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How to Smuggle Rubber, Scandi Style



During the war, rubber was in short supply in Europe. Submarine warfare complicated marine trade and merchant vessels were converted for military service, meaning that they could no longer service the civilian economy. A chronic shortage of materials like coffee, leather, wool, and rubber ensued. These shortfalls were felt around Europe, in neutral countries as well as belligerent nations.

In Scandinavia, smugglers recognised this golden opportunity and seized it. Throughout the war, contraband rubber circulated around the North Sea. Often, its final destination was Germany, which was unable to buy rubber on the open market and whose options were further limited by the Allies' naval blockade. However, Germany was not the sole recipient of smuggled rubber. Smugglers also operated between Scandinavian countries, Finland, and Russia, and their creativity in evading authorities knew no bounds.

Who Smuggled?

Anybody could become a smuggler. Hotel workers, traveling salesmen, customs agents, railroad workers, and truck drivers all appeared in court on rubber smuggling charges. However, one profession stands out: sailors were particularly likely to engage in smuggling. For example, the captain of a German steamer that put up in Kristiania (now Oslo) was arrested for smuggling four packets of rubber weighing a total of 100 kg. The rubber was confiscated by the Norwegian state and the captain sentenced to 30 days in prison. It was reported that “the quantity of the wares that he attempted to smuggle…really must be reckoned as a bagatelle.” Interestingly, the court also expressed sympathy for the fact that “the accused was evidently trying to aid his Fatherland, which is at war.” Meanwhile, Captain Johanson of the Swedish steamer Hugo not only admitted to smuggling vast quantities of rubber, but also told the court that he had smuggled 1500 vats of petroleum to Germany earlier that year.

According to the Associated Press, even children undertook to smuggle rubber. At Haparanda, a Swedish town on the Russian border that became a hotbed for smuggling, “small boys muffled in great overcoats waddle across the river on skis with rubber tires for automobiles wrapped around their waists.” Rubber, explained the AP, was the “most difficult of all commercial products to obtain in Sweden” and its export from Russia was forbidden.

Women also played a role, as a female traveler from Trondheim discovered in 1916 on a trip to Finland. At the border, she and her companion were subjected to a patdown by a “lovely Red Cross sister.” Such precautions were in place because women “have been very active smugglers, with a particular preference for rubber and medical instruments.” The Swede Marie Abrahamson was one such example. She hid rubber in her baby’s blankets during a trip to Denmark. Unfortunately for her, she was caught in Copenhagen and fined 100 crowns; lacking the money with which to pay the fine, she served 20 days in prison instead.

How did they smuggle?  

In Haparanda, wrote an American reporter, the term ‘rubber baron’ refers to “a man who suddenly gets rich on smuggling rubber in from Finland.” The reporter made the acquaintance of a certain Karlsson, who had pivoted from a prewar career as a clerk to make his fortune as a rubber smuggler. His modus operandi was very straightforward:

…he got into touch with some Finnish merchants, who, for a price, guaranteed to have a large quantity of rubber rings on the Swedish side of the [Torneå] river at a certain minute on a certain day. …When he arrived there was no sign of a Russian custom house officer across the stream. The revolution has altered matters. The Cossacks who used to patrol the Russian shore had disappeared. The new guards appointed by the revolutionaries found it more interesting to stay in Tornea. Karlsson picked up the rubber. This was only the first of a chain of such transactions he has managed with financial success.

Karlsson actually paid duties on the goods that he smuggled; as another journalist observed, “even with the Swedish duty there is a tremendous profit on the shipments.”

The majority of Norwegian smugglers—at least those who were caught—worked on a much smaller scale than their Haparanda counterparts. In Kristiania, for example, a merchant was arrested with 5 kg of raw rubber hidden in his clothes as he attempted to smuggle them via steamship to Sweden. A Kristiania firm sent rubber in sheets through the regular mail; eventually, “the number of letters and their size aroused suspicion” and the police found outgoing mail worth “a few thousand crowns.”

Disguising rubber as fish products seems to have been popular. H. Voigt, a German merchant resident in Copenhagen, distinguished himself by the sheer quantity of rubber that he trafficked in. Voigt was sentenced to 120 days in prison for smuggling 30 000 kg of rubber to Germany in herring barrels. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 400 000 crowns—equivalent to the value of the rubber. In Stavanger in 1916, two enterprising men packed 5500 kg of rubber into 48 tins that they declared as a shipment of fiskeboller (“fish balls”).



