The Importance of Being Swedish.
Having spent the majority of my life living abroad with a Swedish passport, I have found that our Swedish identity is far too often homogenized and our rich culture oversimplified. The familiar stigma of Sweden as a single, blonde, socialist state is not only inaccurate, but also disparaging of our vibrant, dynamic and progressive society and its history. At the turn of the 20th century, the Kingdom of Sweden was predominantly agrarian, yet within less than three generations, and without revolution or bloodshed, the country became the hallmark for equality, innovation and prosperity.
As an utlandssvensk, I am very proud of my nationality, yet I have often been challenged by what it means to me to be Swedish. My dark hair, openness and lack of an accent in my spoken English have throughout my life elicited a sort of a comical response when I insist on being Swedish. Despite the misleading public relations image, today’s Sweden is a pluralistic, multi-ethnic, multi-racial community that continues to reinvent itself. Our society continues to globalize, and in a European Union where national sovereignty and national identity are put to question it becomes even more important to better understand what it truly means to be Swedish ... lest we wish to continually be confused for the Swiss, mistaken for socialists and dismissed entirely.
The key to our understanding of being Swedish lies not within a European context of citizenship but rather in a better appreciation for the cultural groups that have come to represent Swedish identity in the United States.
In the next few issues of Nordstjernan, I intend to explore “Swedish” as an identity through the perspectives of three distinct immigrant groups: Swedish-Americans, Utlandssvenskar and Swedes. I believe that there is great value in better understanding aspects of Swedish identity in this diaspora. This focus can have an immense, positive impact on our approach to helping Swedes, immigrants and utlandsvenskar integrate, assimilate and contribute to contemporary Swedish society. I hope you enjoy learning about our history in the United States as much as I have enjoyed researching the topic.
Part I: The Fundamentals of the Swedish Immigration
Disregarding the short lived Swedish colonies in the New World, the first significant Swedish presence in the United States came as a result of the waves of Swedish immigration between 1840 and 1930. These mass movements greatly influenced the democratization and development of the once impoverished agricultural kingdom of Sweden into one of the world’s most progressive and economically developed societies. It is out of a disjointed history of “pioneer” and “urbanite” groups of Swedish immigrants, whose pragmatic, sub-national or regional identity allowed Swedish-Americans to be nostalgic and achieve a high level of civil integration in an otherwise reasonably xenophobic and hostile America.
The reasons to emigrate were many
There were many good reasons to come to America during the 19th century. In 1840, four-fifths of Sweden’s population received an income directly from the agricultural industry: farming. An examination of the Swedish population in 1855 finds that “only 10 percent of Sweden’s inhabitants lived in cities” at the time. This meant that a large proportion of the population depended heavily upon the success of annual harvests for sustenance. When harvests were weak, America beckoned and those that could afford it looked to emigration as a solution to instability. According to Florence Janson, a researcher of early Swedish immigration, the extent of this immense impact of agricultural influence on Sweden’s general population and migration is shown by the emigration peaks’ correlation to “crop failures like those of 1867-69, and the agricultural depression of the [eighteen] eighties."
As with many contemporary European societies, the Nordic countries depended upon staple crops such as the potato. Sweden was no exception and when the crops failed to meet consumption needs, anxiety among the lower classes grew as famine disproportionately struck those that were least able to purchase alternative goods.
The Swedish Emigration Institute in Rock Island, Illinois estimates that about one fifth of the entire Swedish population crossed the Atlantic in hopes of better lives. The majority of these expatriates hailed from Sweden’s rural south or wooded North, where isolation particularly exacerbated a poor harvest’s impact. These were not the poorest regions in Sweden; on the contrary, these were the regions that had already experienced some form of development in the agricultural and forestry industries.
Accordingly, based on their familiarity with available industries and the harsh climate, the vast majority of Swedes who came to the U.S. found their way to the familiar eco-systems of the American Midwest. In many cases, not only families but also entire communities immigrated together. At this time a great cultural phenomenon appeared out of the regional mass migration and their prodigious communication with family back home—the America letter or Amerikabrev
. This correspondence inspired and encouraged other individuals, families and communities to follow suit and join the already established settlements in the New World. According to Scandinavian researcher, Ulf Beijbom, “The settlers in the agrarian Homestead-area so often represented chain emigration from the same community, [that] the provincial [mentality] surpassed the national.” This, as one will later find, proved a dividing and defining force in the identification of the Swedish-Americans.
