The Women Who Stayed in Winnipeg

The lady of the house, 1890. If your great great amma worked as a domestic she worked for this lady or her friends.
When the 285 Icelandic settlers of 1875 arrived in Winnipeg, around 50 of them who were able to find work stayed in the city. Little did they know how good a decision that would become.
 Your great great amma looked like these cooks and maids in 1890.
 Coming from Iceland where farms did not have stoves, your great great amma had to learn to use one of these. This looks like the one in our kitchen in Gimli when I was a boy. My mother made wonderful meals on it.
The settlers who went on to New Iceland were towed down the river in flat boats, were cut loose before reaching their destination at the White Mud River (Icelandic river, Riverton), arrived late in the season without enough stoves for each family to have one. Instead, they hastily built cabins of logs, something they’d never done. They were not woodsmen as there were no trees in Iceland large enough to use in building. One cabin to each stove. In Iceland, none of them had stoves. In spite of the name, Iceland, the weather is so much more moderate that people could survive with thick turf and rock walls, body heat and the fire used for cooking. In Manitoba, they would have frozen to death.
In 1875 there was a surplus of men. Employment for men, except seasonally (harvest time, for example), was hard to come by. However, there was a shortage of women both as wives and as domestic help. Although Winnipeg only had 5,000 residents, women could find jobs in the city.
 Bread. Bread. Magical bread. Wheat, rye, oats, barley. Grain. Lots of it. Affordable. None of these breads made in Iceland. Great great amma had to learn to make bread like this.
In 1876 a group of 1200 Icelanders arrived in Winnipeg. Some of these also stayed behind in Winnipeg.
These people, the ones who decided to remain in Winnipeg, formed the nuclease of the Winnipeg Icelandic community. This community, with more emigrants coming from Iceland, plus people leaving New Iceland and moving to Winnipeg, by 1890, was large enough to hold the first Icelandic Celebration at Victoria Park.
By 1890, fifteen years had passed from the arrival of the first settlers in Winnipeg. During those years women found jobs in non-Icelandic households. With some staying in the city and some going to New Iceland where the goal was to have a separate colony, the same drama was being played out as had gone on earlier with some leaders saying settlers would be better off integrating, working on the farms of Swedes, Danes and Norwegians who were established. That way they would learn how to farm. On the other side were those who wanted, at any cost, to stay separate, to keep to themselves and recreate a new Iceland.
 Life in New Iceland started hard with no cows, no milk, dreadful living conditions, and got harder when smallpox broke out.
Those in Winnipeg managed to avoid some of these hardships that we hear so much about. But what was life like for them?
First, they had to adjust to seeing non-Icelanders every day. To working with non-Icelanders every day. To being employed by non-Icelanders every day. They had to learn English. Having non-Icelandic employers demanded it. Even harder, perhaps, they had to learn new ways of doing everything. Everything. Living to a different code of cleanliness, behaviour, thinking, relationships, customs, food, clothes. Everything. Right now.
Pounding dried cod so it could be eaten, knitting endlessly or weaving, taking care of sheep, raking hay didn’t prepare anyone for being a good housemaid. If your great amma or great great amma got a job as a housemaid, these were the duties she was expected to perform. This is what she had to adjust to, had to learn.
 “A good housemaid will rise at six, and have her grates cleaned and rooms swept by seven. She will then go upstairs, wash her hands, and make herself tidy for taking to the bedroom hot water if required to do so. In the meanwhile the dust will have settled, and the rooms will be ready on her return to be finished by eight. By nine o’clock breakfast ought to be cleared away and the housemaid ready to strip the beds, empty slops, and set the bedrooms in order. By eleven o’clock the up-stairs work ought to be done, unless extra cleaning is in question. Washing up china and glass, dusting the drawing-room, and other light labour of the kind may take till twelve or one o’clock, by which time a housemaid ought to be dressed for the day, fit to answer the door, wait on the family, and do needlework. Any work required of the servant after mid-day should be of a nature not to soil her garments. At dusk, it is a housemaid’s place to close all the windows at the upper part of the house. Before going to bed she has to turn down all the beds of the family, replenish ewers and water bottles, empty slops, and put everything in its place. If she has the charge of the plate-basket she carries it to the master’s room, together with hot water. Considerate employers will dispense with a housemaid’s attendance by ten o’clock, bearing in mind her morning duties.
 “The day before a wash is intended, all the dirty linen should be looked up, sorted, and entered in a book with the same precision as is observed when things are sent out. Any articles that are in excess – owing to the state of the weather or what not – should be thoroughly dried, folded, and put away, under lock and key, till a convenient season. Saturday afternoon is the best time for the above preparation; the clothes can then remain in soak till Monday, which greatly facilitates the removal of stains, &c.
   
 “All the best white linen should be put in a separate pan, or tub, and coarse things in another. Sufficient lukewarm, or cold soda and water should then be poured over the clothes.
   
“Coloured things, flannels, and woollen materials should not be laid in soak. These require washing separately, piece by piece, when the work is in progress. Pocket-handkerchiefs should be first rinsed out, and the water thrown away before they are put in with the rest of the things.
   
