Iceland in the eighties saw a seismic shift in society, including resolutions to the Cold War, the first female President and even the legalisation of beer. Discover more about the land of ice and fire during the 1980s with photos and videos from our latest instalment in the Forgotten Iceland series.
See Also: The History of Iceland
What do you remember when you look back to the 1980s? Some will recall the funky hairdos, synth-wave and glittery jackets, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and a litany of films—E.T, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, etc.—that have since become iconic in pop culture.
Others will remember darker moments, like the Falklands War, the Iran–Contra affair or the Challenger disaster, proof of a world becoming ever more complicated, and ever more dangerous.
In truth, the eighties is a problematic decade to summarise, manifold in its positive and negative impacts on humankind. One thing is for sure, however; there’s never been a decade quite like the eighties!
Icelanders, while of course aware of the trends and events of the outside world, likely remember a 1980s that was entirely different to anywhere else. Let us look together at some of the most significant moments and movements from Icelandic life in the 1980s.
What was life like during the 1980s in Iceland?
To understand daily life at this time, it is first necessary to look at the level of wealth across the country. In essence, the way the Icelandic economy worked changed significantly during the decade. Because of this, many Icelanders were accumulating debt, with average annual inflation rates exceeding 38%. But what caused this sudden downward trend?
This issue was a continuation from the seventies, a decade that saw young Icelanders move on mass from the capital, Reykjavík, to cheaper suburban homes, all while the banks offered loan after loan.
See Also: 8 Essential Icelandic Albums
This worrying economic model would not come to collapse until years later, in 2008, but signs were already beginning to emerge in the decade often represented by the “Greed is good” philosophy. Also, one must remember that Iceland is a country with long cultural memories of impoverishment; while, in essence, the money was without value, the prospect of liquid cash was a mesmerising one.
New economic policies further inflamed this fallacy. The banking system was deregulated in the late eighties, transforming bankers from passive observers into actual players, capable of manipulating and swaying currency rates to their advantage.
This also meant that the centralisation of political authority switched from rural communities to the capital, all part of the government’s plan for Liberalisation, Stabilization and Privatisation.
In a nutshell, the eighties was the beginning of an economic dream that, in only a few short decades, would transform into a nightmare.
Iceland’s Competitive Achievements in the 1980s
During the eighties, Iceland picked up the reputation as a land of strong, powerful men and incredibly beautiful women.
While this mythos continues to resonate today—largely by Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, currently the world’s strongest man, as well as The Mountain in HBO’s Game of Thrones—the eighties proved that this small island had a lot to give when it comes to strength and beauty.
Iceland’s Beauty Queens
For one, Hólmfríður Karlsdóttir was crowned Miss World in 1985, making her the first Icelander to hold the title. “Hófí”, as she is nicknamed, was a runner-up at that year’s Miss Iceland competition, losing to Halla Jonsdóttir.
However, because Halla decided to pursue academic studies, it was Hófí who competed. Ultimately, she would be named both Miss World and Europe’s Queen of Beauty that year.
Another Miss World winner was Linda Pétursdóttir who took the title in 1988. She later served as a judge at the 65th Miss World pageant in Sanya, China.
When it comes to the achievements of male competitors, there can be no beating the Icelandic professional strongman, Jón Páll Sigmarsson. Not only is Jon often credited with developing Iceland’s national identity, he was also the first person to win the World’s Strongest Man four times.
His first win was in 1984, a swift victory that followed the previous year’s second place ruling to Geoff Capes. In 1985, he lost again to Capes, though made headlines for his quick response to a heckling audience member who called him “an eskimo”.
Jón famously retorted “I’m not an Eskimo, I’m a Viking!” before proceeding to lift a 495 kilogram cart.
Jón would go on to win World’s Strongest Man again in 1988 and 1990. Despite his often boastful, even arrogant competitive persona, Jon was a bookish man, known across the island for his wisom and kindness. He sadly passed away in 1993.
Icelandic Women Come Into Their Own
The eighties was also a critical time for the women’s movement in Iceland. Many women were making strides in fields that had nothing at all whatsoever to do with outward beauty.
The Rise of Björk
The 1980s saw the first international recognition of Björk Guðmundsdóttir, lead singer of the avant-garde rock band, The Sugarcubes. Previously, Björk had released some singles as a child, as well as sang for Icelandic post-punk band, Tappi Tíkarrass, eventually leading to the iconic image of her performance in the TV documentary Rokk í Reykjavík, directed by upcoming filmmaker, Friðrik Þór Friðriksson.
See Also: The Bjork Saga
The Sugarcubes (Icelandic: Sykurmolarnir) formed in 1986 and released their first single, “Einn mol’á mann” in November of that year, in which was included the popular tracks “Ammæli” (“Birthday”) and “Köttur” (“Cat”). By the end of the year, the band had signed with the UK independent record label, One Little Indian.
The band’s debut album, Life’s Too Good, was released in 1988 to critical acclaim in both the US and the UK. At the end of the year, the group toured the United States, receiving a warm welcome by the likes of famous concert goers such as Iggy Pop and David Bowie.
The band would go on to release two more albums, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! (1989) and Stick Around for Joy (1992). After two successful international tours—one of which saw the Sugarcube open for U2 in front of 700000 people in—the group disbanded, though all still remain friends and involved in the record label, Smekkleysa (Bad Taste Ltd).
In 2006, the Sugarcubes reunited for a single concert at Laugardalshöll stadium in Reykjavik to celebrate twenty years since the release of their single, “Birthday”. Despite the performance being an enormous critical success, the band have no plans to reform permanently.
