Shopping In Reykjavik, 1874

If your ancestors lived in Reykjavik or, more likely, visited there to trade, who would they have dealt with? Who were the people who decided what they’d be paid for their precious trade goods and what they’d paid for the supplies they needed to survive for a year?

Richard Burton, 1874, gives a good picture of who made up the business establishment.

Since the trading season was the summer when the weather was at its best, the traders would all be in Reykjavik but, not surprisingly, most of them left for Copenhagen as the trading season ended. From RB’s description, it sounds like the traders kept a good deal to themselves, making the best of this hardship post by having picnics at the Laxá River and by going riding in the countryside. The country folk, and since Reykjavik was little more than a small town, virtually everyone was country folk, might be working  long days getting in the hay, taking care of animals, pounding dried fish, knitting, doing everything possible to see that there would be enough food to last through the coming winter, but the traders, as they picnicked, had no such concerns. Come the end of the season, they were heading back to Denmark and civilization.

The storekeepers were called merchants (kaupmaðr). They were the big shots. They called the shots.  Their establishments had no signs or names on them but had prime positions facing the sea. The people who worked in these stores were mostly hired  help working for Copenhagen firms. They received fixed salaries rather than being on commissions.

According to RB, these are the people your ancestors would have had to deal with:

1.       Hr Egill Egilsson (Icelander), of the Glasgow House, and agent of the “Jón Sigurðsson‘ steamer
2.       2. Hr Fischer, A Dane, married to an Icelandic wife, settled at Copenhagen, and occasionally visiting the island. He occupies the corner tenement to the right of the Bridge House and he has large stores fronting his shop.
3.       Hr Havstein (Dane), who has not long been established; his private dwelling is attached to his store at the west end of Harbour Street, but he usually lives at Copenhagen. This house charters two or three ships a year to carry its goods.
4.       4. Hr Hannes Jónsson, an Icelander, son of the former Bishop Steingrimur Jónsson. His stock is furnished by Hr Jonsen of Copenhagen, who has also establishments at Hafnafjörð, Papós, and Seyðisfjörð.
5.       Hr Robb, the son of an English merchant, who settled at and was naturalised in Iceland. He speaks German, but not a word of English. It is the smallest of all the establishments and seems to do business only in lollipops. (Naturalisation is wisely  made easy in Iceland. The foreigner swears allegiance, pays $2, and straighway becomes a citizen.)
6.       Hr P.C.Knutzen, a Dane, whose agent is Hr Sviertsen. He trades on his own account, without a company and, being young and wealthy, he prefers Copenhagen to Rekjavik. At Hafnafjörð he has another establishment, and an agent(Hr Zimsen).
7.       Hr Möller. The Club is held at  his house.
8.       Hr Schmidt (Danish), who hires a house at Reykjavik, and passes the winter at Copenhagen. He is consul for Holland.
9.       Hr Th. A. Thomsen, a Dane of Flensburg, born in Iceland. He passes the winter at Copenhagen; and, besides being one of the principal traders, he is well-known for his civility and kindness to strangers.
10.   Hr Edward Siemsen, at the east end of the town. He is agent for his brother and their nephew, and he also acts as Consul for Denmark.

Only two of the traders are Icelandic, Egill Egillsson and Hannes Jónsson; however, Hannes is only an agent working for Jonsen of Copenhagen, a company large enough to not only have a trading post in Reykjavik but stores at Hafnafjörð, Papós, and Seyðisfjörð.

The Icelanders weren’t bringing money. There was very little silver (rigs dollars or the occasional shilling).

When they rode into Reykjavik with their pack train of horses, they were bringing “salt meat, beef, and mutton; tallow; butter, close packed; wool in the grease; skins of sheep, foxes, and seals; feathers, especially eider down;  oil of whales, sharks and seals; fine and coarse jackets of Wadmal, woolen stockings, and mitts; stock-fish and sulfur. The major items they wanted in return for their goods were timber, mostly pine and fir, salt, coal, grain, coffee, spices, tobacco and liquor. They could get beams for roofing and framing, twenty-two to twenty-four feet long, one inch boards for side-lining of houses, three-inch planks, and finer woods” for the cabinet maker.

