What do Swedes think of Swedish Americans?

Where the Swedes once sought their luck

For the vast majority of Swedes, their home country is the ideal place to live. That was not always so; between 1850 and 1930 the northerners emigrated en masse to North America.

There are plenty of tears flowing from the participants when the documentary soap competition “Allt för Sverige” (“Everything for Sweden”) runs on Swedish television. The show is popular; an eight-part series has been broadcast every year since 2011. The main characters are American descendants of former Swedish emigrants, who not only have the chance to travel to the land of their ancestors by participating, but also the possibility of in-depth research into the distant family past. The further a participant gets in the broadcast episode (in which someone has to leave the competition after each episode), the deeper he or she penetrates into the family history. Then comes the moment when the tears flow.

Promised Land USA

Somewhat less emotional, but no less interested in the matter, is the “Emigration Center” (“Utvandrarnas hus”), a small museum in the provincial town of Växjö on the southern Swedish lake district. The museum houses an informative collection on the massive emigration to America, during which more than a million Swedes set out for the New World between 1850 and 1930. As of 1900, this corresponded to around a fifth of the entire population of the country.

Those who wanted to leave Sweden had the USA in their sights. In the same period, there were only 180,000 Swedes in the neighboring countries Denmark, Norway and Finland and only around 75,000 in all other countries combined. “We have many American tourists who come to us to search for their Swedish ancestors in our extensive archive to research ”, says Judit Söderblom, the archivist of the“ Emigration Center ”. “It seems to be an issue that young Americans are much more concerned with today than Swedes. It almost looks as if emigration overseas has been forgotten in our own modern society. "

It is no coincidence that the “Emigration Center” is in Växjö, one of the larger towns in the Smaland province. It was this area of ​​land that was particularly hard hit by the emigration. This is due to the stony soil and the unfavorable conditions for agriculture. Famine threatened because of bad harvests in the 1860s, especially since the Swedish population had doubled over the past hundred years. But also the religious persecution of all those who did not belong to the Lutheran state church, as well as periodical reports of fabulous economic opportunities in America, were elements that stimulated emigration.

Even if Swedish emigration to America only really got going in the second half of the 19th century (because leaving the kingdom was officially forbidden until 1840), Nordic emigration had taken place earlier. One of the first was a certain Jonas Bronck, who arrived on the American east coast in the 1630s. It is not certain whether he was a Dane or a Swede; given the fact that he has made it world famous, both countries claim him for themselves. It has been handed down that the place in the colony of New Amsterdam where he settled was known as "Broncks Landstück", from which the name "Bronx" arose.

In the great Swedish emigration wave in the 19th century, it was not only farmers and forest workers and later industrial workers who sought their fortune across the ocean, but also maids. They found out from emigrant reports that in America, in contrast to Sweden, service personnel are valued, the working conditions are good - even with half a day off per week - and the earnings are far better than at home. Chicago, one of the most important emigrant destinations and at the beginning of the 20th century after Stockholm the city with the second largest number of Swedish inhabitants even before Gothenburg, thus acquired the attribute "City of the Swedish Maid".

Political distance

The Swedish emigration left the greatest traces in the Midwest. Minnesota, the undisputed center of “Svenskamerica”, had a Swedish population of 10 percent in 1910, and in certain settlements in the state Swedes even made up a majority of the population. Today there are around four million Americans with Swedish roots in the United States.

The continuation of the television series “Allt för Sverige” should thus be secured for decades, at least with regard to the personal reserve. But beyond the popularity of this docu-soap, the relationship between modern Swedes and America has been ambivalent for a long time. On the political level, things drifted apart in the eighties of the last century, when the left-wing idealist Olof Palme ruled in Sweden and Ronald Reagan took over the reign in the USA. Skepticism towards Trump is likely to be at least as great today. Emigration is no longer a big issue; 70 percent of Swedes believe that it is better to live at home than anywhere else in the world.

Regardless of the political aspect, however, there is a marked admiration for the American way of life, especially in the small town and rural areas. On beautiful Sundays you can see Sweden driving out in open, sonorous humming street cruisers of American design. If you want to experience this condensed, you can go to Lake Siljan in the Swedish Dalarna landscape in early autumn. The “Classic Car Week”, a gigantic parade of vintage cars, has been taking place in the town of Rättvik since 1992. Then it is as if all of “Svenskamerica” had suddenly returned.