Today, Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, is a shining example of a modern Nordic city. But what did it look like 100 years ago? Read on for the first part of our Forgotten Iceland  series, uncovering lost footage of the land of ice and fire throughout the decades. 

Fascinated by Icelandic History? Read our feature article, History of Iceland

Over the last century, nowhere has Iceland’s transformative change been so apparent as in its capital, Reykjavík, from its architectural style to the fashion sense of its population.

The history of Reykjavík dates back long before the invention of the film camera, all the way, in fact, to 870 AD when it was the makings of mere farmlands for early Viking settlers. And yet, at the birth of celluloid, Reykjavík was in its early stages of industrialising; a small town of fishermen, farmers, merchants, intellectuals and labourers striving for a recognisable national identity in a fast-changing world.

Footage from the Danish Film Institute shows the Danish Monarch, 36-year old King Christian X, arriving t0 Reykjavik Harbour in 1921. Children in white linens throw flowers at his feet as he strides into the town amidst a bustle of waving Danish flags.
Credit: Danish Film Institute

For the first in our Forgotten Iceland series, we will be looking back to the 1920s, the first real decade following the island’s newfound sovereignty in 1918. It was at this time that Icelanders could first call their volcanic homeland an independent country, and be in full control of their affairs and future like never before.

The above footage from the Danish Film Institute shows 36-year old King Christian X, arriving at Reykjavík Harbour in 1921. This footage was taken only three years following Iceland’s birth as an independent nation, albeit under the Danish Crown.

Read further: The Icelandic Flag | A Tale of Identity

His dignitaries clad in Royal military gear, their march confident, this is a Royal Visit quite unlike what Icelanders are used to. The monarch is greeted by Icelandic politicians whom cordially invite him to the balcony of Iceland’s parliament building. There he stands, waving at the cheering crowd below him, the only King to have ever held dominion over sovereign Iceland. His tentative rule would not last forever, of course.

The above footage is of Reykavik Harbour in 1918.

Two decades later, the Nazi war machine would roll over Denmark, indicating rightfully to the Icelanders that their King was incapable of protecting his territories. He would be the last monarch to hold any authority over Iceland.

The remainder of the footage shows many buildings and locations that are still recognisable in contemporary Reykjavík. For instance, we see what is today Iðnó theatre, resting on the banks of the small Lake Tjörnin, a favourite bird feeding spot and make-shift ice rink in the winter. We see pedestrians strolling down a timeless looking Laugavegur shopping street, and we catch a glimpse of Safnahúsið exhibition space, a former library.

Burton Holmes’ Film-Reels of Travel, for instance, begins in 1926 as the filmmakers arrive at the capital’s shores, a large congregation of fascinated locals looking on in awe. A title card appears reading ‘A population of twenty one thousand, a police force of three‘. We are privy to the police force in question, a trio of smiling older men, flicking a casual salute to the filmmaker.

What follows is shots of the capital’s busy streets. We see the misstated ‘Icelandic Ponies’, as well as ‘tourists’ sitting on a rickety wooden cart. Aside from that, the filmmaker focuses in on portraits of ‘Young Vikings of Today‘, children smiling at the camera, somewhat embarrassed, but undeniably Icelandic with their fair complexion and blonde locks.

The footage then focuses in on young women washing in a hot spring laundry in what is now the Laugardalur area of Reykjavík, home to Laugardalslaug swimming pool and the Family Park and Zoo.

The footage also showcases traditional Icelandic wrestling, known as Glíma, where young, fit men clad in white vest tops grapple for control, always aiming to knock the other competitor to the floor.

To gain a better understanding of this unique period in Icelandic history, check out the above video released by Fullveldi Íslands (“Iceland’s Sovereignty“). Not only does this short documentary showcase other footage and photographs from the 1920s, but also explains the geopolitical sphere in which Iceland existed at that time.

Did you enjoy the first instalment of our Forgotten Iceland series? Make sure to check back here as we delve into vintage film footage of Iceland throughout the decades. Next week, we will be showing you footage taken of Iceland during the dark days of the Second World War.