dr. Sigurður

Modes of Living in Reykjavík 1930-1940 (Reykjavík, 1985)

A translation of two chapters from the book: Introduction and Conclusions.

1. Introduction
The decades prior to 1930 were years of transition in Icelandic national life. Practical affairs underwent a virtual revolution wherein, within a few short years, the nation¹s centre of gravity shifted from the rural districts to the seacoasts.

The details of this transition are too complex to be recounted here. In brief, production in Iceland underwent fundamental changes and increased tremendously around and after the turn of the century. In the place of subsistence farming came increasingly specialised production of goods and articles for both domestic and foreign markets.

Between 1910 and 1920, the range of goods offered for export narrowed steadily, so that fish products ultimately constituted more than 80% of total exports. The exports while fish products shows a corresponding decrease, so that in the years 1931-1935 they had shrunk to a mere 9.6% of total exports while fish products had grown to 89.3%.[1] In a sense, these figures sum up the changes which Iceland experienced in the early decades of the 20th century.

Although fish products were occupying more and more of the export market, they were sorely lacking in diversity. In the year 1920, for example, salt fish constituted about 70% of the fish products exported.[2] The disadvantages of such a lack of diversity should be obvious. Even small weaknesses in market conditions or in the annual catch could have baneful effects on the economic life of the nation.

A look at population figures for the 1930´s give us another slant on these developments. It suffices to compare the figures for 1940 with those for 1930.

A distinct movement from the countryside to more densely populated areas is reflected. It is of interest, incidentally, that the annual population increase in this period was only about 1.10% which is somewhat less than in the preceding decade or in the decades that followed.[4] The birth rate declined during the 1930´s but the causes of this are uncertain. The difficult conditions and social instability of the depression years suggest themselves as explanations. [5]

Of further interest are the changes which took place in the composition of the labour market in the years prior to 1930. The developments described in the paragraphs above were accompanied by a shift toward employment in the areas of manufacturing, industry, commerce, transport and communications, and in various types of non-physical labour. In 1860, only 6.3% of the total population was employed in these areas, while 70 years later, in 1930, over a third of the total population was so employed. These figures testify to the magnitude of the changes affecting Iceland in this period. [6]

When the Great Depression hit the Western World in 1929, the winds turned quickly against the Icelandic economy, and it was not long before it threatened to founder. Exports were first seriously affected in 1930-1931 when their process were forced down as much as 50% below their 1929 prices. Increases in foreign duty together with demands for trade parity effectively closed foreign markets for Icelandic export products. [7]

Sharp cutbacks in production naturally ensued, and many Icelandic firms were plunged into grave difficulties. The nation entered a dark period of unemployment and ever-sharpening class conflict.

In politics, extremism began to prevail. Two issues, especially, became foci for dissension: the organisation of voting districts on the one hand, and emergency measures for dealing with the economic crisis on the other. Progress was slowly made toward meeting the demand for more fairly-organises voting districts. Meanwhile, several parties favouring central planning found an increased following and formed a government in 1934 promising a "New Deal" in the economy, with substantially increased government participation a prescription for dealing with the crisis which had grown very popular among the nations of the West.

Great changes were introduced. Industry was bolstered up, both by lowering the duties levied on raw materials and machinery and by restricting the import of consumer goods and other foreign industrial products. These restrictions must have been quite effective. Large sums of money were poured into industry, but it is arguable that such advantages as accrued were dearly bought.

Agriculture received its share in 1935 with the passage -- over vehement opposition -- of legislation concerning the sale of farm products. An emergency loan fund had already been established in order to prevent farmers from losing their farms.

In the fishing industry, attempts were made to find more efficient fishing techniques, to exploit hitherto under-used fish varieties, and to take up new methods of processing. Directing these attempts was the Fisheries Commission. The Icelandic Fish Producers Union (S.Í.F.) was set up in 1932 with the aims of co-ordinating the efforts of the fish exporters and establishing new markets in their common interest. The Herring Fisheries Commission, whose function were similar to those of S.Í.F., was founded in 1934.

None of these measures, however, nor others which have been omitted from discussion here, were the Crisis Years. But how did the residents of Reykjavik really fare? How did they manage in supporting themselves and their families? Were living conditions really as desperate for ordinary folk as it would appear from what has been written about this period? What was life like in a Reykjavik household in the 1930´s? What sorts of homes could people make for themselves? How did they spend a typical day? Also: Is it possible to see in retrospect, by looking at such factors, how the problems of the economy might more successfully have been met? Were some of the decisions made in trying to meet the crisis fundamentally mistaken? Was the crisis, at least in part, home made?

In trying to answer these questions, two very different approaches are taken in this essay. The body of the work consists in two large chapters, chapters 2 and 3. In the first of these, quantitative factors bearing upon the standard of living are examined. These include the process of essential goods and services, wages, housing costs, and indicators of the overall condition of the economy. In chapter 3 a less traditional approach is employed. A look is taken into the homes, lives, and employment¹s of five individual families. We describe their houses and furnishings, follow family members through a typical day, and inquire about their leisure time. In this more personal way, we try to see what life was really like for people living in the Reykjavik of the 1930´s. In a brief final chapter, chapter 4, we reflect upon the extent to which the pictures emerging from the two different approaches are consistent.