Another strong force in this community-based emigration was America’s promise of freedom of religion. Many Swedes felt alienated and persecuted because of the religious establishment. Indeed, until very recently—January 1, 2000—Sweden was still a theocracy, with a state church under government control. Since 1726, the “conventicle placate” forbade religious meetings in private homes and the administration of the Holy Eucharist by laymen, thereby impeding the development of free churches (frikyrkor) that relied upon private homes as religious places of worship.
Religious freedom, Bishop Hill
Certain groups found the religious climate insupportable and attempted to freely practice their religious views. An 1844 so-called purification of literature, by extremists who followed Erik Jansson in Tranberg Hälsingland, lead to the confrontation between Janssonists and local authorities that ultimately concluded with the community’s mass emigration from Sweden and the subsequent founding of the utopian Bishop Hill Colony in Illinios.
The United States was a logical destination for those who sought religious liberty, given not only the American Founding Fathers’ promises but also the fact that the United States was home to the Great Awakening movements that had inspired many religious groups found in Sweden at that time.
Religious freedom was just one of the liberties that attracted emigrants to the United States. Many Swedes found intolerable the institutions of class structure that permeated Swedish society. The small Nordic country at the time, though poor, still maintained a very harsh legal and social code of class structure and privileges. It is no coincidence that Anderssonville, the area of Chicago associated with the Swedish migration, is thus titled for it is certain that such names were very representative of the demographics of those lower middle-class migrants that came to the windy city.
Hope for a better life
As has already been established, the rural lower-middle class angst fueled much of the emigration, however, according to Hans Lindblad, in his work "Emigration: the People’s Project," the movement towards emigration in Sweden was something even more populist. Since the established classes of the Nobles, Gentry and Clergy, who composed the Riksdag
(parliament) resented emigration, the endeavor itself can be seen as a folkrörelse
(mass movement) against established mores and mentality. This populist movement from the “lower middle class” was composed of an America-conscious population that corresponded over time both with the Swedish pioneer communities in the Middle West and the commercially dynamic urban centers such as Minneapolis and Chicago. It is fair to say that the average Swede at that time had more correspondence and understanding of these American cities than the nation’s capital.
An example of the extent of the pervasive cultural influence of Swedish America at the time can be noted in the popularity of Vilhelm Moberg’s seminal trilogy, which follows the lives and struggles of Swedish emigrants to the United States. Moberg’s epic would have played into the familiar narrative of many of the Amerikabrev, whose correspondence show a cross section of the interaction and influences of the two Swedish people separated by the Atlantic. Some 200,000 Swedes eventually returned to Sweden after living in America, bringing with them lessons and ideals from the New World.
We have thus established that the early Swedish groups that came to the United States did so out of hope that America could provide economic stability and social opportunities that were otherwise not made available to the rural, middle classes at the time in Sweden. The pluralistic movement that saw millions of inhabitants from the Swedish countryside fostered a sort of community mentality that would come to shape the social and cultural institutions in the decades following the settlement and establishment of Swedish communities.
[In the next issue we will explore the make up and development of the Swedish communities, their institutions and the imprint they have left.]
- The Dawn of Swedish America
1)Huss, Einar, “Några data om nutida Svensk industri”, svenska idustrin vid kvartalsekelskiftet. Stockholm. 1925. p87.
2)Janson, Florence E. The Background of Swedish Immigration, 1840-1930. The University of Chicago Press. 1931. P 2
3)Janson, Florence E. The Background of Swedish Immigration, 1840-1930. The University of Chicago Press. 1931. P 2
4)Beijbom, Ulf. Tradition och Kultur bland Amerikas svenskar. Utvandrare och invandrare i Sveriges historia 1846-1996. Migrationskommittén : Svenska emigrantinstitutet, 1997P. 39. Eftersom bosättarna I det agrara homesteadområdet så ofta representerade kedjeutflyttning från samma hembygd gick det provinsiella före det nationella
5)Scott, F.D. Trans-Atlantica. Migrations in the Dynamics of History (reprinted from World Migration in Modern Times), Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1968. p172