Wholesaler Thor Dahl
1862-1920 – remembering Thor Dahl a hundred years on
Entrepreneur– businessman – benefactor
By Jan Erik Ringstad
On Thursday the 15th of April 1920, Norges Handels og Sjøfartstidende wrote that, “Shipowner Thor Dahl died today at his home in Sandefjord”. According to Østlands-Posten, Dahl had suffered ill health for a number of years, which led to a long and painful period of illness. He died at almost 58 years of age.
His father, Thor Helgesen Dahl, was a teacher from Skien who came to Sandefjord in 1851. He married Anne Oline Mathisdatter Hansen in 1857. The marriage resulted in four children born two years apart, three girls and a boy. Thor, born on the 28th of May 1862, was their third child. The mother died in 1864 and the father was left to care for the children. As early as four years of age, Thor joined the others at the charitable school where his father was a teacher. Dahl was able to introduce co-education in 1859 and Thor was therefore able to sit with his two older sisters in the classroom.
At the age of eleven, Thor also lost his father. Hans Bogen writes in Firmaet Thor Dahl Sandefjord 1887-1937 of how the son had been influenced by his father. The influence of the small town society and its most prominent citizens followed. The father’s wages as a teacher were not enough for the small family, so he secured an additional income as a steam ship agent for “Bjørn Farmand” of Tønsberg. Thor also helped, working as a runner carrying covering letters and packages for a fee. This brought him into contact with the merchants in town and he kept a record of payments by means of a small notebook. He was both talented and enthusiastic and these early experiences led him to choose a career in commerce. In the afternoons he worked for Guttormsen, who dealt in dry goods and soon after his confirmation, he was employed by dry goods retailer Wetlesen. He then worked for P. C. Pedersen for nine years in the sale of timber and at the largest grocery store in the town. He received low wages and had little free time. If the store was to be warm when the farmers arrived in town at five or six o’clock, he would have to light the fire by two or three o’clock in the morning.
Dahl gradually began to set some money aside. He had shown himself to be reliable and had a good position and credit. On the 1st of October 1887, at 25 years of age, he opened his own shipping and household store on the town square. Two years later, he bought up P. C. Pedersen’s business after the latter’s bankruptcy and moved his own company there.
Thor Dahl’s customer base was not extensive. The town had less than 4,000 inhabitants and wealthy residents were able to bring in goods on their own vessels. His customers were relatively poor, along with farmers who sometimes had more spending power. Dahl advertised for everything from cement to brislings, tiled stoves to soil and seeds, from pit props to raisins and peas to flour, sherry, port, anchors and rat poison etc. Bogen thought that the advertisements were mainly aimed at housewives, while deliveries to the sealing and whaling fleets went via friends and acquaintances or the purchase of shares in ships.
The town fire on the 15th of March 1900 did not only cause the destruction of archival material containing information about Dahl’s business activities in the 1890’s, but also took with it his home and business premises. The stocks were stored in a separate building, however, and were saved – probably by a seaman who straddled the roof and poured water over it without knowing there was also dynamite inside.
Dahl was able to begin advertising again just a few weeks after the fire. He also became involved in sealing and whaling. Between 1900 and 1917, he had shares in nine bottlenose ships, amongst other ventures, and established the partnership “Alfa & Beta” in 1900, which caught whales along the coast of Finnmark. The fact that he didn’t rise above average as a schoolboy, apart from in arithmetic, did not stop him from working his way up to being the wealthiest man in the town. On his death, his fortune was assessed at 5,939,000kr with a yearly income of 2,123,312kr in 1920. That is quite a good yearly income even today. There was indeed a certain amount of inflation after the war, a period of boom and price pressure; whale oil went for £90 per tonne in contrast to around £20 when war broke out in 1914 and £13 in 1905, but the yearly income of a farm worker was only around 1,350kr in 1920. Numbers are dangerous, but also provide a picture. If we raise the 1,350kr a farm worker had to manage on to 635,800kr, Dahl’s yearly income would have been over a billion.
Dahl said of himself that he was unusually fortunate, but he certainly did have a talent for business. Everyone knew that Dahl very rarely failed in a business venture. That’s why he was the butt of a running joke for many years after an advertisement in 1896 to sell off his surplus stock of brislings and herring at cost price! It is said that he enjoyed parties and social gatherings. Bogen says that shipyard owner Chr. Christensen learnt that they were about to run out of champagne at an annual general meeting at Framnes Shipyard. He called his son, Lars, who was set to finding more by means of the telephone! Meanwhile, the guests were to be prevented from finding out why their glasses were empty. Christensen explained the situation to Dahl and asked him to hold a speech until he received the signal to stop. He improvised a half hour long speech. Later, the guests agreed that Dahl’s speech had dragged on a bit too long.
Is it significant that, in their tributes to Thor Dahl, Norsk Hvalfangst-Tidende, Østlands-Posten and Jarlsberg og Larviks Amtstidende referred to him as a wholesaler, while Norges Handels og Sjøfartstidende referred to him as a shipowner? Outside of Sandefjord, he was best known for whaling and shipping, but was associated just as much with the business locally. Today, there are few who know of Thor Dahl as a man. Most will presumably connect his name to the building at the quayside or the limited company, which was continued and further developed by Dahl’s son-in-law Lars Christensen.
Thor Dahl was generous and provided support to both individuals and initiatives. The list is long and stretches from Roald Amundsen’s South Pole expedition to the National Galllery and missionary activities, sport, old people’s homes, seamen, children’s homes and the student’s home at Blindern etc. He left nearly 600,000kr in his will to several objectives through trust funds and almost as much again to named individuals. Sandefjord Borough has administrated three of the funds: Wholesaler Thor Dahls Fund for Sandefjord’s Craftsmen and Workers, Alfhild and Thor Dahl’s Fund for the Relief of Tuberculosis and Alfhild and Thor Dahl’s Fund for the Good of Sandefjord Town. The playgrounds at both Virik and Sande schools benefitted from funds. We have an orphan to thank for using his aptitude to build a business which continues to bring joy to new generations.