1874: Beginning the millenium celebrations

Today, the church and its ministers are barely tolerated or totally ignored. At one time, they held an important place in society and, particularly, Icelandic society. The ministers were educated, having gone to upper classes in Reykjavik and even Copenhagen. Society, having thrown over God for the newer god of Technology, now has little time for religion in Iceland or North America. The Lutheran church has, I’ve been told, a need for thousands of new ministers and less than a handful graduate each year. Churches, unable to even meet basic expenses, close down and become restaurants (Bru) or they are kept open in summers when the weather is good (Grund). In places like Gimli and Selkirk, the Lutheran churches struggle, constantly needing more parishioners, more money and ministers. The story is the same everywhere.
In 1874, in England and in Iceland, ministers were still community leaders with both religious and secular power. They still determined if you knew your Bible lessons well enough to be confirmed and, if you didn’t, there were serious repercussions for both you and your parents. If a minister examined children and they didn’t know their lessons, he could recommend that they be removed and sent to somewhere where they would be prepared properly. Many country ministers were paid very badly but those near the top of the hierarchy in Reykjavik were well paid and usually had strong Danish connections. They were part of the ruling elite of rich farmers, Danish traders and highly placed Divines.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that on the first day of the millennial celebration, August 2, the day began with a church festival. The American visitors were fully aware of how important it was to attend. Samuel Kneeland says that he didn’t understand a word of the sermon and that the audience wasn’t the slightest bit interested in what the minister was saying. He also does not know the hymns sung but he was greatly affected by the music. He describes it as “sweet, solemn, and slightly plaintive, the chorus of “Iceland’s thousand years,” words and music of Icelandic origin, brought tears into most eyes, and I am sure it did into mine.“
He is so affected by “Iceland’s thousand years” that he includes both the music and the song in his book.
He is not so impressed by the church. He describes it as an old building of brick, stone, and stucco; dingy and dilapidated; capable of seating some twelve hundred person; the interior is dismal, the colors faded, and the light and ventilation poor…Thorwaldsen, the famous sculptor, claimed by Denmark, was the son of an Icelander, born at sea, Nov. 19, 1770; and a baptismal font made and presented by him in token of his birth, in no way beautiful, is the only noteworthy object in the cathedral.
Not being able to understand either the service or the music, he spends his time looking over the congregation. He enjoys the opportunity to observe the national costume, especially the headdresses and “gaily embroidered jackets and veils of the women.” Like nearly every other visitor to Iceland, he comments on the strange helmet like head coverings of the women. The men’s clothing he dismisses by saying they’re dressed like the men in the Faroes.
However, he has come a long and dangerous way to participate in what he hopes will be the birth of a new republic, and he isn’t going to miss a moment of it.
Think on him, an American, having travelled with great effort and hardship to the Reykjavik of 1874, sitting in a pew listening to an Icelandic sermon, to Icelandic singing, being moved to tears, caught up in the exotic quality of it all. How fortunate we are for his curiosity, his determination for he has left us a picture of events we can all share as we approach June 17.

My friend, Samuel Kneeland

Benedikt Gröndal’s millennial card 1874.

I want you to meet a friend of mine. I’m going to write about him and his trip to Iceland. His name is Samuel Kneeland. He’s a medical doctor. He’s quite distinguished. He’s a graduate of Harvard. He got  his medical degree there. He received the Boylston Prize for his thesis on “The Contagiousness of the Puerperal Fever”. He won it a second time for an essay on “Hydrotherapy”. He studied in Paris. He lectured at Harvard.

Samuel is a traveller. He has spent some time in Brazil and around Lake Superior. He’s been to the Philippine Islands and Hawaii to study the volcanoes and earthquakes there. As mentioned earlier, he also has been to Iceland. He has written a book about his Icelandic trip, An American in Iceland. He also has written another book called Volcanoes and Earthquakes.
When he’s not practicing medicine, he’s editing medical books, writing medical articles for publications in the Medical Cyclopaedia.
When he went to Iceland, he went with a group. There were five Americans: Mr. C. W. Field. Field isn’t W. C. Fields, the entertainer. C. W. is the head of the American Telegraph Company that has laid the first transatlantic underground cable. Isaac Hayes is another of Samuel’s travelling companions. You may not  have heard of him but he, too, is a medical doctor with an urge to travel and explore. He’s led an expedition to Ellesmere Island. There’s Bayard Taylor, the journalist and poet. His most popular literary book is “A Book of Romances, Lyric and Songs”. He’s a world traveller. He’s been to England, Austria, Egypt, and China on just one tour. He’s made others. His newspaper column in The Tribune has made him famous and he is in constant demand to give lectures. The fifth American is M. Halstead. He’s a well-known newspaper editor and owner of the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper.
Samuel’s other companions are the son of the former prime minister of England and an Icelander, Eric Magnusson, sub-librarian at Cambridge and professor of Scandinavian languages.
Samuel says that he is going to Iceland because it, “has done much for liberty, the advance of knowledge, and the preservation of historic records; and at a time when other more favored nations were stationary or going back to the darkness of ignorance and superstition,–and under conditions of isolation and hardship, which prove that man is superior to his surroundings, and that misery cannot stifle the aspirations of liberty, nor degrade a poetic and heroic race.”
  