They had to pay $2 for a 44 gallon barrel of salt. They had to have salt for the fishing season.

The coal that was available came from Britain. There was a chronic lack of fuel but coal was both expensive and difficult to transport on horseback. Split birch stove wood was imported but it wasn’t available to the ordinary Icelander.

The wheat and rye came as grain, flour and made into biscuits. Baking ovens, RB says, only exist in Reykjavik. Grain being taken into the countryside would be made as loaves cooked in the ground or as flat bread. An oven would take too much fuel.

Rice had become a staple commodity and was used for making rice-milk. A number of travelers from around this time mention being served rice milk.

There were luxuries. Cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg were available. Coffee was available but tea was very rare. A little chocolate, RB says, was brought from Copenhagen.

Large amounts of snuff were imported and sold at $3 a lb.

The trading shops sell port, sherry, claret, champagne, rum and cognac. They are expensive and of poor quality. The beer is used for commercial establishments. Brennivín, Korn-schnapps, or rye spirits are so cheap that there is no need to water them down unless you’re selling them to the peasants and adding a little water is a way the merchant can make a few extra cents. Apparently country merchants can sell 600 gallons of liquor a year.

So, there you have it. You ride into Reykjavik with your trade goods to get a year’s supply of everything you need to survive the coming winter and you  ride out with salt, lots of salt, enough grain, probably rye, to last the year, some wood planks if you’ve had a good year and can afford it, some bags of Rangoon rice and, if you’ve had a really good year, some spices to add to your daily diet of fish, skyr, rye bread and porridge.

You probably have a bottle of brandy in your pocket and sway a little in the saddle as you take some fresh snuff out of your horn.

There were more goods than that available, of course, but it will have to wait for tomorrow for a more detailed list of the items your great great grandmother hoped to buy when she arrived in Reykjavik.

(Material from Richard Burton’s Ultima Thule, 1875.)

The King at the Geysers

In Reykjavik, there are various formal affairs but one of the major goals of his hosts is to show the king the Geysers. The geysers are one of the wonders of the world. The geysers don’t erupt but much is revealed about both the Icelanders and the king during the time the king waits to see the Great Geyser send its legendary column of water skyward.
Although the King has ordered 160 horses for his trip to Thingvalla and the geysers, Zoega manages to find 30 more horses for Bayard Taylor’s group of twelve men. This group is made up of seven visitors, the steamer’s cook, the second steward plus three Icelanders—Geir, Zoega’s nephew, Eyvinder and Jón. First, they travel to Thingvalla. They stay overnight, then continue to the geysers. The Americans set up their tents and wait for the geysers to erupt. The King’s party arrives shortly after them. They, too, set up their tents and wait. During this waiting, Taylor learns something about Icelanders.
“I saw half a dozen—four men and two women—stand vacantly grinning at the King as he
passed them, and even when he politely saluted them, the men hesitated, in awkward shyness, before they even touched their hats. Another, to whom he was speaking in a kindly manner, with his hand upon the man’s shoulder, suddenly remembered that some mark of respect was necessary, and snatched off his hat with as much haste as if there had been a hornet inside of it.
“Among the people were several sick persons, who had made long journeys in the hope of finding a physician in the King’s suite. Disappointed in this, they turned to Dr. Hays and our jovial Rejkiavik friend, Dr. Hjaltalin.
