Trading in the Streets - a Privilege !

In the first decades of the 19th century widows were given exclusive rights to sell certain products in the streets of Bergen. Partly, this was an element of the general system of privileges, rights, and restrictions governing this whole field of activity, but mainly it was part of a system for caring for the poor and those not able to look after themselves. Here several schemes were in operation, each aimed at catering to the needs of a specific group. Alms for some, the handing out of food for others, the work house for still others. As a group, widows were generally able to provide for themselves and their children, as long as their working conditions were protected from outside competition.

In 1811 the number of ”licences” for women street sellers or ”basket women”, as they were called, was raised from 26 to 50, and a lot of the applications have been preserved. All of them tell of difficult circumstances after the husband died (or was recruited into the army, or – in some cases – simply abandoned their families), explaining that there is no other way of getting an income and applying for (most of them begging, one or two demanding) one of the licences. At the end of the letter, some men of importance would declare the application to be truthful, and the woman in question to be worthy of this status. As a rule, the letters were written by someone else and signed with the help of another person steering the pen, as most of the applicants would be unable to write themselves.

Those who were accepted received a grand letter from the Magistrate to document their new status, but also listing in great detail everything they were not allowed to do, the latter to protect other groups of trading people. Of particular interest is the small permit given to the widows to carry on their persons as proof of having a licence.

All the documents relating to the 76 year-old widow Inger Iversdatter are shown here. The reason why the answering letter and the permit are also in the archives may be that they were handed back when no longer needed, but it could also be the case that they were never picked up. She may have died or been too weak to make any use of them. Considering her age, this would not be odd at all.


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This picture of Strandgaten is of a later date, 1865, and the privilege described here no longer in operation. But the figure sitting on the pavement in the front might give us an idea of what these "women street sellers" or "basket women" looked like. (BBA:3:Va:1. Photo: Knud Knutsen/GSJ)
Some letters of application for a licence as "trade woman". The one from Inger Iversdaughter on top. (BBA: 651:Ea:1-3, foto: GSJ)
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The letter documenting the right to sell fruit, bread and certain other goods. Note the permits or identity cards shown at the bottom. (BBA: 651:Ea:1-3, foto: GSJ)
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