Swedish Immigration

Swedish emigration to America began in the mid 1840's, when the first groups of organized emigrants started to arrive at Ellis Island. During this period stretching from 1840 to around 1910 a constant influx of Swedish emigrants poured through New York. When the depression of the 1920's reduced the flow of emigration there were approximately 1.4 million first or second generation Swedish immigrants living in the US. Roughly one fifth of Sweden's current population of 5.5 million. Most of these Swedes were dishearten by their seeming lack of a future in their homeland and boldly decided to pursue, "the dream of America".


Many factors contributed to the, "tidal wave" of emigrants leaving Sweden. Industry and communications in Sweden paled in comparison to most other western European countries. Around 90 percent of the population still earned its livelihood through primitive agriculture. The government was still virtually unaware of the industrial riches that existed in the country's rivers, forests, and mountains. Sweden was also in the midst of a population explosion, which, according to Esiasis Tegne'r, a famous Swedish bishop and poet, was caused by three things, "peace, vaccination, and potatoes". By saying this Tegne'r allude to the fact that the infant mortality rate was falling as a result of new smallpox vaccines, coupled with the fact that Sweden had abstained from war for over fifty years and the introduction of the potato, a cheap nutritional substitute for poor man's bread had resulted in inflated population and life expectancy the number of Swedes doubled between 1750 and 1850 resulting in large families and farms being divided up into tiny land holdings with poor, and, overworked soil. The number of peasants without property increased creating a form of, "rural proletariat", which grew fast while becoming more, and more impoverished. Sweden's Vodka consumption soared to new highs as the poor tried to drink away their miseries. An estimated 24 liters of pure 100% alcohol was consumed per inhabitant over a one year span. Hope came in the form of advertisements of land and opportunity in America. "Beyond the ocean a new chance awaited those who could save up, borrow some money, or get a prepaid ticket from a relative who was already lucky enough to live in the promised land". A series of crop failures in the late 1860's pushed more Swedes toward America, as sixty thousand people left Sweden during these, "starvation years".


Upon arriving in the US most Swedes headed for the Midwest, were the cities of Chicago and Minnesota became the center of an new Swedish American culture with characteristics different than that of Sweden and America. Swedes in these cities had their own churches, club, schools, newspapers, and a unique culture all their own. It was possible to live and die in Chicago never speaking anything but Swedish. Thousands of hungry Swedes poured into these cities and were virtually handed jobs as soon as they got off the trains. The great fertile expanses of the prairies made the agriculturally inclined drool, and life in general was, "popping". The every day reality of these immigrants never lived up to that of their dreams, their first homes often as primitive as the ones that they left, but, profits were there for motivated individuals and in general one could support his family. Similarly to the other ethnic groups swarming into the US at the time, Swedes often had to start form the bottom rung of society. The women often worked as seamstresses in sweatshops, while men toiled away as underpaid laborers. Even some skilled artisans had to settle for low level jobs as they were unable to communicate with their American customers. While some disheartened and home sick individuals returned to a now more economically stable, and, industrial focused Sweden. Most of the new Swedish Americans, however, were able to persevere and eventually prosper in varying fields. Some made careers in business, politics, art, or as skilled laborers.

It has been estimated that there are as many Americans of Swedish descent as there are inhabitants of Sweden itself. The Swedish population contributed a great amount of tradition, culture, and art to the mid west and the rest of the US, most of which is still extremely visible today. For example my mother has a large collection of Darlana Horses, intricately painted wooden horse figurines, and other distinctly Swedish artifacts and decorations. An other example is the Swedish meet balls my mom makes along with her pepparkakar cookies, a Christmas time tradition in my family. In the immigration age where many different cultures met and mingled to form new often drastically different ones, America and Sweden have been eternally linked.