Great great amma shopping, Reykjavik, 1874

So, your Great Great amma Runa or Helga or Sigrun has convinced your great great grandfather, Gunnar or Helgi or Bjarni, to take her with him when he goes to Reykjavik with all the products they have amassed over the year. The trip may take days. They’ll camp at night at places where they can get grass for the horses. Grass governs everything. Without the horses, there will be no transport and no trade. The may stay in tents or they may stay at farms that have enough accommodation for them and their animals.
Great Great amma will ride side saddle. It’s a risky business as the horses travel over rough terrain. Riding astride would be much safer, more comfortable but ladies don’t ride astride yet. 
Women have drowned crossing rivers. Think of those heavy dresses, trying to stay in the saddle, the ice cold river from the glacier, the furious water driving ice on top and boulders below. If she’s lucky, there’ll be ferrymen to take her across.
Every traveller’s description emphasizes the difficulty of travel over the heaths and bogs but, particularly, over the rivers. Some rivers are so wide and the water so fast that the locals say to fix your eyes on the far bank and not look down at the water so you don’t become dizzy and fall into the current.
Be that as it may, your Great Great amma has been on the farm for the last twelve months. There may have been no visitors. She may have seen no one but those who live on the farm. Besides that, the Danish merchants are known to be free with the brandy before the bargaining begins. A few free drinks and it is easier to pay less and charge more.
As well, what woman in her right mind would trust a man with shopping for a year’s supply of goods? What man would remember a needle and thread? Especially after a few brandies and snorts of fresh snuff? It’s not an idle concern because one third of the value of exports is used to buy brandy, coffee, sugar and tobacco.
There’s a small entrance-hall, an outer door, then one room on each side. One is a public room Burton says with “jostling boors and drunken loafers.” The other is where ggamma is headed. It is a private store.
There are broad cloths and long cloths, woolen comforters, threads, and a few silks and satins. There will be hardware of all kinds; iron for the blacksmith, some steel and brass wire, farriers’ and carpenters’ tools. There will be cooking utensils; spades and scythes, sewing machines, fish-hooks of various kinds. There’ll be some hunting rifles, old military muskets.
GGamma will have a choice of cereals, brown and white sugar, hams, sausages and sardines, butter, figs, raisins, prunes and olive oil. There’ll be pots and pans, boxes, funnels, kettles and lamps and lanterns.
GGafi will be busy looking at the leather on the wall that he might use for saddles, thongs, straps and raw hide for shoes. He’ll be checking out scythes, metal for horseshoes, nails, lumber, anything that is needed for the sheep.

Everyone on the farm has his or her own wooden bowl from which they eat all their meals but there’ll be some cheap crockery and glass ware.GGamma might buy a piece or two since it adds a bit of class to the house.

But everything except what is listed as trade goods must be bought. Ink, brushes, cocoa, chocolate, ale, wine, vinegar, dyestuffs, varnish, playing cards, resin and gums, caps, cork, buckwheat meal, oatmeal, block metal, nails, iron chain, iron wares, zinc plates, paper, soap, sago, saltpetre, rope.
Think of your Great Great amma there in the store. She can only buy what she can afford and what she can afford is what the Danish merchant has given her husband for the goods they’ve produced over the winter. It is hard to conceive but they have to buy everything because Iceland has no metal deposits, no forests, no grain crops, so few vegetables as to be insignificant. They can’t make vinegar. They can’t make paper. They can’t make varnish. The list is endless.
Every item is precious. Every item took hard physical work. Haying. Taking care of sheep and cows. Milking. Making butter. Skinning sheep. Preserving meat. Plucking wool. Combing, cleaning, spinning, knitting. Great Great amma knows what it took to pay for that needle and thread, that jar of cinnamon.
Every purchase has to be weighed, one against the other, against the next twelve months before the trade ships come again.
And, when the purchases are made, there’s no having someone load them onto the local transfer. The horses are outfitted with a layer of turf to protect their backs, then a saddle with pegs on which boxes will be hung. The boxes have to be packed. The horses are tied head to tail and the caravan leaves for one day, two days, three days. Maybe more. The bogs have to be traversed, the quicksand avoided, the rivers crossed.
Think of her, your great great amma, sitting in her side saddle, a long line of laden horses behind her. She’s survived one more year and, now, with the goods she has, she hopes to survive another year. She must have. You’re here.  

(With material from Richard Burton, Utlima Thule)

The reference to a sewing machine is correct. “After successfully defending his right to a share in the profits of other sewing machine manufacturers, Howe saw his annual income jump from three hundred to more than two hundred thousand dollars a year. Between 1854 and 1867, Howe earned close to two million dollars from his invention.” from About.com Inventors

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.)