Quantitative information concerning those factors which most affected the Icelandic standard of living in the 1930´s is very imperfect. It was not until large-scale governmental intervention in the economy came into fashion that economic data began to be compiled systematically, and this was not until the middle-to-late 1930´s.8 Especially imperfect are the figures on housing and employment. Rather than describing here the various sources used for the purposes of chapter 2, the reader is directed to the list of references.

The households examined in chapter 3 are: (1) the family of Ragnar Jónsson, unskilled and unemployed laborer, who did not enjoyed the luxury of home ownership, and had the most difficult time making ends meet in the 1930´s; (2) the family of Aðalsteinn Guðmundsson, unskilled laborer, and his wife Vilborg Jónsdóttir, which resided at Hofsvallagata 15; (3) the family of Guðmundur Gíslason, shipwright, and his wife Margrét Gísladóttir, which resided at Vesturgata 30; (4) the family of Helgi Magnússon merchant, and his wife Oddrún Sigurðardóttir, which resided at Bankastræti 7; and (5) the family of Ólafur Þorsteinsson, physician, and his wife Kristín Guðmundsdóttir, which resided at Skólabrú 2. Thus, the families represent four different occupational classes: unskilled workers, craftsmen, merchants, and professions, and two main sectors of the economy; the production sector and the service sector. In three cases, the families occupy the same dwellings now as in the 1930´s and were chosen partly for that reason (It helped greatly in reconstructing a picture of the home as it was during the Depression Years). An exception had to be made in choosing the merchant family, as it appears that there is no merchant family in Reykjavik fulfilling this condition, and the case of Ragnar Jónsson who moved from one place to another the whole decade.

The research for chapter 3 rests almost entirely upon oral reports. Obviously, the recollection of the events and situations of fifty years ago is no easy matter, especially as we are here concerned with matters of a kind which are normally considered unimportant, and thus quickly forgotten. Thus, this research depends very heavily upon the trustworthiness of the individuals consulted, and they were consequently selected with this fact very much in mind.

After the reports were collected, they were reviewed by other individuals from the same family in order to confirm them as far as possible. The recollections were then put into the form of written drafts, and were reviewed by the reporting individuals themselves before being accepted as final. Rewriting was done as necessary.

House plans and photographs owned by the families were used as supporting materials. On the basis of these and the reports, plans of each dwelling as it was in the 1930´s, including the main fixtures and furnishings, have been reconstructed and are included in the relevant sections of chapter 3. There was, unfortunately, no opportunity to take precise measurements of the dwellings or household articles, except in the home of Guðmundur Gíslason, shipwright (section 3.2).

Generally speaking, the research was carried out in the same way for all four families; but it will be seen that each case maintains its own air. For example, certain names and expressions that family members used have been preserved in the text, in order to recapture the spirit of the household.


  • 1. Tölfræðihandbók 1974, Hagskýrslur Íslands II, 63, (Reykjavík, 1976), p. 129.
  • 2. Verslunarskýrslur, Hagskýrslur Íslands I, 38, 1920, p. 15. Ólafur Björnsson: Þjóðarbúskapur Íslendinga, 2nd ed. (Reykjavík, 1964), p. 163 (This work hereinafter called Þjóðarbúskapur).
  • 3. Mannfjöldaskýrslur, Hagskýrslur Íslands I, 77; 121, 1926 - 1930; 1936 - 1940, pp. 1, 10* - 11*; pp. 1, 18 - 21. Ólafur Björnsson, Þjóðarabúskapur, p. 14.
  • 4. Ólafur Björnsson, Þjóðarbúskapur, p. 14.
  • 5. Ólafur Björnsson, "Íslensk haglýsing I-II" (Reykjavík, undated), mimeograph deposited in University Library, University of Iceland, pp. 2-3 (This work hereinafter called "Haglýsing"). Félagsmál á Íslandi, Jón Blöndal, ed. (Reykjavík, Félagsmálaráðuneytið, 1942), p. 32 (Saga Alþingis IV), This work hereinafter called Félagsmál).
  • 6. Félagsmál, p. 41.
  • 7. Einar Laxness: Íslandssaga a-k, (Reykjavík, 1974), p. 186. Þorkell Jóhannesson: Alþingi og atvinnumálin. Landbúnaður og útvegsmál. Höfuðþættir. (Reykjavík, Alþingissögunefnd, 1948). p. 362. (Saga Alþingis IV).
  • 8. It was not until the early 1940´s that the Icelandic Parliament set up three separate commissions to study the question how trade and business were to be organised, ion the most far-reaching sense of that term. The most significant of the studies undertaken was that of the Commission on Economic Organisation dealing with the productivity of various sectors of the economy.

4. Conclusion

In describing the 1930´s, scholars have generally painted a very black picture of the conditions of life. Unemployment, housing shortages, and economic difficulties are the subjects most talked about, and this in itself is right and natural. But it is often overlooked that many people managed to avoid serious hardship.

The families we have looked at here were among those who managed fairly well. None of them suffered grievous want. The family of Ragnar Jónsson was in a league of its own. Unemployment and poor housing was their destiny, but with hard work and desire to take on life, they managed to survive. The two families representing the production sector - those living at Hofsvallagata 15 and at Vesturgata 30 - achieved this by exercising great thrift and restraint in money matters. The two families living at Bankastræti 7 and at Skólabrú 2 were much better off financially. The differences are most easily seen in the municipal taxes paid by each family for the years 1931 - 1940:

The economic resources available to each family naturally had much to say about its style of life. As one might expect, this differed considerably from household to household.

The families living at Bankastræti 7 and at Skólabrú 2 enjoyed elegant, richly furnished homes. They had the means to outfit ostentatious living - rooms which served as the households face to the outer world. These rooms were centrally located and everything was done to see to it that they presented a splendid appearance. In such homes, it was sensible to locate the bedrooms on a different floor, for this made it easier to separate off the rooms in daily use from those which were chiefly for show.

Both of these families owned out - of - town summer houses to which family members could retire from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Travel abroad was rather frequent, chiefly for recreational and educational purposes, despite the fact that such journeys were both expensive and difficult in those times of currency restrictions and inconvenient transportation.

It is clear that these two families lived rather grandly, and were able to avail themselves of most of the advantages that the 1930´s had to offer, at least by Icelandic standards.

Quite another story must be told of the families who lived at Hofsvallagata 15, Vesturgata 30, and the family of Ragnar Jónsson. Neither dwelling, of the two mentioned first, much exceeded 50 m2 in floor area, and the tightness of the quarters inevitably left its impression upon family life.

Household articles in these homes were generally simple and unadorned, and only that which was absolutely necessary was given a place in the house. Living - rooms doubled as bedrooms, there was no other choice, and each room had many occupants. Everyone¹s comfort was limited, especially in Vesturgata 30 which in common with many Reykjavík houses of the time had neither a water closet, nor a bathroom, nor a laundry room.

Briefly considered, it may appear that the wealthier families had little in common with the poorer ones. But a closer look reveals important common elements as well. All of the families were characterised, more or less equally, by energy, industry, and thrift. All of them had long working-days. But all were likewise able to find time for leisure activities and enjoyment, each after its own fashion. In these respects, the families living at Hofsvallagata 15 and Vesturgata 30 differed little from the other two.

All five of the families were given to reading to an extent which is quite remarkable; and all were whole - heatedly fond of Icelandic literature. The number of guests visiting these households is also worthy of remark. It was quite common for relatives and friends from out of town to stay with these families for several nights on end.

In short, the investigations of chapter 3 reveal many aspects in which the style and quality of live was similar for all four families, despite their differing economic circumstances.

On the other hand, these investigations do not provide much support for any very general conclusions; for our sample is much too small, and the picture that emerges is suspiciously positive. This picture does, however, provide what is likely to be a realistic view of the lives of a certain large group of people in the Reykjavik of the 1930´s: people who mostly owned their own homes and had steady employment. Home ownership, as we have seen, was not restricted to the rich. For this group, the picture derived from chapter 3 is quite consistent with that which emerged from our considerations in chapter 2.

The question remains whether the conditions of those who were afflicted with unemployment - that large group of people whose names do not appear on the tax rolls because of their extremely low incomes - might have been improved. The government chose the path of restricting imports, and increasing purchasing power by setting up new business concerns and fixing currency exchange rates. This policy arguably lengthened the crisis and did not improve the employment situation. For, by fixing the exchange rates, exports were reduced, which in turn reduced the national income and made the crisis even more overwhelming. The new businesses did not come close to recouping the losses sustained by the export concerns. In consequence, unemployment was rampant through the end of the decade. It is true, however, that sustaining the purchasing power of the króna worked to insure that the welfare of those who had steady employment was not undermined.

Devaluation of the króna would have produced a temporary cut in the buying-power of wages, but the positive effects on the export sector would in all likelihood have rectified this. Further, a foundation would thereby have been laid for increased employment, and thus a better standard of living for the ordinary person.


  • 1. Útsvarsskrá Reykjavíkur. Bæjarskrá. Reykjavík 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938.
    • Skrá yfir skatta og útsvör. Reykjavík 1939, 1940. In the 1940 tax register, pp. 398-399, the municipal tax rates on net income for 1939 are reported. Using these, the yearly income of each of the four families may be estimated:
    • Aðalsteinn Guðmundsson (wife + 2 children) 3,700 kr.
    • Guðmundur Gíslason (+ wife) 4,800 kr.
    • Helgi Magnússon (wife + 1 child) 12,000 kr.
    • Ólafur Þorsteinsson (wife + 1 child) 17,800 kr.
    • (Children 17 years and older were not counted as dependants). This estimate is fairly rough. There are reasons to suppose, for example, that Helgi´s income was actually much higher.
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