Vintage books highlight Old Norway
A study in travelFredrik Delås
The land of fjords and the land of the midnight sun—Norway has many touristic nicknames. But when did it start and how was Norway discovered for its appealing beauty and outdoor activities?
One place to begin research is by looking into the comprehensive output of books on the subject. Close to 2,000 book titles on Norway were published, both officially and privately, from1600-1900. Non-Norwegians wrote these titles for non-Norwegians. The United States has several bibliophilic societies; the Grolier Club in New York, founded in 1884, stands out as the oldest one in North America. Norway’s equivalent is Bibliofilklubben, founded in 1922. We have had a membership of 33 for almost 100 years, and we meet every month to discuss books over a nice meal in Gamle Logen in Oslo. One of the topics frequently discussed at these meetings over the years has been foreigners’ travels in Norway. Several members have even written books and articles on the subject.
Some of these vintage publications still stand out as central sources of knowledge when it comes to understanding the development of tourism in Norway. Erland Scheen wrote in Foreign pamphlets on travels in Norway (1964) that Norway has an invaluable treasure among the numerous publications on foreigners’ Norwegian travels. As early as 1897, Hjalmar Petersen, one of the first members of Bibliofilklubben, wrote a bibliography that listed 475 titles. In 1970, yet another member of Bibliofilklubben, Eiler Schiötz, published his Itineraria Norvegica: A bibliography on foreigner’s [sic] travels in Norway until 1900, an important lifework still used by libraries, scholars, and collectors. Although adding only three years to the publication of Hjalmar Petersen’s bibliography, Schiötz’s book together with the supplement volume (1980) numbers about 2,500 registered titles and editions.
Among the first texts describing Norway and the Norwegians, we find publications by men who were seeking safe harbor or were rescued after their ships went down along the coast. Then came scholars exploring the glaciers and geology. Rumors spread regarding Norway’s forests and rivers, attracting wealthy Englishmen who came with rods and guns to catch fish and hunt wild game. Tourism increased and in 1850, the Norwegian-British Thomas Bennett (1814-1898) founded Norske Carjol-Compagnie (The Norwegian Horse and Carriage Company), later known as Bennet Reisebureau (Bennet Travel Agency), the first and oldest Norwegian travel agency. From the 1850s onward, tourism grew, increasing business at rural coaching inns and hotels. At the end of the 1860s, the first cruise ships arrived in the Norwegian fjords, and soon they expanded their tour routes all the way up to the North Cape.
All this activity resulted in a vast production of travel writings and guides. In addition, this has become an important historical source for understanding Norwegian society at the time, including descriptions of Norwegian culture, character, and habits; clothing; food; local customs; and more.
In 1887, Sir W. C. Leng, a publishing director from Sheffield, England, journeyed through Norway all the way up to the North Cape. After his visit, he printed a small travel book of 28 pages, meant only for private circulation. Seven beautiful plates or illustrations depicting places he visited accompanied the interesting text. This is an example of how Leng presented Norway to foreign readers:
You proceed up the fiord until the mountains close in upon you, and the bottom, although fathoms deep, shines up beneath the keel; and then you turn the ship while there is still room to turn her, and resume, as in a floating hotel, your delightful journey to “the Land of the Midnight Sun”, marvelling as you do so at the way in which bay lies within bay, and fiord within fiord, and marvelling still more to find in some of the most unlikely spots on this earth clusters of trim houses and emerald slopes, hanging woods and gay little inns—inns prim as paint and fretwork can make them.
The American collector Paul Dee of Virginia took on the challenge to collect books written by foreigners discovering Norway in the dawn of tourism. For decades, he has been building his Norvegica collection, continually striving to fill the gaps of missing volumes. On March 9, the passionate collector will let his collection of Norvegica titles pass into new owners’ hands, having consigned them for auction in Oslo with Sagen & Delås: Art and Rare Book Auctions (sd-auctions.com) This will be a unique opportunity to obtain book treasures in all price ranges.
Among a vast variety of titles, you will find both editions of William Cecil Slingsby’s cult book Norway, the Northern Playground: Sketches of climbing and mountain exploration in Norway between 1872 and 1903. Slingsby is known as the father of Norwegian mountaineering, most famous for being the first on Store Skagastølstind, the third-highest mountain in Norway. It was considered impossible to climb at that time, but Slingsby defied popular belief and climbed the mountain with two others. When they became exhausted and turned back, he climbed alone, and at the peak he left a pile of rocks and his handkerchief as proof to mark the spot.
In addition, consigned for auction is the first folio color plate book on Norway, John W. Edy’s Picturesque scenery of Norway (1820) with 80 hand-colored aquatint plates. Along with William Fearnside, the English artist Edy made a tour along the coastline of southern Norway from Lindesnes to Svinesund in 1800 in order to draw sketches for an upcoming color-plate book to be published by the famous London book publisher Boydell. There was war in Europe, and four weeks after their arrival in Norway, the two English gentlemen, being observed along the coast with maps, drawing equipment, and paper, were arrested on suspicion of espionage. They were transported to Christiania (Oslo) for custody. The nobles of Christiania felt sorry for them and did what they could to make them feel at home. They were invited to social gatherings and even attended a popular celebration at the Royal Estate on Bygdøy. After a month, they were released and were able to continue their travels.
These are just a couple of highlights among the many vintage books on travel in Norway, and there are many ways to establish an interesting collection on the subject. It does not have to be expensive, but be aware that it is highly addictive and you might suffer from hours and hours of joy and amusement revisiting Norway.
So, whether you are coming over to visit or choose to do it through the pages of a vintage book, welcome to Norway!
Fredrik Delås is a passionate bibliophile and collector of the works and ephemera about Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. He turned his hobby into a profession and now is a rare book dealer. He lives by the sea, close to the Swedish border. He can be reached at +47 930 22712, firstname.lastname@example.org, and his website is antikvariat-bryggen.no.
This article originally appeared in the February 8, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.