The status of stad in Sweden was formerly granted by a royal charter, comparable to the United Kingdom's status of borough or burgh before the 1970s or city status today. Unless given such town privileges, a municipality could not call itself a town. To receive the privileges of stad, there were several requirements a municipality needed to fulfil; for example, apart from being of a certain size, it was also necessary to have certain facilities. The criteria varied throughout the centuries, as they were at the discretion of the parliament (the Riksdag) or the monarch, but they may have included possession of a council hall and a prison.
In the majority of cases, before a stad received its charter, it would have previously been given the status of köping or 'merchant town'. Exceptions to this would be when a town was founded under Royal supervision, in which case it would often bear the name of the monarch, such as Kristianstad or Karlskrona (named after kings Christian IV of Denmark and Karl XI of Sweden).
At the end of the medieval age, circa 1450, Sweden (excluding Finland) had 41 chartered towns or städer (plural form of stad). By around 1680 there were 83. The only town founded and chartered during the 18th century was Östersund (1786). In 1863 the first local government acts were implemented in Sweden. Of the around 2,500 municipalities that were created, 88 were chartered towns or städer. The main difference between these towns and other municipalities being that stad had their own jurisdiction, i.e. their own city courts. There were also some laws concerning planning and building (Byggnadstadgan 1874), fire and rescue (Brandstadgan 1874), public order (Ordningsstadgan 1868) and public health (Hälsovårdsstadgan 1874) which were compulsory applicable to cities. Prior to 1900 two minor towns (Borgholm and Haparanda) lost their city courts, but they retained the title of stad.
Of the new towns chartered between 1901 and 1951 (44, making the total number of towns 133), not a single one was given its own jurisdiction, but remained under what was called landsrätt ("rural jurisdiction").
Reforms during the 20th Century
In the middle of the 20th century many reforms were carried out, which continued to diminish the administrative difference between rural and urban areas. The police forces and the district courts, as well as the tax authorities, were centralized under national government agencies, making the administration uniform all over the country.
The amalgamations of municipalities reduced the number of local government units from a maximum of 2,532 in 1930 to less than 300 today. Consequently, by 1970 most municipalities contained both rural and urban areas. Since the urban and rural municipalities also with time got the same duties towards citizens, it became unnecessary to differentiate between towns and other municipalities, as all had the same powers. So, since 1 January 1971 all municipalities are designated as kommun, regardless of their former status.
Most of the urban areas of Sweden which once were chartered towns are today still usually referred to as stad. The majority of them are also seats of their respective municipalities. The difference is that stad nowadays colloquially is more of a geographical term, rather than an administrative one. In some municipalities there can be more than one former town, e.g. Eskilstuna and Torshälla in the Eskilstuna Municipality, Kungälv and Marstrand in the Kungälv Municipality, or Jönköping, Huskvarna and Gränna, which all three now are part of the Jönköping Municipality. The town of Visby is the seat of the Gotland Municipality, but is no political entity of its own. Some former towns have also grown together, forming one urban area.
A few municipalities which used to be towns still prefer to style themselves as stad for marketing reasons. That applies to e.g. Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö. There are also municipalities with considerable rural areas that market themselves as stad, which can cause confusion to some people as the word in daily speech sometimes is used only about the urban area.
In 1850, the largest towns were:
- Stockholm (93,000 inhabitants),
- Göteborg (26,000),
- Norrköping (17,000),
- Karlskrona (14,000),
- Malmö (13,000).
In 1900, the largest towns were:
- Stockholm (300,624),
- Göteborg (130,609),
- Malmö (60,857),
- Norrköping (41,008),
- Gävle (29,522).
- Helsingborg (24,670),
- Karlskrona (23,955),
- Jönköping (23,143),
- Uppsala (22,855),
- Örebro (22,013),
- Lund (16,621),
- Borås (15,837)
- Halmstad (15,362).
- Urban areas in Sweden
- List of former Swedish towns with town privileges, showing the year they were chartered.