“The first case was a man suffering from Bright’s disease, for which, unfortunately, we had no medicines. But the medicine-chest, when it was opened, attracted our visitors with a singular
power. Men and women crowded around, gazing with eager interest and (as it seemed to me) longing upon the bottles of pills and potions.
“Soon afterwards there came a married couple, the mother carrying a baby which, as it needed but a glance to see, was almost dying of croup. They had carried the poor child on horseback for five hours, in the hope of finding relief. There was no time to be lost ; hot baths and poultices were ordered at the byre near at hand, and in the meantime an opiate was administered. The gasping and writhing of the child was too much for those strong Icelandic men. The mother stood calm and firm, holding it; but Zoega (he has come with the King’s company) ran away in one direction and Eyvindur in another, crying like children, and the farmers turned aside their heads to hide their tears.
“At the byre nothing could exceed the kindness of the farmer’s family,—in fact, of all who could help. The King’s purveyor furnished white bread for a poultice; a hot bath was made ready, and the father stuffed the child’s clothes into his bosom to keep them warm for it. All night the people watched with it, and the next morning everybody looked happy, on hearing that its condition had somewhat improved.
“The next case was a boy with hip disease, for whom little could be done, though the Doctor constructed a temporary support for his foot.
“The people invariably asked how much they should pay, and gratefully shook
hands when payment was declined. I made an effort to talk with a group of farmers, finding them ready enough, only a little embarrassed at the start; but when I asked: “Do you know Saemund’s Edda !” there was an instant flash and flame in their faces, and all shyness vanished. The Njal and Volsunga Sagas, Snorre Sturlusson, with a score of obscurer Sagas of which I had never heard, were eagerly mentioned and discussed. It was remarkable to see their full knowledge of Icelandic literature, and their vital interest in it.
Do you know who first discovered America?” I asked.
“Yes, yes!” they all cried, in a body; “it was Leif, the son of Erik the Red.”
“When was it?”
“About the year 1000. And there was Thorfinn Karlsefne, who went afterward, and Thorwald. They called the country Vinland.”
“We know it,” said I. “I am a Vinlander.”
“They silently stretched out their hands and shook mine. An instinct of the true nature of the people arose in me. Within an hour I had seen what tenderness, goodness, knowledge, and desire for knowledge are concealed under their rude, apathetic exteriors. To meet them was like being suddenly pushed back to the thirteenth century; for all the rich, complex, later-developed life of the race has not touched them. More than ever I regretted my ignorance of the language, without knowing which no stranger can possibly understand their character.”
The Americans and the King’s party are to be disappointed. They’ve come, like many others, to see the Great Geyser. At one moment, it sounds like an eruption will occur.
“The King, who had turned aside to salute our company, was in the act of expressing to me his admiration of the scene, when the Little Geyser gave sudden signs of action. There was a rush of the whole party. His Majesty turned and ran like a boy, jumping over the gullies and stones with
an agility which must have bewildered the heavy officials, who were compelled to follow as they best could. It was a false alarm.”
Even a king cannot command the Icelandic wilderness.
(With notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)

