Changes in Iceland: 1929


When Olive Murray Chapman reaches Reykjavik, she meets Mr. Stefan Stefansson, a local guide. He takes her to the Hotel Island. For those of you reading my blog posts about earlier times in Iceland, the news of an actual hotel will be an obvious marker of change.

Over the centuries, the isolation, the paucity of visitors, the tremendous difficulty of internal travel, the overall poverty of the people, the lack of roads, meant that travelers, Icelanders. plus the few foreigners who braved Iceland’s harsh landscape, brought tents, stayed in farmhouses or churches.

It is believed that the first inns in Europe were established once the Romans had built roads. They key to the existence of inns is the existence of roads which are then used regularly by travelers. These inns provided accommodation, food and fodder for horses.

Olive says about the Iceland Hotel, it “consists of a public dining-room and a fair number of bedrooms, is built of wood and corrugated iron like most of the houses in Reykjavik, and at every window is a fire escape consisting of a long coil of rope fixed to a big nail inside. A new hotel is now being built, and will shortly be opened; it is much larger and I was told it would contain ever convenience and comfort.”

Stefansson tries to convince Olive that she should hire an English speaking guide and that she should choose and easier route. However, she is determined to go by Snaefellsnes, ride right around the peninsula, beneath the glacier, but Stefansson says her route would be off the beaten track. She is undeterred. Finally, he gives in and marks on her map the location of farms and the distance between them.

Reykjavik has grown substantially. It now has around 20,000 inhabitants. The day after she arrives is Sunday and she goes out to see the city. She visits the public square. A band is playing, a large number of people are promenading around the green grass.

Like many visitors before her, she describes the traditional costume of the women. However, there are differences. In place of a shawl, some of the women wear raincoats. These, she says, “look very drab and incongruous with the national headgear.”

“Many of the younger women and girls of Reykjavik have now adopted modern European dress, favouring the latest Paris fashion, and, as a dear old Icelandic lady complained to me, they prefer to shiver in their silk stockings and flimsy underwear rather than cling to the warm and suitable costume of their forefathers! Most of the older women in Reykjavik, however, are still faithful to the national dress, and up country it is universally worn by old and young alike for best occasions.”

She sees an outdoor pool with children being taught to swim. In books from the 19th C, it is often remarked that none of the fishermen know how to swim even though they risk their lives every day on the sea.

She visits the open-air laundry and is told that some farmers have started to use the natural hot water on their farms to heat their houses.

She visits a fish drying-ground and sees girls wearing big oilskin aprons and coloured handkerchiefs twisted around their heads. She gets “a lift part of the way back to Reykjavik on a lorry full of dried fish.”

She goes to see the Roman Catholic Church of grey stone, is delighted with the “green plots of grass and familiar flowers” in gardens. She finds the National Museum interesting. The National Library impresses her. She comments on the importance of both chess and the Passion Hymns. She notes the “fine collection of the English classics” and on how interested people are in psychic research.

She interviews Einar Kvaran who is the founder of the Icelandic Society of Psychical Research which was started in 1905. There are four hundred members and they have a good library.

There cannot be an Icelander or Western Icelander who reads her comment at the end of Chapter III and not have a sense of pride. Reykjavik, not so long before, had less than a thousand inhabitants. It now has around 20,000. She says, “I have seldom been in a town as small as Reykjavik which contains so many good bookshops; but this is not surprising, for the Icelanders, especially the farmers, are exhaustive readers, and take the keenest interest in the literature of other countries besides their own. During the dark winter days, when they are unable to work, these remarkable people will often spend long hours in attempting to learn foreign languages, and it is not altogether unusual, on coming across an isolated little farmstead away out in the wilds, to find that the farmer is capable of speaking three languages: English, German and Icelandic. Many of our own country folk might well take a lesson from such industry!”