Women and trade in the early 1800s

Woman and child reading by a window. Artist A. Tidemand.
Owner: Nasjonalmuseet

Unlike today, women were not free to start their own business in the early 1800s in Norway. This was also the case in much of Europe. 

Female merchants, traders and artisans in Norway were most often widows. They had inherited, or were legally allowed to take over, their late husbands’ trade privilege in order to continue the business.

Other women could apply to the magistrate, i.e. the city authorities, to be allowed to run a business. Those who were granted such privileges, had argued that their business would prevent them from falling into poverty, and thus be a burden on society.

Women and crafts

Between 1802 and 1839, 55 women received a craftsman’s licence, most of them in cooking (butchering, brewing, bread baking and candle making), sewing women’s clothing, but also as midwives, hairdressers and furriers.1

Dress, 1825. Owner: Nasjonalmuseet

The situation for women in business improved with the Artisan Act of 1839, which ensured better rights for women to engage in artisan work. It did so firstly by establishing that widows were allowed to continue their deceased husbands’ trades. Secondly, it opened privilege applications for women engaged in weaving, sewing children’s clothes, sewing women’s clothes and decorations, baking coarse bread, beer brewing, candle making and other crafts. This was all work customarily done by women. 

These women-led businesses were only allowed to have female helpers, which had been a practice in Christiania for a long time, but was now formalised, and applied to the whole country. The authorities’ motive behind this change in law was mainly economic, since they aimed to give more women the opportunity to support themselves instead of falling into poverty.2

Trade licence

Between 1802 and 1840, 206 women received trade licences. Most of them were allowed to run Housekeeping (starting in 1833), marketing or as sales wives. Only four women received a licence to run a merchant trade and six to run a hostel.3 

Mrs. Strøm

Picture form A. Collet: Gamle Christiania-billeder: Tillæg til A. Collets Gamle Christiania-Billeder: nye Billeder med tekst, Christiania, Cappelen, p. 34.

Mrs. Sem in The Widows Boutique is based on the real woman Else Marie Strøm, who lived in Norway in the early 1800s.

Else Marie Sal. Strøm took over the shop Strøms krambod, when her husband Samuel Strøm died in 1818. She had been actively involved in the shop, so keeping the business going was nothing new. While Samuel ran the shop he sold wine and groceries.  

When Mrs. Strøm took over, she chose to increase the amount of manufactured goods, i.e. factory-produced textiles produced abroad. The investment must be seen in the context of industrialization in England, which made it easier throughout the 1820s to obtain textiles on a large scale and at low prices.

Mrs. Strøm was a skilled businesswoman who, even in the hard years of the early 1820s, managed to increase turnover. In 1821 she had a fortune of 1,000 speciedaler and a business income of 600 speciedaler. Two years later, her business income was similar to 700 speciedaler. She had thus managed to increase the shop’s turnover by around 16.5% in just two years.

In 1829, she passed on the business to her son Christian Strøm. He continued his mother’s investment in manufactured goods. Over time, Strøm’s krambod has become what we know today as Steen og Strøm Department Store, Norway’s leading fashion warehouse in the 20th century. And it all started with Else Marie Strøm, who chose to invest more in imported textiles.4

Smuggling and counterfeit money

Christiania before 1830. Artist: J. Flintoe, owner: Oslo Museum

It was also quite easy to smuggle, since there were no customs officials on the Norwegian side along the Swedish border. The customs service had come to the conclusion that it cost more to have customs officers there than they would receive in customs. 

Many goods that arrived by sea were already unloaded outside of the port, out of sight of the customs officers. And if a customs officer happened to see something, they were so poorly paid that it was just a matter of bribing them to look away. According to the law, the punishment for smuggling was between 3 months and 2 ½ years in a penitentiary or penal servitude, but it was not until the mid-1820s that this was practised.6

Another widely spread illegal practice in the 1820s was the counterfeiting of money. How widespread counterfeit notes and coins were is, as with smuggling, difficult to say. Although The Bank of Norway did its best to create banknotes that were difficult to copy, it was often enough to have good drawing skills. 

The fact that many people were deceived can be explained by the fact that there had been devaluations, new banknote types and major changes in the monetary system in the years before and around 1820. There are contemporary sources that tell of counterfeit money in circulation and the adventurous lives led by some of the counterfeiters.

For many traders the solution was smuggling. The Storting attempted to prevent smuggling, though accounts from the time show that it was widespread.

Before 1814 goods from Denmark came to Norway duty-free, but after the break-up of the old union taxes increased, and goods were smuggled more frequently.

A contemporary journal commented that the majority considered smuggling to be “a necessary means of acquisition”, and that many, especially younger traders, did it to “reach prosperity” quickly. Most smuggled goods were luxury goods, such as finer foreign fabrics, but also spirits.

Grain spirits in particular were smuggled in large quantities. Although their import was forbidden, people still drank them in most Norwegian marketplaces.5

Customs inspection at Klingenberg.  Artist: J. Flintoe. Owner: Oslo Museum

Copy of fake banknote made by Jens Fenstad, 1818.

The counterfeiter Jens Fenstad was sentenced to death for banknote forgery on four occasions. While he was pardoned the first time, escaped the second time and was pardoned again the third time, he could not get away the fourth time. On one of his trips to prison he met Gjest Baardsen, and taught him to forge banknotes as well.

1Mort, G.: Kvinner og næringsrett, Kvinneparagrafen i håndtverksloven av 1839 og handelsloven av 1842, Tingbokprosjektet, Oslo, 1993, p. 71.

2Mort, G.: Kvinner og næringsrett, Kvinneparagrafen i håndtverksloven av 1839 og handelsloven av 1842, Tingbokprosjektet, Oslo, 1993, p. 71.

3Mort, G.: Kvinner og næringsrett, Kvinneparagrafen i håndtverksloven av 1839 og handelsloven av 1842, Tingbokprosjektet, Oslo, 1993, p. 71.

4Schulerud, M.: Fra Krambod til Stormagasin, Steen & Strøm, Oslo, 1945

5Kristiansen, O.: Norges finanser 1814-30, Cammermeyer, Oslo, 1933, p. 222-237.

6Kristiansen, O.: Norges finanser 1814-30, Cammermeyer, Oslo, 1933, p. 222-237.