Oulu: the world’s tar capital

Today Oulu is internationally renowned as a high tech city: a major centre of competence and innovation in information and health technology.

Two hundred years ago Oulu had a very different reputation. It was known as the tar capital of the world.

“Whenever people ask me about Oulu, I always tell them that Oulu became a very wealthy city because of tar,” says Helena Petäistö, a well-respected journalist who’s spent half of her life reporting from France for Finnish TV channel MTV.

Born and raised in the Oulu region, she’s acquired a great knowledge of the history of the tar trade and she’s keen to raise public awareness of it.

What is tar?

Wood tar is an oil-like substance that was exported in large quantities from Oulu in the 19th century. It was used for waterproofing wooden sailing ships around the world.

Tar was produced by burning pine wood in villages along the Oulu river. It was put into barrels and transported to Oulu harbour in specially designed tar boats from where it was shipped to all over the world.

There was a strong demand for tar in the 19th century.

“The biggest fleets of the world, including Britain’s, France’s and America’s, were all covered by tar from Oulu,” says Helena Petäistö.

Thanks to the booming tar trade, Oulu became the world’s biggest tar exporting port with the largest fleet of merchant ships of any Finnish city in the 1860s.

“Tar trade on a big scale started in Oulu in the 1850s,” says Patrik Franzén whose job at the Northern Ostrobothnia Museum includes looking after tar-related projects.

“It reached a peak in 1865 when 80,000 barrels of tar were exported to other countries. Each barrel contained 125 litres of pure tar.”

Patrik Franzén says the tar trade was extremely important for the region’s economy. It provided jobs for a large number of people, lifting them out of poverty and saving families from starvation throughout the 19th century.

Tar and Oulu2026

Oulu 2026 will reflect on the importance of Oulu’s tar trade in a number of ways.

One of the flagship events in the cultural programme is a new opera entitled ‘The Rise of the Tar Kingdom”. Commissioned for Oulu2026, it will tell a mythical story about Oulu’s history.

The opera will be a unique piece of art that aims to reach new audiences by showing the wild side of the city. In addition to the opera, there are plans to run several workshops and exhibitions throughout 2026 to bring back memories of the tar trade.

“In 2026 we want to smell tar and we want to work with it. When you smell tar, old stories come to life,” suggests Patrik Franzén.

“We have plans for workshops on how to make tar, how to make a tar barrel and perhaps even build a tar boat. It will be wonderful. We want to make history living again.”

Oulu’s tar trade began to decline in the early 20th century after steel replaced wooden planks on sailing ships.

But Helena Petäistö says Oulu has maintained a special connection with tar.

”In Oulu we say coffee is black like tar. And in restaurants and cafes here you can try tar ice-cream. Believe it or not, it’s very good!”