The Danish King Arrives

 Mrs. Finsen, the Danish Governor’s wife
Bayard Taylor was a famous American travel writer. He wrote articles and travel books and gave public lectures. He had just been in Egypt when his paper instructed him to go to Iceland to attend the visit of Christian IX. It would be the first visit of a king to Iceland and was particularly symbolic because after hundreds of years, Iceland was being granted a constitution. The first step toward regaining her independence was being taken. Americans who were soon to celebrate their hundred year anniversary of independence were particularly interested in political events in Iceland.
A group of seven men, one English, one Icelandic and five American, were able to obtain the use of the Albion with its crew to make the trip from Scotland to Iceland. In all, the boat would  carry twenty crew and seven passengers. Since the boat was not a passenger ship, the travellers had to sign on as crew members, even though as Taylor says, it was simply a convenient fiction.
One of the travellers was S. Kneeland, a medical doctor. After the voyage, he wrote a book about this historic event. As a doctor, he was a trained observer but he was not the travel writer that Taylor was. Taylor knew that to get the attention of his audience, he needed to be specific, to report details that would make scenes come alive.
Talor describes the Reykjavik of 1874 this way. “As soon as our steamer was fairly moored last evening we got into the boats and went ashore. There is a beach three or four hundred yards long, with several wooden jetties running down into the water, the rise of the tide here being seventeen feet. There was quite a little crowd waiting to receive us, and our friend Magnusson no sooner landed than he was recognized and heartily embraced by both ladies and gentlemen.”
Travellers in the past had often described Reykjavik as dirty, smelly and unimpressive. Whether the city had gradually improved or a great effort had been made to clean it up, Taylor has nothing but praise for it.
“Smooth, tolerably Broad streets of volcanic sand and gravel, with flagged sidewalks ; square wooden houses, which seemed stately in comparison with those of Thorshavn ; merchant’s store-houses, without signs, yet generally thronged with people ; little gardens of cauliflower, radishes, and turnips; white curtains, pots of geranium, mignonnette, and roses in the windows.
“Flags floated from all the larger buildings, and a new jetty, with a crimson canopy, was in preparation for the royal landing.
“Finding that I had a letter to the Danish Governor, Finsen, Mr. Thomsen accompanied me to the Government House, a white mansion on a knoll which slopes down bright and green to a little canal, connecting the harbor with a lake behind the town. In the official chamber I found a courteous gentleman in uniform, who regretted that his Majesty’s coming would lessen his power to show the desirable amount of attention to our party. He volunteered, however, to secure us good places for the services in the Cathedral, next Sunday; and this was really all we needed. Coming forth from the presence, I followed the tracks of my friends, and presently found them
at the house of Dr. Jon Hjaltalin, editor of the Saemundur Frodi, a strong, ruddy-cheeked, gray-haired son of the North, in whose welcome there was no uncertain sound. He spoke English readily, gave evidence of much and various knowledge, and seemed rejoiced to meet his journalistic brethren of other lands. We had a most agreeable visit of half an hour, and then returned through the main street, seeking the house of Sheriff Thorshenson. I asked a man who was mending the street whether he spoke Danish; he shook his head but called another workman,
who at once guided us to the Sheriffs door, and when I offered him a piece of money, laughed as if it were a good joke, and ran away.
“The royal pier sloped down to a platform, between a double row of Danish flags hung with green garlands. The gentlemen stood on this platform, and none of their addresses or the replies
There to were audible at a distance of thirty feet. A small crowd of people, gathered on the sand at the edge of the water, cheered with some heartiness, but the main body of the people, about two thousand in number, kept silent, as they heard nothing. In ten minutes all was over: the Governor came up the pier, followed by the King and Prince, -both walking rapidly and looking very cheerful and amiable. They were received with a cheer which was evidently genuine.
“After the King’s suite came the chief officials, the bishop in velvet and satin, a snowy Elizabethan ruff, and a high hat, the clergyman, and the members of the native committee—the latter strong, ruddy, farmer looking men, whose white gloves did not harmonize with their heavy brown coats. There were about forty persons in all, and the whole crowd fell in behind them as they advanced toward the Governor’s residence.
“The door of the Governor’s house opened and Madame Finsen appeared, dressed in a simple black silk, without any ornaments. She descended the steps of the first garden terrace, curtsied at the right moment to the royal guest, a little less deeply to the Prince, and accompanied them to
the door. This sounds like a very simple matter ; but not many ladies would have accomplished it with such admirable grace, tact, and self-possession.
“All Rejkiavik was looking on ; the sun flashed out as if on purpose to light up this little episode, and thus the first landing of a Danish king on the soil of Iceland came to an end.”
(Notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)

