Embrace Our Heritage Part 6

In 1872 when Richard Burton visits Iceland, he says “Their hay was not housed but heaped in stacks two yards square, upon raised mounds, at short distances, and covered with sloping turf to lead the rain into surrounding ditches.”
Did you know that? Did you know that hay was placed on raised mounds, that it was covered in turf to shed water. If your great great grandparents worked on a farm, their tasks would have been to scythe the grass, rake it, stack it, and cover the stacks with turf. They would have worked long, exhausting hours, every day the same. Hay came before everything because there was only one crop in Iceland and it fed the sheep and cows and these cattle fed the people.
“In summer they ate cods’  heads, boiled, like most other food for it had to be cooked in a pot over an open fire. In winter they ate sheep’s heads kept in fermented vinegar of sour milk (Syra), or in the juice of sorrel (Sura) and other plants.  The mutton was sold.” Why was the mutton sold? Because they could not afford to keep it for themselves. Everything they needed, horseshoes, nails, iron bars, rye flour, needles, thread, spices, rice, everything except the very few things that could be produced on a farm had to be obtained by trade with the Danish merchants.
In the 1800s in Iceland, “bread was not the staff of life. It was eaten only on high days and holidays, that is at births, marriages, and deaths.” The better off “farmers baked cakes, broad and thin, like sea biscuits, of black rye flour from Copenhagen.”
In 1872 the yearly death rate per thousand in Reykjavik was 59-60 compared to 20 in London. Burton says, “The list of diseases is so extensive that little beyond the names can be mentioned.” There was nothing romantic about living in unheated homes made of turf and lava. The floors were often wet dirt. There was little light. There was no ventilation as the body heat had to be kept inside. Houses were crowded. Communicable diseases spread quickly because of the crowding and because of the kissing that was used in greeting.
There was always a shortage of fuel. Our families burned peat, birch twigs, dried sheep dung, fish bones, brown coal (if there was some in their area) and driftwood. Only the Danish traders or a very well off farmer could afford imported wood. A number of travelers report that there is only one stove in an Icelandic home in the entire country. Stoves only make sense when there is a lot of fuel and it is cheap. If, as I did, you grew up with a wood stove and wood furnace, you’ll remember the cords and cords of wood required to keep the house warm and food cooked.
Our ancestors’ world was one largely without money. As long as the Danish restrictions on trade existed, the traders had no competition either as buyers or sellers. They set both the price they would pay and the price at which they would sell. They also just gave credits against purchases. It was only with the lifting of the trade restrictions and the coming of the English and Scots buyers of horses and sheep that money was injected into the system. The English and Scots paid in silver. If you want to read about an Icelandic agent who worked for the Scots, read Paradise Reclaimed. One of the characters, Bjorn of Leirur, is a buyer of sheep and cows for Scots businessmen.

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)

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.)

Logberg-Heimskringla’s birthday party

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).