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The Americanization of the Norwegian Pastors'
    by Gracia Grindal(Volume 32: Page 199)

The world of the pastors’ wives in the early Norwegian-American parsonages was a predictable mixture of Norwegian and American traditions and practices. Just exactly what the mixture was still needs to be analyzed. One can learn about the way in which these immigrants adapted to the New World by examining a variety of cultural phenomena, from their press to their art and literature. One of the frequently overlooked perspectives on their acculturation is a close look at the way the women adapted to American life in their kitchens.

This article will focus on a particular drawing by Linka Preus, wife of Herman Amberg Preus, the president of the Norwegian Synod, one of the oldest and, until the 1880s, the largest of the Norwegian Lutheran churches in America. Linka was considered by most of the Synod pastors’ wives, who were generally of the upper class, to be their leader; they wrote to her frequently for advice about a variety of problems they met on the new frontier.

Linka not only kept up a long and vigorous correspondence with many of these women, she also was a gifted artist whose sketches of their times together were valued by everyone. It is the sketch she did in October, 1862, of herself and her young companion Henriette Neuberg which will be considered carefully in this article.

Linka (Caroline Dorothea Margrethe) Preus was born in Christiansand, Norway, July 2, 1829, to Agnes Louise Carlsen and Christian Nicolai Keyser, a pastor and later a professor of Sacred Theology at the University of Christiania (Oslo). Her mother died when she was ten and left her to be raised by her father, who died when she was seventeen. As he was in ill health before his death, he sent young Linka from Christiania, where he was teaching, to Askevold, a small parish north of Bergen, to her mother’s sister, Mrs. J. Carl Christie, whose husband was also a clergyman. There she was to learn household management and other skills which cultivated young women of the time were expected to possess. She helped instruct the three Christie children for their confirmation and learned to run a household. Her diary from this period indicates that she spent a regular part of each day in reading books such as Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet, playing the piano, participating in dramatic productions in the home, sewing, spinning, weaving, skating, skiing, gardening, and drawing. Her life as she describes it sounds placid and happy.

The system by which young women learned to be housewives was one of apprenticeship, generally in the home of a close relative or friend of the family. As the century wore on, women began to receive more formal education. This differed markedly from Linka’s education, though her social class allowed her the leisure to pursue more of the fine arts and letters than most young girls growing up in Norway at the time. Linka’s hunger for a life of the mind grew keener as she grew older, and sometimes she bitterly resented the fact that men had the chance to learn theology while she was expected to darn socks, wondering what, if anything at all, her education was worth. Writing in her diary after her arrival in America, she noted the “advantages a man has over a woman. It is not my opinion that he is more gifted than woman, but that his mind has been developed by many more kinds of knowledge than has woman’s. Her intellectual growth is regarded as of secondary importance, as something useless, bringing no benefit to the world. When these thoughts occupy my mind, I frequently become embittered, as it all seems so unjust.” {1}

In earlier entries in the diary, one can see the practical kind of education she is getting at the Christies’ when she has to decide whether or not to butcher a young calf: “April 1, 1850. Meanwhile, all a housewife’s duties have rested on my young shoulders. At first I found it very difficult, but now affairs run as smoothly as though I had been a housewife for years - the food question was especially worrisome, and Mondays were always filled with thoughts of food for the ensuing week. A couple of days ago I was in a great pinch, and we had to butcher a calf, but the old saying, ‘Out of season the trolls shall be killed,’ indeed came true, for no sooner was the animal slaughtered than Uncle was presented with a hindquarter of beef, and the selfsame day other gifts arrived, a great number of large flounders and some lobsters. Could anything have been more awkward? If only the meat and fish had arrived half an hour earlier, then all would have been well. Now I had to salt some of the veal and the beef - but of salted meat we have enough. To provide Uncle with fresh meat had been my plan, as he likes that best; and now perhaps I shall merit a scolding from Aunty because her pretty calf no longer frolics about.” {2}

One reads here the words of a young woman learning how to manage things for the benefit of the rest of the household. But when she writes that she had to salt some beef and veal, it is certain that she did not slaughter the animal herself or become too intimately involved with the dirtiest part of the butchering process. For that she had a good supply of servants.

