The Scandinavian immigrants not only built new lives in the United States; they also built a new culture. As immigrants from Scandinavia flooded into sparsely populated areas of the U.S., they helped create a particularly Scandinavian way of life, melding the varied religious, culinary, literary, and linguistic traditions that they brought with them with those that they found in their new country. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the Great Lakes states, the northern Great Plains, and in enclaves scattered among northern U.S. cities, a visitor might imagine that he or she was traveling through a unique new nation—Scandinavian America.
Language and Education
As Scandinavian immigrants arrived in the U.S., they brought a
diverse group of native languages with them, and they quickly
established institutions to nurture and promote their linguistic
heritage. In Scandinavia, the official Lutheran Church had required
that all children be taught to read and write, and so Scandinavian
immigrants arrived in the U.S. with a very high level of literacy
in their native tongues. Wherever Scandinavians settled, Scandinavian-language
newspapers and publishing houses quickly sprang up. Over the decades,
more than 1000 Swedish newspapers and magazines were founded,
and over 350 Finnish newspapers. Some of the larger papers, such
as the Norwegian Decorah-Posten and the Danish Bien,
were read across the U.S. and became de facto national newspapers
for their respective communities. Novels by Scandinavian authors
were offered by some newspapers as subscription premiums, and
were also available in the Scandinavian bookstores that appeared
in most northern cities. In the 1920s, Norwegian immigrant novelist
Ole Rölvaag became the first, and most celebrated, major Scandinavian
immigrant author in the U.S. when his novel Giants in the Earth
was published in both Norwegian and English.
Churches also played a major role in preserving Scandinavian languages in the U.S., as well as serving as important social institutions. Most of the schools founded by new Scandinavian immigrants were operated by churches and other religious institutions, and a significant percentage of all Scandinavian-language publishing was religious in nature, often sponsored or directly owned by Lutheran synods. The first Scandinavian institutions of higher education in the U.S. were also church-sponsored, including the Swedish Augustana College in North Dakota, the Norwegian Luther College in Iowa, and the Finnish Suomi College in Michigan.
In their home countries, most Scandinavians had belonged to a
village hall or other organization, and as soon as immigrant communities
established themselves in the U.S., they set about founding new
social clubs. These societies—the Swedish Vasa Order, the
Finnish Knights of Kaleva, the Sons of Norway, and the Danish
Brotherhood, among many others—performed crucial social-welfare
functions, as they provided financial aid to struggling families
and offered unemployment benefits to vulnerable immigrant workers.
At the same time, they promoted the language and culture of the
immigrants' homelands and served as all-purpose community centers,
hosting local choirs, cooking clubs, sports teams, and, in many
Finnish social clubs, a community sauna.
As the Scandinavian-American communities became more established,
some of these clubs became important forces in electoral politics,
and local politicians were eager to win their endorsement.
Some Scandinavians also marshaled the communal spirit of their homeland to form collectively-owned businesses, or cooperatives. Cooperatives had been well known in many Scandinavian countries, especially in Finland, and Scandinavian America came to be dotted with cooperatively owned farms, dairies, and stores.
The Scandinavian tradition of collective action also led many
immigrants to take active roles in American social reform movements.
From the 1840s on, Scandinavian immigrants were well represented
in the movement for the abolition of slavery, and with the onset
of the Civil War volunteered in great numbers to fight, overwhelmingly
for the Union.
Many Union companies consisted entirely of Scandinavians, and one company, from the tiny Bishop Hill community in Illinois, was made up solely of Swedes. At the turn of the century, the writer and Danish immigrant Jacob Riis led a journalistic crusade to expose the horrific living conditions endured by the inhabitants of America's urban slums, which included many new immigrants. Riis' book How the Other Half Lives, a classic of muckracking literature, brought about a great wave of protest and led to major housing reform in the U.S.
Many Scandinavians also took an active role
in the burgeoning U.S. labor movement. Swedish, Norwegian, and
Finnish miners and loggers participated in strikes throughout
the Great Lakes states and the mountain West, sometimes as members
of the radical Industrial Workers of the World union, also known
as the Wobblies. The Swedish immigrant Joe Hill, born Joel Hägglund,
was a prominent IWW member and wrote many of the union's rallying
songs. After Hill was executed for murder in 1914, under what
his sympathizers claimed were false pretenses, he became the subject
of folk songs himself.