1874 The King of Denmark Visits

Bayard Taylor was a famous American travel writer and lecturer. He was in Egypt when he received notice from his employer that he should immediately go to Iceland to cover the visit of Christian IX. The king’s visit and Iceland receiving its constitution was that important.
Look at the illustration accompanying this article. Imagine the contrast between Egypt in 1874–palm trees, sand, heat, blue skies, warm ocean—and then Iceland. In this five part series, you’ll read about Taylor and his journey to join the Icelanders as the king of Denmark gives them their constitution.
 He first travels to London, England. He finds London much changed since he visited six years previously.  There is so little coal smoke that “the dome of St. Paul’s can be seen six miles away, with new thoroughfares cut through the narrow and tangled old alleys, and gay suburbs planted wherever you remember a field or common, the city seems to have become a soberer Paris. The embankment along the Thames, with its spacious drive, its trees and gardens.”
In Iceland, conditions are dire. It’s 1874 and Iceland is still suffering the effects of disastrous weather, volcanic calamity, oppressive Danish trade laws and its own rigid adherence to the past.
Meanwhile, Taylor says, he travelled four hundred and one miles from England to Scotland in less than ten hours by rail but complains that there are no sleeping cars and baggage isn’t checked in.
In Edinburgh he is joined by his travelling companions and Herr Hjaltalin. The Edinburgh and London Shipping Company has offered the use of their steam yacht, the Albion, to make this historic journey.
On the Albion, they first make their way to the Orkneys, then the Shetlands and, finally, the Faroes (the sheep islands).
“On approaching Thorshavn, two Danish men-of-war showed themselves through the mist. The royal standard floating at the stern showed that we had overtaken His Majesty Christian IX., on his way to Iceland. It was nearly nine o’clock, and cloud and twilight combined dimmed the picture of the town; yet its roofs of grassy turf were so bespangled with the white cross of Denmark on its red field, that the effect was something like that of an illumination. Our boats were lowered as soon as the anchor held, and we made for the shore. There are one or two small and rude landing-places, and at one of them a group of friendly
Faroese assisted us to get ashore.
“There are no streets, properly speaking, but a multitude of irregular lines, winding and climbing among the houses, some roughly paved, some leading over the natural rock. The buildings are all of wood, tarred for better preservation, with roofs of birch bark, upon which is a sod a foot thick, always kept green and luxuriant by this moist, temperate air. The poorer dwellings, into which I glanced as we passed, are often but a single room, in which the whole family cooks, eats, and sleeps.
“Fields of grass, oats and potatoes, inclosed by stone walls, stretched for a mile or two back of the town.
“At eleven we went to church, a neat white building, large enough to accommodate five hundred persons. The people flocked in until all the seats were taken—sturdy, sun-burnt frames, women apparently as hardy as men.
“The bells chimed, not very musically ; the front door of the church—the portal of state—was unbolted, and finally Gov. Finsen, in full uniform, holding a white-plumed chapeau on his arm, entered, preceding the King. Christian IX. and Prince Waldemar followed, the latter in a plain morning suit of gray. The King must be near sixty years of age, but looks considerably younger. He has a good nose and chin, wears a heavy mustache, and would be quite handsome but for a lack of expression in the eyes. He walked quickly up the aisle, nodding to the right and left, and took his place near the altar, whereon (as is customary in the Lutheran Church of Denmark and Sweden) large wax candles were burning. Prince Waldemar is a ruddy, gray-eyed, stout young man of twenty-one. The Minister of Justice, Klein, a chamberlain or two, naval officers, Carl Andersen the poet, and others, about twenty in all, followed the royal personages, took their seats, and the service began.
“The people, I noticed, all saluted the King very respectfully, but with a simple, quiet dignity of their own. There was no running after him, no pressing to get near, no cheering, or any other token of special enthusiasm. Personally, I believe be is liked; but he represents a dynasty almost new, and possesses no traditions of loyalty. The Faroese have always been more liberally treated by Denmark than the Icelanders, and they have no important favors to ask at this season. This is, it is true, the first time a King of Denmark has visited the islands ; but it hardly has a further significance.
“Stromoe has a length of fifteen or twenty miles, but very little of the soil can be cultivated, and the population is mostly centered in the little coves where fishing boats can find shelter.
“There were many visitors to the royal frigate Jylland during the afternoon, including a number
of Faroese ladies, and, to judge from the tunes played by the band, there must have been much and lively dancing on deck. A dozen boat-loads of exceedingly merry human freight were carried to shore, and then the King followed, to pass another night at the Governor’s house.
“Their (the Faroese) lives are rude and hard, for high waves and furious currents in the fiords,
and windy hurricanes on the hills, limit even their possible labor, and the best fortune barely gives them enough barley, fish, and milk to live upon.
“Thorshavn lies in latitude 62° north, yet the Winter temperature never falls below 14 , rarely below 20 , and the sheep continue to pasture in the valleys. There were formerly forests of birch trees in sheltered parts, but they have long since been exterminated, and peat is used for fuel. A vein of coal has been discovered on one of the islands. Barley grows tolerably well, up to a height of about three hundred feet above the sea : beyond that line it will not ripen.
“The summits of the mountains, which are broad, flat table-lands from one to three thousand feet high, are swept by such furious gusts of wind that no vegetation can exist there. The earth and hardy herbage are torn from the rock, rolled up like a sheet of paper, and hurled far into the valleys.
“For the sum of three English shillings the obliging postmaster sent off a boat, at two in the morning, for our last letters, and then we got up steam for departure.
“The two frigates were to sail in the afternoon, and it was necessary that we should get the start
of them, in order to secure the simplest accommodations in Iceland. “
(With notes and quotes from Bayard Taylor’s Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874. A slightly different version of this series appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla. If you don’t have a subscription, you miss out on some good stuff.)