A Celebration of Women Writers

A Sketch of "Home-Life in Iceland." by Madame Sigrid E. Magnusson (1831-).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 521-525.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 521] 



I hope you will not think it out of place to tell you, in few words, about the first settlement of Iceland, as I have had many and various questions asked here about that far off little island.

Before 872 Norway was divided between a large number of petty sovereigns. Harald Fair-hair, who was one of them, realized how dangerous for the safety of the country its being held by a number of independent and disunited petty sovereigns, who, as soon as danger was abroad, would take the opportunity of an alliance, which brought them the surest hope of increased power and extended dominions. Harald revolted against his own class, put an end to one petty king after the other, and, at last, brought on by the victory of Hafrsfjord, in 872, a total collapse of their power, whereupon he set himself up as a sole ruler of the country. He introduced the machinery of the feudal system, which virtually reduced every free man in the country to king's tenant, "in capite."

The oldest aristocratic families in Norway could not endure this, and rather than sign their own degradation by a willing submission, or to become dependent on Harald's royal grace, they preferred to commit themselves, with their relatives, and the holy things from their temples and homes, to the treacherous Atlantic.

By this proud-hearted aristocracy Iceland was first peopled. The people still speak, with primitive purity, the language they brought out with them, so in Iceland lives the mother-tongue of the Scandinavians. Iceland is about forty thousand square miles, and the population at present is about seventy thousand. I will now try to give you a brief, and necessarily a broken, sketch of the social conditions of Iceland, a country almost devoid of all the means by which sunnier countries have been built up.

The land yields no grain of any kind; no fruit, except a few blueberries; no timber but what, soaked in brine, is thrown upon the coast, and no coals. It has no roads in the civilized sense of the word. Bridges are few and far between, though dangerous rivers in hundreds tumble headlong in furious rush to the sea from the stupendous masses of inland glaciers. Wheeled vehicles are unknown, save at the townships, where peat and merchandise only have the advantage of wheeled conveyance. All inland communication is effected, in summer, by means of the enduring, sure-footed little ponies, and in winter mostly on foot.

Now, to continue my sketch of "Home-life in Iceland," I fear you will find it [Page 522]  uninterestingly monotonous, for the subject is not made up of many items of variety. The country is very poor, and poverty is the great source of the simplicity of the manners and of the monotonousness of the life of the people. Want of communication also leads to repetition day after day of the same domestic occupations, only varied in detail, according to the rotating change of the seasons.

As spring comes round the sedentary life of winter dissolves itself into agricultural activity, in which women and men take almost an equal share. At this most changeful season great care is bestowed on the lambs and ewes, of which the former fall victims in hundreds almost every spring, to the inclemency of the temperature. Sheep-shearing at this time is also attended to by almost everybody. It is not correct, however, to call it shearing, as no shears are used, the fleece being secured by taking it off the sheep while they are shedding their coat, and the new wool is growing underneath thick enough to give the animal sufficient cover against the cold winds and chilling rains. This mode of securing the wool is not only less cruel but it yields infinitely superior wool.

A more romantic occupation at spring-time is the ingathering of the eggs and down of the eider-down from the many islands that surround the coast of Iceland. Merry expeditions by men and women and children are undertaken, in boats, to the islands, and the lovely ducks are deprived of a certain number of their eggs, and a small part of the down, which, from the motherly breast, they pluck for the protection of the forthcoming brood, while it is becoming accustomed to the hard life in store for it. It is a most beautiful sight to see the eider-duck, sitting by the thousands on these islands, and so tame are they, that one can go among them, stroking their backs, without their showing any fear; the reason is that they are never molested, or shot at any time. A very heavy punishment is imposed on any one killing an eider-duck, so few would run the risk, even if so disposed. The reason that the Icelandic eider-down is so infinitely superior to any other down is, that it is the down which the duck herself plucks from her breast to line the nest with, so it is living down, not plucked cruelly by human hands, or rather inhuman, but by herself when "ripe." When the duck leaves the nest altogether, with her young ones, the down is gathered from the nests, and after going through a slow and difficult process of cleaning, it is an item of export, which adds a considerable income to the owners of the islands.

