For Icelandic National Day: On Ólöf the “Eskimo” Lady

But wait! you say. We don’t say “Eskimo” anymore, and anyway Eskimos aren’t Icelandic! If that was your response, you don’t read very carefully and have missed the quotation marks in the title.

Ólöf Krarer (1858–1935) was in fact Icelandic, that is to say, ethnically Scandinavian. She was also a little person, just a bit over three feet tall as an adult. When she was about 18 she immigrated to Manitoba and then Winnipeg and then joined an American circus. In 1886, Admiral Peary began making his famous expeditions to the North Pole. These journeys of exploration were widely publicized, as were his stopovers in Greenland and his encounters with the various peoples formerly called Eskimos, (often spelled Esquimaux, back then, a spelling this antiquarian vastly prefers!) Since Ólöf was frequently mistaken for a Greenlander anyway (people still confuse those two countries), she began to exploit the confusion and to claim to be one of the indigenous northern people, and to claim that all the natives of her region were built as she was (much as little people of color often were presented as “Pygmies”, “Aztecs” and “Missing Links” in sideshows, museums, and fairs at the time. In 1887 the dodge was amplified by one Albert Post, who authored a book entitled Ólöf Krarer: The Esquimax Lady: A Story of Her Native Home. A much more factual book, Ólöf the Eskimo Lady: A Biography of an Icelandic Dwarf in America by Inga Dora Bjornsdottir was published by the University of Michigan in 2010. The wildest thing about Krarer is that she didn’t just work the sideshow and dime museum grind, she lectured at universities for decades and was never called on her story, which was pure fabrication. People were so much more polite back then.

For related reading, please check out Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People in Vaudeville.