Chicago, the Essence of "the Promised Land"

By Ulf Beijbom

For the Swedes of the emigration epoch the name Chicago had as familiar a ring as any of the cities in Sweden. The reason that the world metropolis of the Middle West assumed such a position among people who were considered typical farming emigrants can be found on both the rational and the emotional plane.

That Chicago right from the very beginning of the Swedish emigration functioned as a current divider for the stream of immmigrants is indisputable. From the 1840s of the "Jansonites" and the famine emigration of the late 1860s to the mass emigrations of 1880-1914 and the flight in the 1920s from the swedish depression to the American, Chicago, along with New York, stood out as the most important stop on the route westward. Whether one belonged to the minority who came to stay in the big city or was a part of the mass of settlers headed for Minnesota, Dakota or Kansas, the stay in Chicago was the first real contact with the new homeland. The railroad station, the boardinghouse, and the final preparations before the last stage of the trip westward, left lasting impressions even on those who were never to see Chicago again.

Just as undeniable is the fact that this city, already at the beginning of Swedish mass emigration in 1868 and untill the end of the emigrationn epoch in 1930, stood out as the leading "Swedish" metropolis in North America. In the light of Chicago´s function as traffic center and redistributor of the swedish immigration to the Middle West, it seems only natural that the largest Swedish colony in America should lie just on the shores of Lake Michigan. The only surprising aspect is that Chicago´s Swedish enclaves did not expand even more raidly.

To the rational explanations of the power-loaded concept which "the world´s second largest Swedish city" has represented up to the present - both to the immigrants and their relatives in Sweden - we can add the circumstance that Chicago was early prominent as the cultural and economic center of "Swedish-America". In the Swedish countryside this manifested itself primarily in Chicago-trained emigrant agents and Swedish language newspapers sent home from relatives in Chicago. Already during the 1870s, newspapers like Hemlandet and Svenska Amerikanaren, both published in Chicago, began to circulate in Sweden´s emigrant areas. People who had never held a Stockholm newspaper in their hands, in this manner became more familiar with conditions among their countrmen in Chicago than among the inhabitants of Sweden´s capital.

Among the thousands of Swedes drawn to Chicago were a significant number of intellectuals and other better-situated people. The former secondary school pupils and academics who made the Illionois metropolis into a Swedish newspaper and book publishing center had their counterparts in the separatistic State Church clergmen and other religious dissenters who already during the 1850s turned the city into a Swedish church center. The contributions of the intellectual immigrants were also discernible behind the fact that the Swedish-American´ most important schools, hospitals, societies, libraries, and theaters were established in Chicago.

Chicago´s position as the Swedish-American cultural center was easily outweighed by the economic possibilities offered the manual worker. The "Dream of America" seemed to lie closest to realization where the foundation of the world´s most powerful industral country was forged. The industrial and business development created innumerable jobs for the immigrant work force. The rumor of job possibilities in Chicago for those wiling to work hard became a reality in Sweden´s urban areas. The big city attracted not only those immigrants headed for the urban areas. The savings of a few year´ work in some Chicago industry were often calculated in the planning of a new settlement in Minnesota or Iowa.

Chicago´s position in the Swedish emigrant tradition seems somewhat paradoxical when viewed against the background of the usual conception of the Swedish immigrant as a typical rural phenomenon: "He came from one of Europe´s least urbanized and relatively late industrialized countries and went directly out to areas open to the plough". According to this popular viewpoint, the Swedish-American was a person foreign to city life, living far from the large population centers. The truth concerning this prototype of rural immigration is, however, more differentiated than what is usually maintained.

Of the 1.2 million Swedes who emigrated between 1850 and 1920, approximately every fourth one came from a town. On the whole the intensity of emigration was stronger in the towns than in the country. The town was thus by far more important as the background of Swedish emigration than one is usually inclined to imagine. Information from American statistics also testify to the importance of urbanization. In 1890 a third of the Swedish immigrants lived in the principal cities. In 1910 when America´s Swedish-born population reached its maximum, 61% of the Swedes were city dwellers. The 1930 census notes an increase of this figure up to 69%. Only 17% were then described as rural-farm population. 

At the same time a fifth of the 1890 population in Sweden consisted of city dwellers. In 1910 this figure was a fourth, and in 1930 it was somewhat under one third. The speed of urbanization, according to these figures, seems to have been accelerated by emigration. The 20th Century Sweden in America was least of all an agriculturally dominated person. Chicago´s importancce in this process is illustrated by the fact that its share of Swedish immigrants in America in 1890 and 1910 was 9% and twenty years later had reached 11%. From the beginning of Swedish mass immigration a rising tendency for Chicago´s share of the country´s swedish-born population can be observed.

In spite of such unmistakable facts from American statistics, the picture of the farmer-Swede has retained its place in the public consciousness. The main reason for this is most likely due to the fact that most of the other immigrant groups became still more urbanized than the Swedes. In the 1950s, the farmer-Swede also became a part of world literature on the basis of Vilhelm Moberg´s powerful epic The Emigrants. It is easy for any reader, not versed in the history of Swedish emigration, to forget that this trilogy on Småland farmers in the Minnesota of the 1850s is only relevant for the pioneer time.