The last out-of-door occupation of spring is the journey to the trading stations, called lestir, when the country-folks bring on the back of their small ponies, in long cavalcades, the proceeds of their farms, such as wool, tallow, down, skins, butter, etc., to be exchanged for bread-stuff, and other necessaries of life. Returning home from this expedition, active preparations for the hay-making begin. During the time of hay-making, I think very few people in the world enjoy less sleep than the Icelandic mowers. They go at it before sunrise, or about 1 o'clock in the morning, continuing until about 12 at night, with only a break of about one or two hours in the middle of the day. This is the main business of the summer, going on without interruption day after day, until about the middle of September. While the mowers only busy themselves with cutting the grass, women of the household divide their activity between the buverk, or household work; that is, house cleaning, cooking, milking and other dairy work, and the raking up of the thinly spread hay as it falls before the mowers' scythe, into what is called flecks, or patches, spread about to a certain thickness to dry. When the fine grass of the "tun," or home-fields, has been secured, especially if the season is fine, a treat is given to the household, called todugjold and the day is observed as a holiday, the only one allowed (weekday) through the summer.

Toward the end of September, autumn or fall begins to make its appearance. The birds of passage, which are mostly treated as long-looked-for friends, and allowed to enjoy their summer visit in peace, now take their departure. The wildernesses of the country are cleared, and the sheep, which have roamed about them at large during the summer, are driven down by systematically arranged gangs of men, com- [Page 523]  manded by the so-called "Mountain-Kings." The sheep are driven into large folds, kept up at public expense, and by the mark cut in their ears are sorted by their respective owners. These sheep-gathering days, called Rettir may be said to be the last outdoor dissipation of the year, and everybody who can manage it tries to join at the large common sheep-folds, where they meet friends not seen for months, and not likely to see for many more months.

After this sets in the long, and in many places dreary, winter. All life in the country seems to crouch despondingly under roof and thatch. The animals are now attended to in their stalls, or huts, by the men, and the women set to work in earnest at what may be properly called the domestic industry of the country. During the day various acts of routine work disturb, to a certain degree, the industry proper of some of the women; but toward dusk everybody has settled down, and this is the appearance of an Icelandic household generally during the long winter evenings: At the upper end of a long room, the so-called badstofa, the sitting-room of the family, which in most cases also serves as a dormitory for the women, sits the mistress of the house at her spinning-wheel, surrounded by her children, the master often also by her side, carding the wool for her, or perhaps making some utensils required for the house. Next, in a row down the room on either side sit the hand-maidens, all at their spinning-wheels. Then the men are seated next, at the lower end of the room, carding the wool for the women, or some may by exercising their skill at wood-carving, making ornamental horn spoons or other things required for the house. For the most part, the whole company sits in silence, because one of the party, generally a youth, or one of the better readers among the men, is sitting in a central position in the room reading an Icelandic Saga to the company, an act that no one disturbs for a moment until the end of a chapter gives the reader an opportunity for a pause. Then there is a lively interchange of opinion between both sexes as to the merits and demerits of the actors of the Saga (drama), and it is striking to hear how intensely the girls realize, and how intelligently they rush with a freshman's boldness into a discussion of the subject. This kind of life accounts for our language being kept pure, and practically unaltered, for over a thousand years–the whole of the people working together, indoors and out of doors.

The weaver, however, is, as a rule, separated from the rest of the household, the hand-loom being generally down-stairs, in the men's dormitory. The whole winter is spent in the way described, with a very few variations. Every garment of woolen fabric used in the household is spun, woven, and knitted by hand by the inmates. They all work it and share it; each servant gets a certain number of garments as part of his wages. They all get as much skin as they require for shoes. Women make the shoes; not only their own, but the men's shoes, too. They often have to sit up at night, after the men have gone to bed, and make their shoes or mend them. The mistress generally makes her husband's shoes, and the children's till they are old enough to do it themselves. That is in addition to her many other duties, too numerous to count.

