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