He had a great visit and says so in his book about it.
Take a look again at the men who made up this group. Distinguished, wealthy, well-connected, established. These are important people who have come to Iceland to help celebrate the granting of a new constitution by Denmark and, by their presence, to support Iceland’s bid for independence. Two years in the future, 
America will celebrate one hundred years as a Republic and they see the throwing off of royal shackles as something to be celebrated. They would like all countries to be republics, not kingdoms.Kings and queens are to them synonymous with repression.
Samuel Kneeland, an amazing man, a man worth getting to know. You can look him up in Wickipedia. You can download and read his book, An American in Iceland, about his visit to Iceland in 1874. I’ve read it a number of times and I’ve read about him and I’ve got to know him fairly well. I don’t know him well enough to call him Sam. He’s not a Sam kind of guy. I’m still glad I’ve got to know him. Why don’t you do the same?

At Last, In Iceland, 1900

And so, your wooden boxes for the horses are ready, your fishing equipment is packed, also your shotgun and shells. You’ve got flannel shirts, some woollen underclothing, a good stout mackintosh. You’ve a bottle of that good Scotch whiskey the guidebook recommends.
According to the guide book–remember it is the year 1900–“pack saddles, guides, and ponies can be hired, the usual charge for a pony and a saddle being 2 kroner per diem, and that for a guide from 4 to 6 kroner per diem, the kroner being equivalent to about 1 shilling 1 pence. Guides and tents can be hired at the capital—Reykjavik. It may be well to mention, however, that tents for those who wish them are usually obtainable from most of the farmers. This saves the trouble and expense transporting them about the country.”
Now, that surprised me. I, for one, didn’t realize that tourism had become such an established business from 1875 to 1900 that farmers kept tents for hire. That didn’t fit in with my impression of Iceland. Interestingly, the short, recommended tour is the same tour that people take today, except today, they go on buses instead of on horseback. The writer recommends Thingveller, Geysir, Mt. Hekla, Gulfoss.
After suggesting that tents can be rented from the farmers, the author cavils a bit and says that while the local people used to charge very little, as Iceland has become more of a tourist attraction, the prices have gone up. Also, most farms only have one tent and that is often old and dilapidated.
The author also suggests that the tourist make certain that he’s got a firm agreement about the price of hay. In this, he’s simply repeating what travelers have commented on since the 1700s. Hay is precious. Some farmers will charge whatever they think they can get for it.
Conditions in Iceland have changed enough that he can say that a night’s lodging “is obtainable almost everywhere throughout the country at the higher class farms, where the best room in the house is invariably reserved for the use of tourists.”
For tourists only visiting Thingveller and the Geysir, there is lots of accommodation. However, for people going farther afield, they have to be careful about their numbers. A party of two can “depend wholly on the farms and parsonages for quarters, and mainly for provisions. At all of the better class farms, there is an abundance of excellent coffee, milk, pancakes, butter, rye bread, smoked, salted, or fresh mutton, and fish…with a few preserved provisions and biscuits, travellers will not fare badly. Of course, at a little expense, another pony can be freighted with say one hundred weight of tinned luxuries and a case or two of wine.”
“The usual charge for a night’s lodging at a farmhouse, with supper and breakfast, varies from 2 to 3 kroner….the daily expense of two tourists travelling together with one guide and their ponies amounts to rather less than 1 pound per day each.” The day of providing shelter and food for travelers without charge but with the giving of a gift, a gift that was often refused, has passed. At one time, a farmer might have one foreigner as a guest in a lifetime. Now, the explorers, the members of Royal Societies, scientists, have been replaced by the curiosity seekers.
Our good Icelandic entrepreneur, Thorgrimur adds a note that nowadays, pasturage for the horses is usually 16 to 20 ore per head, and saddles are charged at 60 ore per day, except when ponies are hired by the month when saddles are free.”
In spite of the much better accommodation, traveling by horse is still hard, the weather unpredictable. Therefore it is recommended that the traveler bring good stout sea-boots, reaching up the thighs and a light pair of porpoise hide shooting-boots for ordinary wear. A good stout macintosh is indispensable and should be made of waterproofed tweed.
The writer emphasizes that everything has to be packed into the wooden boxes made for horse travel. The test of both the packing and the boxes is once they are packed, to roll them down a lengthy flight of stairs.
Reykjavik he praises. “It is pleasantly situated on the shore of a shallow bay on the north of a headland. Seen from a vessel in the harbour, the town has rather a colonial appearance, with its white painted wooden stores built round the curve of the shore with their little jetties stretching far out into the harbour….the streets are broad, and cleanly kept, and the drying of fish is mainly confined to the shore.”
“The chief buildings, none of which can boast of any architectural beauty, are the Cathedral, the Senate, the College, Hospital, Government House, the Antiquarian Museum, and a Free Library.”
“There are two  hotels and a few boarding-houses, in all of which charges are very moderate; a number of stores where everything required by the Icelanders is sold from a needle to an anchor; a post office, two booksellers, a number of silversmiths, printers, harness-makers, photographers, one druggist, a hatter, and several handy-craftsmen.”
This change is absolutely remarkable. In 25 years, Reykjavik has grown, people have been able to break free from the clutches of the farms. They have begun to have professions and trades. Heavens, there is even a road. The author says, “What strikes the stranger most is the almost entire absence of wheeled vehicles, though now that a good road has been made between Reykjavik and Thingvellir, a few vehicles and bicycles are to be seen.” A good road. This is like a miracle. With good roads being built, everything will change.
It has only been 26 years since Christian IX visited and gave the Icelanders their constitution. The picture of Iceland then, given by Bayard Taylor and Samuel Kneeland, or a few years before that, by Richard Burton, was of a populace locked into a rural, agricultural fiefdom which beggared everyone but Danish merchants and a few select farmers. Douglas Scott is giving would-be travelers a picture of a country that while still exotic is changing, is entering a new age.
(With quotes and notes from Sportsman’s and Tourist’s Handbook to Iceland by Douglas Hill Scott)