NAHA Header

NAHA Logo

Becoming American, Becoming Suburban: Norwegians in the 1920s
    by Knut Gjerset and Ludvig Hektoen (Volume 33: Page 3)

On Monday, June 8, 1925 - almost halfway through the decade Americans popularly call “the Jazz Age” or “the Roaring 20s” - a crowd numbering between 60 and 100 thousand gathered at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds to mark the centennial of organized Norwegian immigration to the United States. The climax to several weeks of festivities in cities across the country, the gathering, like other ethnic festivals in this century, represented a particular point in the historical process of group self-definition. In the words of one organizer, it was an opportunity to “take stock of what the Norwegians in America have done during the past century in order that we, as Norwegian Americans, may better understand our heritage, that we may better appreciate our pioneer fathers, and that we may get a more just recognition from our American neighbors, and that we may better face the future.” {1}

The group’s most prominent American neighbor, President Calvin Coolidge, broke his celebrated silence that day in St. Paul to strike the event’s keynote. In his speech, he paid lavish praise to Norwegians in America. He acknowledged the Viking discovery of North America as the beginning of the transplantation of such strong “Nordic traits” as individualism and industriousness. A New Englander, Coolidge compared the arrival of the sloop Restauration in 1825 to the [4] landing of the Mayflower immigrants two centuries before and set the Norwegians squarely into the heroic epic of American westward expansion. And he paid tribute to Norwegian-American participation in American wars. {2}

Evoking the familiar idea of the “melting pot,” Coolidge told Norwegian Americans that their qualities fused with those of other ethnic groups to create “a spiritual union accompanied by a range of capacity and genius which marks this nation for a preeminent destiny.” Since 1825 the Norwegians had transformed America, but perhaps more importantly, the President claimed, America transformed the Norwegians. “They have been rapidly amalgamated into the body of citizenship while contributing to it many of its best and characteristic elements.” Despite their European origins, the President concluded, the group’s historical identity was “in its essence and its meaning . . . peculiarly American.” {3}

Among those who cheered Coolidge’s speech that summer day were Norwegian-American leaders who viewed such testimonials as elegies. By 1925 immigration from the old country had seemed to come to an end, thanks to the World War, a short depression in the early 1920s, and the passing of the immigration restriction laws of 1921 and 1924. While no one then could have envisioned the effects of the Great Depression and World War II in further curtailing European immigration, the message seemed clear enough by 1925: that the great migration was over, and the centennial celebrants and their children were the sole custodians of Norwegian culture in America.

Some doubted that the younger generation could be trusted with continuing the immigrant traditions. Leaders cited the abandonment of regional dialects, the increased use of English in worship and conversation, and a declining interest in ethnic club activities among the American-born young as indices of Americanization. So a cloud of fatalism hung over the centennial, a morbid feeling that the 1925 festivities represented a “last rally” of the Norwegians before the group sank into the American mainstream.

Of course, the group did not sink into an American [5] mainstream. Nor did it retain a culture insulated against the influences of the mainstream. Rather, in the period between World War I and the Great Depression, Norwegian-American leaders redefined their group’s identity in the face of challenges presented by a rapidly changing American society and culture around them.

By the time of the 1925 centennial, Norwegians had already participated in a major trend in American social history, the rise of an urban nation. The 1920 census established the United States as a nation of city dwellers, as for the first time more than 50 percent of its people were counted among the urban population. Despite their enduring reputation as the most rural of immigrant groups, Norwegians joined the migration to American cities. By the end of the 1920s, some 47 percent of Norwegian immigrants and their children were to be found in the urban populations. Although this figure includes residents of all towns and cities with a population over 2,500, about one-half of the “urban” Norwegians were found in four indisputably metropolitan locales: New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle. {4}

Each of these cities developed a koloni, a recognizable Norwegian ethnic neighborhood. While Norwegians did not dominate their neighborhoods numerically, the Norwegian character of such neighborhoods as Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, Cedar-Riverside in Minneapolis, and the Humboldt Park neighborhoods in Chicago was established by the presence of ethnic businesses and a variety of ethnic organizations and institutions, visible elements of urban life that identified the area as an ethnic neighborhood to outsiders and a gathering place for Norwegians throughout the twentieth-century metropolis. {5}

The presence of a Norwegian community was also marked by an ethnic elite. By the turn of the century, major urban settlements had reached the concentration of population and degree of wealth and diversity necessary to create and maintain a class of leaders - professional men, journalists, teachers, preachers, and businessmen - who dominated the public life of the koloni and claimed to represent the group in [6] its dealings outside the neighborhood. {6} The elite’s activities were reported regularly in the local Norwegian-language press. Each city with a substantial Norwegian population was served by a strong ethnic newspaper. A vehicle of group coherence, the Norwegian-language newspaper was the voice of the group - especially its leadership - to the outside world, as well as a window on American society and culture. These urban communities, then, with their ethnic organizations, businesses, leaders, press, and celebrations, were the center stage of the drama of the Norwegians’ grappling with the challenges of American culture.