The cookbook which Linka and her friends in America swore by was that of Fru Hanna Winsnes, Lærebog i deforskellige grene of huusholdningen (A Textbook on the Various Branches of Household Economy), which was first published in 1845 and went through twelve editions by 1878. Mrs. Winsnes wrote the book, she said later, to help those young women whose education had been mostly frivolous to cope with the staggering business of managing a large household. In the preface to the first edition, reprinted in subsequent editions, she marveled that men received so much training for their work, while women received almost none. Her book assumes that women will grow up to be housewives: “I am convinced that each young wife and engaged girl wants to manage her husband’s household to his advantage and satisfaction, but the new educational methods keep young women away from home management. The inexperienced young woman is troubled by her uncertainty in this unknown area. Therefore, I am writing this book to help her overcome her anxieties.” {3}

The criticism Mrs. Winsnes made of the new educational system is worth considering. She was a writer of romantic novels which she published under the name of Hugo Schwarz. A pastor’s wife herself, she was from the official class and continued in the venerable tradition of “parsonage” literature. So she was very much like those women of the nineteenth century who were beginning to participate formally in the masculine life of letters even as she lamented the loss of the peculiarly feminine kind of education which would have kept her from her books. She was, in her career, an example of the very problem which she sought to address.

Her book is filled with practical and helpful instructions on the working of the kitchen: how to care for animals before and during slaughter, the preservation of food, the making of wine and beer. Though she did not develop anything like the full rationale for keeping women in the home that Catharine Beecher did in America, her sense that something had changed was strong. Both Mrs. Winsnes and Miss Beecher feared that the smattering of male education which women were beginning to get as the century wore on only taught women they were too good to work in the kitchen. Mrs. Winsnes did not fill her book, as Catharine Beecher did, with pious references to the sacred duty women have to maintain hearth and home, nor did she try to glorify housekeeping as a science as Miss Beecher did with her paeans of praise for the woman who understands that her work as housewife requires a good bit of formal scientific knowledge, like chemistry and physics. {4}

Mrs. Winsnes has more of the eighteenth century about her. She was writing for young women of the upper class whose work in the household would be to make the home completely self-sufficient. It was her book which Linka, as the bride of a newly ordained pastor, brought with her to America in 1851 when she and Herman arrived in Spring Prairie, Wisconsin, ready to begin a ministry there which lasted until Herman’s death in 1894. The young couple came in response to a call from the Norwegian-American church. Because of their romantic approval of the hearty and fiercely democratic Norwegian peasants and of American ways, they were prepared to adapt to the New World.

Linka describes her first glimpse of the future parsonage, without too much dismay, as merely a hole with water in it. Her youth and hopefulness were great supports at this time, though life must have seemed exceedingly difficult and primitive. When their cabin was finished she wrote that it was so cramped that when they had three people at table, the third, generally she, would have to sit on the bed. But, in general, her tone is more one of hearty accommodation than of despair.

Not long after the Preuses were established, they were visited by another young couple, Vilhelm and Elisabeth Koren, who were on their way to Washington Prairie congregation near Decorah, Iowa. Mrs. Koren also had to adapt to the rugged life of the frontier after being raised in the home of a teacher in Larvik, Norway. Her letters to Linka reveal her to be confident about many things, but still a trifle worried about how, exactly, one goes about the many tasks of raising and preserving food for the long winters. Though both of these women were able to call on the services of young confirmands, teenagers who would work for the pastor as they learned the Lutheran catechism, they never could expect the loyal and longtime help from a family servant that they had known in Norway. Mrs. Koren writes frequently about the lack of good servants in America and allows, in one of her more exasperated moments, that the only reason she would return to Norway to live would be for decent household help. In America conditions were not the same and the women adapted more or less successfully. That they did adapt is good evidence that they understood quite well the difference between America and Norway.

This sketch which Linka made of herself and her longtime companion and friend, Henriette Neuberg, cleaning an animal’s intestines is good evidence of that adaptability.

Mrs. Winsnes wrote in her book that before slaughtering an animal one should make certain there was enough help: at least two boys to cut and hang the carcass, and at least two girls to clean the intestines. “Two girls have enough to do the first day with cleaning the intestines and the stomach, and a third would be helpful.” {5}

Such instructions must have amused Linka as she was working. It would almost seem as if she had drawn this picture to say that in America things were quite different. The heading for the picture says, “Fruen og Frøkenen maa selv rense Tarmen i denne Slagten” (“the lady of the house and the young lady must themselves clean the intestines in this slaughter”). The sentence by itself is ironic, but set against the language of Mrs. Winsnes, which Linka had undoubtedly just read, it shows exactly how inappropriate these instructions were to the American situation.