Their legacy lives on however, with Rolling Stone magazine labelling them “the biggest rock band to emerge from Iceland”. Next week, we will delve into Björk’s monumental career as a solo artist.
First Elected Female Head of State
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was elected President of Iceland on the 1st August 1980, making her the first democratically elected head of state in history. Her presidency was a direct consequence of 1975’s Women’s Day Off, a countrywide strike that aimed to enlighten culture as to how important females were to Icelandic society.
See Also: Gender Equality in Iceland
The women’s movement focused their attention at the 1980 Presidential election on putting a woman in the position. A divorced single mother, Vigdís initially had to be persuaded to put herself forward. She was finally placed to run against three male candidates, winning by only 33.6%, a narrow margin of the national vote.
Vigdís’ Presidency proved extremely popular among the Icelandic people, leading to three re-elections. She was unopposed in 1984, earned 95% of the national vote in 1998—against another woman, no less—and, again, ran unopposed in 1992.
See Also: Iceland Did It First In The World
With a presidency lasting sixteen years (1980 – 1996), Vigdís Finnbogadóttir also holds the title for the world’s longest-serving female head of state. As a divorced single woman, she also adopted a daughter in 1963, making her the first in Iceland to do so.
In short, Vigdís was quite the trendsetter in her day. Since her retirement, Vigdís has been the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for languages.
Foreign Visits to Iceland in the 1980s
Now firmly established on the world stage, Iceland saw a number of important foreign dignitaries land on its shores during the 1980s. Many of these visits related to highly important matters regarding world politics, a sure-fire sign of the island’s precarious role in the ambitions of the world’s greatest powers.
The Reykjavik Summit
In 1985, Iceland declared itself a nuclear-free zone, making it the optimum choice for a discussion regarding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This meeting was to be held between the United States and the Soviet Union.
See Also: International Relations of Iceland
The Reykjavík Summit was held 11-12th October 1986 at Höfði House between General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.
The aim of the summit meeting differed with each party, with the Americans hoping to discuss human rights, the emigration of Soviet Jews and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while the Russians wished to keep the discussion on arms control solely.
The meeting came famously close to eliminating all nuclear weapons, though unfortunately, the discussions were over before a solution could be agreed upon.
Regardless of its short term failures, the majority of historical commentators considered the summit a momentous breakthrough that directly led to the INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) in 1987.
The Pope Visits Iceland
Modern-day Iceland could hardly be described as a Catholic country. 80% of the religious population adhere to the Lutheran doctrine, and only 5% belong to other Christian denominations, Catholicism included. In point of fact, the fastest growing religion in Iceland today is Ásatrúarfélagið (The Asatru Fellowship).
Regardless of the numbers, Pope John Paul II visited Iceland in 1989. At a sermon at Christ’s Cathedral on Saturday 3rd June, he spoke to the everyday Icelander, stating;
“Perseverance is the sign of Icelandic life and faith! The farmer and the fisherman struggle against the forces of nature and at times have to overcome great obstacles. We are on the eve of a day honouring the seamen of Iceland and their families – all of whom understand the meaning of courage and perseverance.”
The Beer Ban Was Over
1st March 1989 marked the first time that strong beer was legal to drink in Iceland.
See Also: Happy Hour | Reykjavik’s Cheapest Bars
Prohibition of all alcohol products came into effect in 1915—though was voted in in 1908—, a time where alcohol was generally frowned upon. Beer was particularly out of favour given that it was the favourite beverage of the Danish, widely perceived by Icelanders at that time as the island’s former colonial masters.
Over the coming decades, this legislation would slowly come undone. Thanks to cheap flights, many Icelanders were visiting the UK, enjoying its dominant pub scene and all of the alcohol that came with it. This created a consensus among the local populace that pubs, bars and beer would not go amiss at home.
Aside from domestic smuggling and homebrew, international pressure was an important factor towards ending Icelandic prohibition.
1922, for instance, saw wine legalised after Spain threatened to stop importing Icelandic cod, and later, all alcoholic beverages except beer with more than 2.25% alcohol content were free to buy. Beer was cheaper than wine or spirits and so the government feared that by legalising it fully, alcohol abuse would increase among the young.
See Also: Nightlife in Reykjavik
Remnants of this can be seen in Iceland today; visitors are often perplexed in corner shops and supermarkets that only 2.25% beer can be purchased, as opposed to the full strength version purchasable in state liquor stores.
Gaukurinn was Iceland’s first official beer pub, styled off those found so commonly across the United Kingdom. Opened in 1994, the establishment sold “beer likeness”, 2.25% lager mixed with harder spirits such as whiskey or vodka. Proponents of the prohibition found this loophole infuriating and quickly went to Iceland’s parliament in order to ban it. However, the government insisted that “beer likeness” was in fact a cocktail and therefore legal to purchase.
This was, arguably, the most important ruling for ending prohibition. Only five years later, Icelanders would be free to purchase and drink beer to their heart’s content. The 1st March each year has since been known as Bjordagur (Beer Day).
For visitors attending the celebration, a Rúntur (pub crawl) is a fantastic means of exploring Reykjavík’s most popular bars, distilleries and restaurants, many of which keep their door’s open until 4am. Today, beer is the most popular drink choice in Iceland.
Did you enjoy our article about the 1980s in Iceland? If so, make sure to check out some of the other articles in our Forgotten Iceland series, including Iceland in the 1970s | Video & Photo Gallery, Iceland in the 1960s | Historic Film Footage and Old Film Footage of Iceland in the 1950s.