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:
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.)
Publishing in Iceland has a long and honorable tradition. Jón Arason, the last Catholic bishop, and a well-known poet, brought the first printing press to Iceland around 1530.
In 1584 Guðbrandur Þorláksson printed the first translation of the Bible into Icelandic. This printing had far reaching consequences because it helped to preserve the Icelandic language.
Most early publications in Iceland were religious. However, gradually, secular material was published. By 1773 the Icelandic journal ‚Islandske Maaneds Tidender‘ was in print. It was mostly intended for a Danish readership. It stopped publishing in 1776. Other publications that followed it were written for the upper, ruling class in Iceland. Around 1848 new newspapers appeared. During this time and up to about 1910, the papers were essentially editorial sheets expressing opinions about Iceland‘s struggle for independence. The editors were also the owners of these often short-lived papers and they used them to express their personal point of view.
According to Richard Burton in his book of 1875, Ultima Thule, “The first newspaper printed in Iceland began in 1775.” By the time Burton went to Iceland, the paper had failed but he says that back issues were available in the College Library.
At this time, three periodicals were being published. Two of these were published in Reykjavik. Thjóðólfr was printed twice a month. The editor was Hr Procurator Jón Guðmundsson. The Tíminn appeared once a month. The third periodical was Norðanfari, published in Akureyri. It was usually published every two weeks.
Burton was in Iceland in 1872 but his book, Ultima Thule, came out in 1875. His interest in Iceland was intense. He made many contacts and friends in Iceland and managed to keep up on Icelandic news so even though his book was published three years after his visit, his information was current.
It is at this time that our ancestors are beginning to leave Iceland. It was this view of newspapers and their role that the emigrants take with them. They were used to the idea of a newspaper being a single sheet printed on both sides. Or two sheets. They were used to the idea that the paper‘s purpose was to express the views of the editor and the editor would be the owner of the paper. The paper would take a political position. It wouldn’t attempt to be objective. It would be less a news paper than a paper expressing the editor‘s opinions.
In 1876 in New Iceland, Jon Gudmundsson started a handwritten paper, Nýi þjóðólfur. This was the same name as the paper mentioned by Richard Burton. By choosing the name of an Icelandic newspaper, Jon was making it clear that he would attempt to create a paper like the one in Iceland. He wouldn’t try to create a new paper for a new world. The Icelandic influence was very clear. Jon took his newspaper from house to house and read the news aloud.
When the large group of Icelandic settlers arrived, the writing out of a paper and taking it around to read at individual homes became impractical. Some form of publication was needed to to provide the settlers with news, with information, and with a place to present their opinions and their ideas. In spite of the smallpox epidemic and all the other hardships, The New-Iceland Printing Company was established. Shares were issued at ten dollars each. The surprising fact is that in spite of the poverty of the settlers, there were subscribers. Enough to pay for a printing press.
Rev. Jon Bjarnason was in Minneapolis. At the request of the settlers, he purchased a printing press and shipped it to New Iceland. The paper was named Framfari (Progress). It was printed at Lundi (Riverton). The first issue appeared in 1877.
Heimskringla appeared in 1886. Lögberg was created in opposition to it in 1888. Both papers were highly political. Heimskringla supported the Conservative party and the Unitarian church. Lögberg supported the Liberal party and the Lutheran church. As had been the tradition in Iceland, the papers were filled with polemics. The papers not only reported on controversies in the community, they stirred up controversy. There were often bitter battles. However, in 1959, faced with declining subscriptions and financial problems, the papers amalgamated. It was an uneasy marriage at first and the way to keep it from being a divorce was to avoid taking positions on politics and religion. That still holds true, for though the fierce battles of old have faded with the secularization of society, there are still enough people who have strong opinions about religious matters to start a war. Old political divides, now not just between Liberals and Conservatives but, also, with the NDP, have meant avoiding taking political positions.
We‘re celebrating Lögberg-Heimskringla’s 125th birthday shortly. It totters, teeters, on the edge of going out of business. It’s teetered and tottered for years. There are discussions about it turning into a monthly magazine, into a newsletter for the INL. It depends for its survival on donations and, although the Icelandic North American community has spread out, been largely integrated, the cheques keep coming. The community is both generous and loyal. However, fifth generation kids are a Canadian hodgepodge of every national group you can imagine. A youngster might have an Icelandic name like Valgardson but be English, Irish, Russian, Scots, and one sixteenth Icelandic. The Snorri program and Nuna both try to help remedy this but they can only take in a small number of young people. What is needed are subscribers. That will keep the paper going. The paper, in turn, will help keep the community going. The current editor is Joan Eyolfson Cadham. She’s producing a paper worth buying and worth reading.
Because Icelanders integrated so quickly, the paper, a long time ago, lost its immigrant purpose. It doesn’t need to help people find jobs, learn English, get training or education. It now is about preserving our heritage, providing communication among the far-flung Icelandic organizations and communities, and providing a voice for the writers of our community.
One hundred and twenty-five years is a long time. Long enough to make LH the longest, continuously published ethnic paper in Canada. It’s a tradition worth having pride in, worth supporting. Take out your credit card and subscribe. Jón Arason started this tradition a long time ago. He lost his head. Let him at least keep the tradition.
(There is going to be a birthday party at the LH offices on Oct. 13).