Fiskeboller aka "fish balls" are made of white fish ground to a paste with potato flour, eggs, cream, and salt and pepper.

Upon opening a random tin, Norwegian customs agents discovered the ruse. The men were sentenced to 30 days in prison and ordered to pay “20 crowns in court costs.”

In the United States, Heinrich Bachmann and Elsie Schroeder concocted a plan to smuggle 550 pounds of raw rubber and 42 dozen pairs of rubber gloves from New York to Germany via Norway. It was all quite simple in theory and did not involving disguising the rubber as fish; but authorities discovered the deception and arrested Bachmann and Schroeder.

The rubber was packed in four trunks and Mrs. Schroeder booked passage for Christiania on the Oscar II, which sailed last Thursday. Customs inspectors held up the trunks and refused to permit Mrs. Schroeder or Bachmann to sail. According to the federal authorities neither Bachmann nor Mrs. Schroeder has any connection with the German government, but engaged in the enterprise simply for personal profit.

A common trick involved hiding rubber sheets under one’s clothes. This tactic was well-known enough that a Norwegian guard at the Swedish border in 1917 thought that several men looked “unlawfally fat” and gave one of them “a good-natured poke” in the stomach. He “bounced like a rubber ball”—and the game was up.

One of the more amusing smuggling attempts took place in Hornbæk, Denmark, by a group of Swedes in the early autumn of 1917:

Recently a large motorboat lay in at the quay and a large contingent of Swedish Salvation Army soldiers, both men and women, came ashore. The company was accompanied by a large orchestra and went up into the woods, where they spent several hours among the trees. In the beginning, the meeting was accompanied by loud music, but after a while the noise lessened, and when the foreign guests returned to their boat in the afternoon the music had died down completely. The police and customs officers let them pass, and hardly was the boat at sea before the music began again and the whole contingent sang the old song “I am so happy, for now I’m saved” (“Jeg er så glad jeg er frelst”).

The customs officers and police on the beach did not, in the meantime, realise that the happy Swedes had good reason to celebrate for having escaped their Argus eyes. Only on the following day was the reason for their joy made known. From the Swedish police came the message that the Salvationists were in fact very clever smugglers. They had rented the uniforms and musical instruments in Sweden, and while people in Hornbæk believed them to be meeting in the deep of the woods, they were in fact collecting a load of rubber that had been deposited beneath the pines. All the Salvation Army soldiers, upon returning to their boat, had been stuffed with rubber hoses, and the drums and horns as well.

One particpant alone smuggled rubber worth 9000 crowns.

At least one hopeful German recipient of rubber got something quite different than what he bargained for. With his accomplice in Copenhagen, he set up a scheme similar to the Stavanger smugglers but using “gullach”—canned beef stew—instead of fish balls. Unfortunately for the buyer, “after seeing all the rubber carefully canned, [he] went home and left the shipment in the hands of the shipper, who promptly opened all the cases once more, took out the rubber, and substituted real ‘gullach,’ which he sent on to Germany as agreed.”


The amusing ways that smugglers contrived to beat the system during World War I belied the desperation that fueled the smuggling in the first place. Even today the same issues persist. Although the exploits of Scandinavian smugglers of the Great War may make for more exciting reading than modern methods like underdeclaring the value of imported tires or stuffing the boots of personal vehicles with tires before attempting a border crossing, material shortages, a lack of legal purchasing options, and simple greed mean that rubber smuggling remains a problem. 

Edited by knittinganddeath


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Posted (edited)

An absolutely fascinating account of smuggling in Scandinavia that I really enjoyed reading, laughing out loud at some points.  You always write very engagingly and in such perfect English that, along with the combination of such relatively arcane and unusual subjects relating to the war, you invariably amaze the reader.  Thank you for taking the time and trouble to post so interestingly.

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A brilliant account of what went on during the war .A lot of facts I knew nothing about and so well written.Thank you

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Thanks for your kind comments @FROGSMILE @charlie962 @GROBBY. Of all the topics that I've looked into so far, this one was probably the most enjoyable as I couldn't wait to see what these intrepid smugglers would come up with next.

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