In spring, when all the vadmal, or cloth, is finished, ready to make up, the mistress generally cuts out all the garments and then teaches the servant girls, as well as her daughters (if she has any), to make them up. I think you will agree with me that the work must be good when I tell you that Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, has been wearing the Icelandic gloves for years, the only "woolen" gloves she wears, I am told; also that the work got the highest possible award at the International Health Exhibition in London, 1884, namely, "The Diploma of Honor," and the gold medal in the Anglo-Danish Exhibition in 1887.

Among many other questions about Iceland which I have been asked here at the World's Fair is, how many policemen we have in the country; the people seem much amused when I tell them that we have only two, and that both, of course, are in Reykjavik, the capital. They were still more amused when I told them how little, really, they were needed, except in summer, when foreign sailors are there. The senior policeman, Jon Borgfjord, is quite a literary character, self-taught, and the one before [Page 524]  him, Arni Gislason, wrote beautiful poetry, and was the most beautiful writer and engraver on metal–a real artist in that line–also self-taught. We have no workhouses or poorhouses in Iceland. When aged people, orphans or others, unable to earn their living, fall on the parish, or have to be provided for by parish aid they are put out as boarders to any family willing to receive them into the household; so they really never loose the feeling of a "home."

I should like to say a few words about women's education in Iceland, or rather, the want of it. The question of providing education for girls has of late years engrossed much attention; but slight progress has as yet, been achieved, mostly owing to the poverty of the people, and the miserable means of communication in the country. A few private attempts have been made to establish schools for girls over fourteen years of age, but these schools are small in scope, and otherwise fall short of what is needed nowadays. Hitherto, it may be said, that the mother has been the universal schoolmistress, as far as girls are concerned anyhow. Instruction in reading and religion is compulsory, and this, as a rule, has fallen to the mother's lot.

In the autumn or fall the clergyman visits every house in his parish, for the purpose of examining the children in reading and the catechism, and if he is satisfied with their progress, he invites the parents or guardians to send children of twelve or fourteen years of age, during Lent, to him for further instruction, that is, preparing for confirmation. Confirmation is compulsory at the age of fourteen to sixteen, and by law the priest is forbidden to confirm a child until it has made such progress in the art of reading as to be able to perform, with decency, the family service, and knows the catechism by heart from beginning to end, as well as the "Lärdomskver,"–a small book containing the essence of the Bible. Now here ends, as a rule, a girl's education in the country; in some cases a little writing is added to the list.

For men a very different provision has been made. A splendid Latin-school or college is provided for them, at Reykjavik, where they have six to seven years' good training by eminent masters, many of whom have even made their fame in Europe for their great scholarship. Then there is a medical and theological college for men, for the continuation of their studies when leaving the Latin-college. Those who are better off, and wish to take a higher degree in theology or medicine, as well as students of philology, law, etc., go to the University of Copenhagen on leaving the Latin-college. All these institutions in Reykjavik for men are endowed, so that most of the scholars receive a stipend; anyway, all who are in need of help, and who show themselves worthy of assistance, and often even those who are in no need, and therefore ought not to have it. The Icelandic students who go to the University of Copenhagen also receive a stipend for three years, an old provision made for them in olden times.