“The next arrangement to make should consist in shredding fine yellow soap into a jar capable of containing sufficient liquid, according to the amount of washing to be done. About a pound of soap to a gallon of water is a good proportion; no soda should be added. Having poured boiling water on the soap, cover the jar and set it aside on the kitchen stove, or range, till Monday morning, when the soap will be found to be melted to a jelly. When lukewarm, take some of this soap-jelly, and mix it in the water in which the clothes are to be washed. By this means a fine lather is easily produced without waste. About a pint of soap jelly to an ordinary tub of water will be sufficient. The clothes will require but trifling rubbing with hard soap in the very soiled places.
   
“It is a good plan to begin a wash with the flannels. No soap is required for them beyond the jelly described, except for the cotton bands and tapes. Each article should be washed separately in moderately warm (not hot) water. Having washed them in one water, rinse them in clean warm suds, shake them Out, and hang them on the lines at once. Never rinse flannels or woollens in plain water. By doing so they become harsh and shrink.
   
“The water in which the flannels have been rinsed is excellent for the first washing of the white things. If too dirty for that purpose, it should be poured on the coarse things, having first taken them out of the cold soak.
   
“The white things will require two washings, rubbing soap on the stained places, if required. The second water should be used for the first process of rubbing less im-[51-]portant articles. By the time the white things are washed, the copper should be ready for the boiling process. The water should only be lukewarm when the clothes are put in, as boiling water fixes the stains instead of loosening them. The water in the copper should contain a fair proportion of soap jelly and about two ounces of soda. From ten minutes to a quarter of an hour after the clothes have been at boiling heat, they should be taken out and plunged into plenty of cold water for rinsing. Having been wrung out of the rinsing water, they should next be put into clean blue water, one by one, passing each piece swiftly through the water to prevent the blue from settling into those unsightly streaks which are afterwards so difficult to remove.
   
“There is no waste of time in this precaution, because each article has to be wrung out separately, even if a basketful of linen be tossed into the blue water at the outset. Directly ·the clothes are blued and wrung, they should be shaken out and put upon the lines.
   
A propos of “hanging-out.” Before putting up the lines, they should be passed through a coarse cloth, to remove any dust or soils from the gravel-paths, &c. All articles set in a band should be slightly festooned from the bottom hem-never from the band. Sheets and table-cloths should be hung with the short side towards the wind, to enable the air to blow the folds apart. Shirts should be suspended from the bottom hem. A good many pegs are necessary to hang things out well, and the laundry-maid should be careful not to place the pegs at the corners, without first doubling the corners. Stockings should each have a peg, and should be turned inside out before being put on the lines. Wooden pegs are best.”
And, if she were fortunate, your great great amma was able to negotiate for one day a month off. Plus time for church on Sundays but the time was to be limited to the time needed to attend the service.
Halldor Laxness offended people when he came to New Iceland and read a story that criticized the settlers for having their wives work as domestics. His criticism of the settlers was silly. In Iceland, unless you owned land, you worked as an indentured servant with severe restrictions on your life. Perhaps he thought that if you were a landowning farmer, your wife should be like the wife of the owner of Myri (although, in Independent People, he mocked her) and everyone that worked for you should be a bonded labourer. But farming in Canada doesn’t and can’t work that way. In the early days the struggle was to get enough money to get onto the land, to get it cleared and planted. Men took whatever work they could get, on the railway, cutting firewood, harvesting, that would bring in cash. Women took whatever work was available.
This wasn’t Iceland. It couldn’t be Iceland. To try to make it Iceland was a doomed task. Trying to keep things the way they were had kept Iceland from moving into the industrial age with resulting poverty for the largest portion of the population.
Our fate is evident often in the smallest of things. In Iceland, grain was prohibitively expensive for most people. They seldom ate bread and, if they did, it was only on special occasions. In a Blue Ribbon Cookbook from 1905, 30 years after the settlers landed on a cold, windswept beach at Willow Island, there is a section called “Chart of Oven Temperature for Cakes”. Just imagine. Oven temperatures. That means there are ovens which means there are stoves which means there must be a lot of cheap fuel. There was so little fuel in Iceland that there were no stoves and no stoves means no ovens. No one needed to know oven temperatures. Also, there were no cakes. Cakes require finally milled flour and that was only available to the wealthiest farmers. Plunked down in Winnipeg, great great amma had to learn about wood, wood stoves, ovens, baking.
There are instructions on “Essentials for Success” in baking cakes. There are instructions on different methods of baking cakes. There are nineteen pages of recipes for making cakes, cookies and puddings. They all require grain. They all require stoves. They all require abundant fuel.
Bread in Iceland was usually from rye flour coarsely ground, cooked as a flat bread. In the 1905 cookbook, there are eleven pages of recipes and advice on making bread. Overnight bread, sponge bread, soft whole wheat, graham, bran, oatmeal, date, baking powder bread, Boston brown bread, corn bread, Florida pone bread, Sally Lunn bread plus recipes for rolls, biscuits and muffins.
  White bread. Food of kings. Christian IX brought white bread from Denmark when he came in 1874. In Canada, available to all.
I expect that the women who took work in English houses learned about making bread, cakes and cookies and puddings quite quickly. Learned to eat them. Learned to make them. I doubt if any of them pounded dried fish with a stone hammer. This wasn’t Iceland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *