Politics and economics in Norway

Per Otto Adelborg and Crown Prince Carl Johan at Fredrikshall in 1814 during the Swedish-Norwegian War in 1814. They look at the memorial stone for Carl XII’s death. (Artist: P.O. Adelborg. Owner: National Museum, Sweden)

As part of the peace settlement after the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, Britain and the other victorious powers forced the Danish king to cede Norway to Sweden. Gaining control over Norway had been one of Sweden’s conditions when entering the war against Napoleon and France. It was therefore a surprise to the great powers and Sweden, when Norway declared itself an independent country on 17th May 1814. After a tense summer, the situation was resolved by Norway being recognized as an independent kingdom, but in union with Sweden and with a shared foreign policy.

The following years in Norway were characterised by the establishment of numerous new governing bodies, a central bank and a functioning monetary system. Some of the old political institutions, such as customs and the judiciary, continued as before. The Norwegian government resided both in the new Norwegian capital Christiania, and in Stockholm.

In the period after 1814, the parliament only met every three years. The meetings were held in the auditorium of Christiania Katedralskole. The auditorium is preserved at the Norwegian Folk Museum. (Artist: P.A. Flash. Owner: Oslo museum)

When Karen Anker became a widow in 1765, she took over her late husband’s business. For 18 years, she managed one of the most powerful trading houses in Christiania during that time. (owner: Oslo museum)

Severe inflation and a new currency that was followed by a period of deflation from 1822 onwards, combined with the down payment to Denmark of Norway’s share of the former union’s foreign debt, made the first years of Norway’s independence challenging. The 3 million speciedaler debt to Denmark was a heavy drain, and to down pay it customs on foreign trade was increased. 1

For Norwegian merchants and traders the 1820s were a difficult period. Economic stagnation and decline in Europa in the years following the Napoleonic wars reduced overall foreign trade, while new customs barriers in former markets made foreign trade even more challenging.2 Trade with Denmark, which in the old union had been duty free, was taxed. Customs were raised to 50%. Norwegian timber merchants also lost their former main market, Britain. Britain had decided to raise tariffs on timber imports to support trade with its North American colonies. The new union with Sweden could not replace what had been lost. 3 

Port of Christiania. Artist: J.W. Eddy. Owner: The National Museum

The Christiania Cathedral . Artist: J.-W. Eddy. Owner: The National Museum

Laughing female faces. Artist: J. Flintoe. Owner: Nasjonalmuseet

After the break with Denmark in 1814, Norway needed a capital to administer the new state. Christiania (today’s Oslo) became the new capital. The town grew rapidly in the following years compared to its Nordic neighbours. Growth came in the form of more people settling in the suburbs.

The capital needed students and graduates to work in the administration, but it also needed workers to build the houses for the new administration. Even though these workers were all men, women also moved to the new capital, finding work as maids, servers, caterers and other professions supporting the growing town and its population. 

The men and women moving to Christiania were often young, many of them unmarried. In 1825, 41% of the population was therefore between 20 and 40 years old. In 1835, only 41% of all adult men were married (in later times, 2/3 was the norm). An even larger proportion of the women were unmarried. Between 1814 and 1840 ⅓ of the women in town were maids (and thus unmarried), 1/3 were married and 1/3 were adult unmarried women (incl. widows, unmarried and divorced women)4

Three Male faces. Artist: J. Flintoe. Owner: Nasjonalmuseet

Population from 1815-1850

1815 1835 1850 Increase 1815 - 1850
11 000
18 000
29 000
164 %
Christiania with suburbs
14 000
25 000
38 000
171 %
17 000
23 000
25 000
47 %
10 000
12 000
15 000
50 %
73 000
83 000
93 000
27 %
15 000
19 000
26 000
73 %
101 000 (1801)
119 000
129 000
27 %

Source: Myhre, J.E.: Oslo bys historie bd. 3, s. 32

View of Christiania from Ekeberg. Artist: J. Flintoe. Owner: Nasjonalmuseet

Vaterlands Bridge. Artist: John-William Edy. Owner: Nasjonalmuseet

Christiania in the 1820s was a town of great economic and social differences. The more prosperous lived in the town itself, in the area called Kvadraturen. The wealthiest merchants tended to live closest to the harbour, residing in large brick houses. More middling sorts lived in between, as well as further up from the port. Small traders, craftsmen, day labourers, but also the poor lived in the suburbs, such as Sagbanken, Fjerdingen, Vaterland, Pipperviken or Sagene, depending on their wealth, in more or less overcrowded, wooden houses. Some in very poor condition.

The economic and social differences in the 1820s were actually smaller than they had been at the end of the 1700s, although these differences would grow again as the 1800s progressed. As mentioned, the decade after 1814 was a difficult time for the Norwegian economy and trade in particular. In Christiania, many of the large timber exporters had also gone bankrupt in the wake of a fire in 1819. This meant that more people could try their hand at trading, which led to many small trading companies.

To trade, you had to have a permit, called a privilege, from the town’s magistrate. There were several types of trade privilege. Merchants were the largest traders, and they were extensively engaged in foreign trade. To acquire a merchant’s privilege in Christiania at least 11 years of experience in trade were required, and from 1818 onwards you also had to pass a trade exam.

A hawker traded in small quantities, usually in a limited number of consumer goods such as grain and tobacco. Marketers and innkeepers primarily sold food and drink, but could also sell some other goods. There were also saleswomen, who only engaged in small scale trade.5 They often sold second-hand clothes, but were frequently suspected of dealing in stolen goods.6

1 Kristiansen, O.: Norges finanser 1814-30, Cammermeyer, Oslo, 1933, s. 262

2 Hodne, F. Norges økonomiske historie 1815-1970, Cappelen, 1981, s. 66

3 Hodne, F og O.H. Grytten Norsk økonomi i det nittende århundret, Fagbokforlaget, 2000.; Hutchison, R.: En kort introduksjon til Norges økonomiske historie på 1700-tallet, Cappelen, Oslo, 2019.; Sandvik, P. T: Nasjonens velstand, Norsk økonomisk historie 1800-1840, Fagbokforlaget.

4Myhre, J.E. Hovedstaden Christiania, Oslo bys historie ,bd. 3, Cappelen, Oslo, 1990, s. 46

5Myhre, J.E. Hovedstaden Christiania, Oslo bys historie ,bd. 3, Cappelen, Oslo, 1990, s. 70

6Mort, G.: Kvinner og næringsrett, Kvinneparagrafen i håndtverksloven av 1839 og handelsloven av 1842, Tingbokprosjektet, Oslo, 1993, s. 51.