Now, what about the women? I have frequently been told since I came abroad, both in England and Scandinavia, even here in this country, that women in Iceland were so well educated that they could speak Latin; that they were, indeed, favored with a "vote"–suffrage–and they were blessed with liberty even beyond their sisters in Denmark; that they were at liberty to study at the university with the men, and so forth. Let me begin by explaining the first statement, namely, their Latin knowledge. There is not a woman in Iceland who can speak Latin, or who knows it. This is really built on Lord Dufferin's "Letters from High Latitudes," one of the most interesting books of travels ever written. Iceland is justly proud of that book, and the honor of a visit from so great and distinguished a man. I had the great privilege to meet Lord Dufferin two years ago in Cambridge (England), at the time of his receiving an "Honorary Degree" conferred by the university. Speaking about his travels in Iceland, I told him how everybody would stand up and tell me that all the women in Iceland spoke Latin, etc., just when I was deploring their want of education, and they all said Lord Dufferin was their authority. "Well," he said, with his usual well-known great humor, "I did not understand what they said, so I supposed it was Latin." Women have not suffrage in Iceland, but municipal vote. This, how- [Page 525]  ever, is never used or hardly (only two women have voted in Reykjavik); they have not the necessary training or education for making use of it, and old prejudice and fear of being laughed at by the men and other women certainly will prevent them exercising this right at present.

And now we will analyze their privilege as regards university studies. A few years ago a bill was brought into our "Althing," or parliament, urging the necessity of better education of women. When it came before consideration of the Danish Government it was well received; so far that a law was passed permitting women in Iceland to study at the Theological and Medical College with the men, but that they would not receive any appointments, either in the church or as medical practitioners (medical men in Iceland are appointed by the Danish Government at a fixed salary). The value of this law, I think you will agree with me, is none whatever. How can a woman go and study theology or medicine with men who have had at least seven or eight years' preliminary college education, and she has had none at all? For the law did not provide any preliminary education for women. Then comes the appendage, that their studies will have no reward, or recognition, which will secure them a future, which men naturally get. What possible inducement would it be for women, suppose they had the means, which they have not, to try and study under such circumstances? In fact, they can not do it; they must have the same education as men before they can enter on university studies; and the question is, how they are to get that most important part.

For people living in Reykjavik, education is, comparatively speaking, very easy, as students from the colleges can always be engaged to give lessons, both private and in the schools. But in the country, where distances from house to house are so great that day-schools are impossible, is where the great difficulty comes in. I have known many instances when girls from the country, of good families, have gone as servants to the better families in Reykjavik, simply with the object of getting some instruction, their parents being too poor to pay for them there, but may perhaps have sons at the college, as education of sons is even within reach of a poor man.

For some years I have been trying to set up a school in Reykjavik for the "higher education of women in the country," and by the assistance of kind friends in England I have succeeded so far as to build a house, and even to start a school two years ago, with fifteen girls; but, as only few could pay the full fee–one krone a day for everything, board and lodging, etc.; that is, about twenty-seven cents–and the others not even half that sum, my small funds were exhausted at the end of the first year, and, to my great grief, I had to refuse quite a number of girls who were most anxious to avail themselves of this opportunity of education.

I came to this country expressly with the hope of raising some money, for the benefit of this school, by the sale of a collection of antique Icelandic silver and silver-gilt ornaments, spoons, etc., the only thing of value which I possess. But, as yet I have not found a purchaser, though I feel perfectly sure that, coming to this country with all its wealth, philanthropists and love of education, my most sanguine hopes will be realized. The World's Fair has awarded the Icelandic exhibit two medals, one for the "woolen goods," the home industries; the second for the "silver and metal work," the collection.

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Madame Sigrid E. Magnusson is a native of Reykjavik, Iceland; she was born in 1831. Her parents were Einar Somundsson and Gudrun Olafsdottir. She was educated at Reykjavik, Iceland; has traveled in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Scotland, England, France, Germany, and America, and she speaks the languages of each. She married Eivikr Magnusson, M.A., who is now Sub-librarian of the University Library, Cambridge, England; a member of Trinity College; was knighted by the King of Denmark, Riddle of Damrebroge, and honorary member of the "Academic Parisienne des Inventeurs," and holds the gold medal of that society. Her special work is trying to better the condition of women in Iceland. She made a translation from English of a small book, "The Basket of Flowers," given to the clergy widows' fund in Iceland. In religious faith she is a Lutheran. Her postoffice address is Cambridge, England.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom