.

Drawing of Inedals Sockerfabrik AB, 1867. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1914 The entrepreneur

Five important ideas

L.O. Smith was a true visionary who constantly came up with new initiatives and inventions. Here are five of his most important ideas: Purification of spirits, sugar beet cultivation, labor groups, the post bank, and suffrage.

Interior of the factory on Reymersholm. Source: Karlshamns museum/Stockholm city archive.

1917 Social reforms

What happened next – Smith’s purification method

L.O. Smith revolutionized the beverage industry with a unique distillation method that removed hazardous impurities. What happened to his purification method?

Workers at the factory in Karlshamn. Source: Karlshamns museum.

1919 Social reforms

What happened next: Suffrage

In 1889, L.O. Smith submitted a proposal for extended male voting rights to the Swedish parliament. What happened to this proposal?

“Motboken”: The rationing booklet

The rationing booklet “Motboken” is introduced, and the state-owned liquor stores get full control of the alcohol monopoly in Sweden. From this day, there were no private wine merchants in the country. Alcohol was sold exclusively by Vin & Liquor and the local “Systembolaget” shops.

1920 Social reforms

What happened next: The post bank

One of L.O. Smith’s many ideas was to convert post offices into banks. This would make banking services more accessible, which would encourage workers to save money. This is what happened to the post bank.

Source: The Absolut Company/Pernod Ricard.

1970 World events

The story of the Absolut bottle and brand

The story behind the Absolut brand name and its characteristic bottle provides a link to the past. The seal of every Absolut bottle shows an illustration of L.O. Smith, the man who set out to make an absolutely pure vodka in the 19th century.

2018 The entrepreneur

Movie trailer from the film about L.O. Smith

Watch the trailer from the movie about L.O. Smith's exciting life here.