In this self-portrait, Linka is on the left, holding the knife Mrs. Winsnes suggested in her book. One would not describe the portrait as flattering; in fact, that is part of the fun of the drawing: she seems to have enjoyed setting herself into the picture almost like the hefty peasant which she was not. The woman portrayed here is one accustomed to work. And yet, that it is a self-portrait shows her self-awareness and maturity. The woman on the right is Henriette Neuberg, who lived with the Preus family for years. She was a sister of the first wife of Laur. Larsen, the first president of Luther College. Henriette was no servant. As a member of the upper class she doubtless expected to marry well. {6} Her beauty is frequently spoken of in letters from Elisabeth Koren and other pastors’ wives, and her endearing warmth as a governess and a companion to the women and children made her a sought-after guest and helper. Though sometimes both she and her younger sister, Karine, were unhappy in a system which simply did not allow either of them the opportunity to work or to be “their own masters,” as Karine wished to be, they were very much a part of it until their deaths.

Dependent on their brother-in-law, Laur. Larsen, for money and legal protection, they lived for several years with either the Preuses or the Larsens. They helped in the house and with the education of the children, which wearied the wives, who followed their mothers’ example and sent their girls to other parsonages where they could learn the skills of domestic economy from the “aunts” as they had thirty years before.

Once Karine wrote Henriette, not long after this drawing was completed, and said, “Oh, Henriette, I can tell you are weary of working for Preus!” It is not too far-fetched to imagine that Henriette had expressed some disgust at having to clean the intestines of the animal. Still, in this picture, one can see the frank look of pleasure and amusement in the faces of the two women, not so much from their work as from their awareness of its incongruity. Their sophistication does not make them shrink from a scene like this, it allows them to endure it. In America the wife and the governess must do such things.

Though both of these women have been trained to be very like the decorative ladies of the nineteenth-century drawing room, there is still much that is of the eighteenth century about their cool view of themselves. Linka was no coquette; she laughed when the conductor of the train they were riding through Michigan would not allow her into the “ladies’ car” because she was not wearing hoops.

As a frontier wife, Linka was independent and productive. She liked managing the farm which she and Herman bought in Spring Prairie and she was successful at it, receiving little help from her husband, whose work kept him away from home a good part of the time. Perhaps one could argue that it was the frontier which gave Linka the chance to develop her talent as a manager to its fullest and gave her a rich sense of being a productive partner in the marriage. If she had lived in the East, an entirely different pattern of acculturation might have obtained.

Given the frontier, however, she and other pastors’ wives were able to maintain some of the traditions of the old country, even as they understood that certain of the old ways would clearly have to change. Those pastors’ wives such as Caja Munch and others who could not adapt to the New World and its more democratic ways were defeated by the crudity of the frontier and returned to Norway. {7} Much too much has been made of the social superiority of the leaders of the Norwegian Synod by historians looking at them from the point of view of their enemies. To be sure, the Preuses, Larsens, Hjorts, and Korens were “bedrefolk” and not of a class with the cotters (husmand) who immigrated in such large numbers. Both the Korens and the Preuses lived on the frontier in the most primitive of conditions and survived well, not because of their rank in society but because they were strong enough to survive. Caja Munch’s demand to be treated as a woman of privilege only brought her disaster. Linka Preus and Elisabeth Koren survived happily and well because of their hearty sense for what was possible and their ability to adapt to the new situation with good humor. This drawing shows as well as anything the intelligence and amusement with which at least one pastor’s wife adapted to the new land.

Notes

<1> Linka Preus, Linka’s Diary: On Land and Sea, trans. and ed. by Johan Carl Keyser Preus and Diderikke Margrethe Brandt Preus (Minneapolis, 1952), 198.

<2> Preus, Linka’s Diary, 83-84.

<3> Hanna Winsnes, Lærebog i de forskellige grene af huusholdningen (Christiania, 1845), iv.

<4> Catharine Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy (New York, 1841).

<5> Winsnes, Lærebog, 61.

<6> Henriette Neuberg left America for Norway in 1866. In 1875 she married Pastor O. J. Hjort and returned to America. She died in childbirth in1879.

<7> Caja Munch’s letters home are filled with sentiments about America which seldom escaped the pens of either Elisabeth Koren or Linka Preus. See Helene and Peter A. Munch, trans. and ed., The Strange American Way: Letters of Caja Munch from Wiota, Wisconsin, 1855-1859 (Carbondale, Illinois, 1970).

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