Three major challenges faced the Norwegian communities in their interaction with the American culture of the time: patriotic conformism, advances in the consumer economy, and the expansion of the suburbs.

PATRIOTIC CONFORMISM

The outburst of American patriotism that accompanied the United States’ entry into World War I presented immigrants with a demand for patriotic conformity. Norwegian-American leaders mobilized to prove their American loyalty within an ethnic context. Carl Chrislock defines the war’s threat to uncritical norskheten (Norwegianness) in his book Ethnicity Challenged: The Upper Midwest Norwegian-American Experience in World War I. Chrislock reminds us that in addition to the war effort’s general anti-foreigner sentiment, Norway’s immigrants were especially vulnerable, since their language, culture, and religion were seen by patriots as too similar to those of the German enemy. In addition, the troublesome neutrality of the old country, its seeming cowardice in the monumental struggle between American democracy and Teutonic barbarism, had to be explained and excused. {7}

One typical expression of the challenge appeared in a column by Julius Chambers in the Brooklyn Eagle in June, 1918, which described a local Norwegian-American family: pro-German immigrant parents and their American-born brood of “shirkers.” The whole family, the journalist concluded, were “worthless, ungrateful creatures.” {8} [7]

In response to such nativist propaganda Norwegian-American leaders called for an end to foreigner-baiting while launching a strong campaign to demonstrate Norwegian-American loyalty. First, the koloni was mobilized in an intense war bond drive. Bonds were sold in the neighborhood’s churches, stores, ethnic clubhouses, and even the newspaper offices. Newspapers promoted the buying of bonds as participation in an ethnic activity, as in the fall of 1917 when war bonds were advertised as “en prægtig Julegave” (a magnificent Christmas gift). {9}

A second front in the struggle to demonstrate wartime loyalty involved marshaling public support for soldiers from the Norwegian community. Although a company of boys from Bay Ridge spent most of the war in Camp Upton, New Jersey, its activities were widely covered in the Brooklyn newspaper, Nordisk Tidende (Nordic Times). By printing the soldiers’ letters and sponsoring drives to provide soldiers with scarves and cookies from home, the newspaper helped the koloni identify with the war effort while demonstrating to its Yankee neighbors the group’s loyalty to America. {10}

Similar purposes were served by the recasting of ethnic celebrations during the war, especially Syttende Mai, the Norwegian constitution day on May 17, as American events while stepping up the Norwegians’ celebration of July 4th.

In these efforts to demonstrate loyalty, Norwegian-American leaders strove to define the war effort as American and ethnic. Norwegian-American patriotism was defined as more than a defense against the criticism of nativists; it was the duty of immigrants to support the United States. Newcomers had a special responsibility toward their adopted land: “You have smoked this country’s pipe of peace,” Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota told his countrymen, “Now carry her tomahawk.” {11}

Norwegian-American leaders employed the language of Wilsonian moral universalism to elevate the American war cause above traditional European nationalism. They depicted America’s cause as the cause of all civilization when they urged their neighbors to “remember that America is fighting for [8] Right, Justice, Democracy.” Having proclaimed the universal morality of America’s war, the leaders turned Norway’s neutrality to advantage. Mother Norway was recast as a stoic and violated martyr. One wartime appeal promoted the purchase of war bonds as a fitting memorial to “the 745 Norwegian ships and 1,000 sailors who have found a watery grave through German viciousness and brutality.” A similar message appeared on a banner at a July 4th parade: “Norway is keeping the seas open for civilization.” The imagery was clear: the motherland’s neutrality was a badge of courage; neutral Norway was tied in a silent affiance with Wilsonian America in the war to make the world safe for democracy. {12}

The Norwegian-American war effort presumed that one could have two loyalties. This idea was clearly expressed by one of Brooklyn’s soldiers bivouacked at Camp Upton who urged readers of Nordisk Tidende, “Let us, then, as sons and daughters of Mother Norway, all stand back of this, our adopted country in every thing and way possible.” The point was further driven home by a wartime Syttende Mai speaker’s assertion that “because we celebrate Norway’s independence day does not mean that we are not 100% for our adopted land.” {13}

Efforts were redoubled to demonstrate the group’s ethnic Americanism as the war ended and the pressures of patriotic conformism continued in the time of the Red Scare and the “tribal twenties.” From the Armistice through the 1920s, their efforts were intensified on several fronts.

One of their major undertakings was to encourage unnaturalized Norwegian immigrants to become American citizens. In numerous articles, letters, and editorials, readers of the ethnic press were told that taking out first papers for citizenship was the strongest demonstration of loyalty. As late as 1926, Nordisk Tidende expressed shock that nearly 7,000 Norwegians in Brooklyn had not yet made an effort to become American citizens. {14} The wartime and postwar citizenship campaigns stressed both the emotional quality of patriotism and the more pragmatic need for Norwegians to allay suspicions of their disloyalty. {15} [9]

In a parallel campaign, leaders and newspapers used a patriotic appeal to urge Norwegians to learn English. Use of the mainstream’s language was characterized as a basic means of participation in American life. Obituaries as well as articles celebrating living and dead leaders and businessmen frequently noted their early mastery of English as one factor in their success. {16} The koloni’s youth were encouraged to follow the leaders’ examples. Not knowing English, editorialists warned, would lead young Norwegians to dead-end jobs at the lowest level of the American economy. Ironically, editors also promoted the learning of English as a means of preserving ethnic group coherence. Surveying the Brooklyn community, Nordisk Tidende found Norwegian-American households divided linguistically. “There are many homes,” the newspaper complained, “where the younger generation, anywhere from 12 to 30 years of age, have not learned to read the mother tongue.” {17} To bridge the chasm between generations, the newspaper initiated a column in English, aimed specifically at the under-30 audience. As English made inroads into other Norwegian-American institutions, the newspaper used its English columns to inculcate the young with Norwegian culture. The first English articles printed were descriptions of the geology and history of the mother country. {18}

The goal of Nordisk Tidende’s “Learn English” campaign was a unified bilingual ethnic community whose members could communicate easily in either Norwegian or English. This ideal complemented the doctrine of dual identity that took shape during and after the war. The ideal and the efforts to secure it reflect further the search for a way to conform to American culture while retaining “a splendid culture . . . we brought with us which it is our duty to transplant on American soil.” {19}

The community expressed the dual identity most publicly in its celebration of patriotic holidays. Like a good family man who was both a loyal son and a faithful husband, leaders insisted, the Norwegian American was capable of celebrating both his mother’s birthday and his wedding anniversary. Throughout the 1920s, urban ethnic celebrations of Norway’s [10] constitution day and America’s independence day featured the patriotic symbols of both countries and speakers who strove to compare Norwegians and Americans and their respective histories. {20} “It was all Norwegian, that Syttende Mai celebration in Loring Park,” the Minneapolis Journal observed in May, 1924, “but it was all American in the end.” Editor A. N. Rygg told a July 4th audience in Brooklyn that there was no contradiction between celebrating that American holiday and May 17th, as “the two days stand exactly for the same thing.” {21}

Some community leaders sought to create new holidays that were exclusively Norwegian-American, as opposed to old-world Norwegian. Earlier in the century, Professor Rasmus Bjørn Anderson had urged his countrymen to celebrate the Viking discovery of North America as the perfect ethnic holiday, one that was Norwegian and American. His crusade was taken up with new vigor in the 1920s as ethnic newspapers and clubs in several American cities added Leif Ericson Day, October 9, to their calendars. {22} Similarly, the 1925 centennial seemed better suited to the doctrine of the dual identity than the 1914 centennial of the first Syttende Mai. While Syttende Mai orators sonorously compared the 1814 Eidsvoll assembly with both the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the framing of the United States Constitution, the event was, in the final analysis, a Norwegian event. The arrival of the Restauration immigrants in 1825, on the other hand, was seen as an event of particular importance to Norwegians in America.

The doctrine of the dual identity also influenced the vigorous efforts to promote Norwegian-American history in the 1920s, a movement that produced many basic texts of the group’s immigrant history and launched the Norwegian-American Historical Association in 1925. In some ways, the flurry of history writing was a conservative and defensive response to the fear of the group’s impending loss of its collective memory. The immigrant generation’s memory of its beginnings in America was growing dimmer, its documents were disappearing, and the early history of the group had to [11] be preserved and recorded “before it is too late,” as novelist Ole Rølvaag urged. The new history books and the historical association could do more than preserve the past. They were also to interpret the immigrant past for new generations of Norwegian Americans and Americans not of Norwegian descent. In fulfilling these goals, they were to legitimate Norwegians’ presence in America and place Norwegians in American history. {23}

Historians - professional and amateur - of the 1920s produced a body of scholarship of varying quality. Pioneering scholars, prominently Theodore Blegen and Knut Gjerset, traced the uneven process of Norwegian immigrant interaction with the American land, economy, and political structure during the nineteenth century. Lesser scholars sought to convince Americans of significant Norwegian activities in the United States before the arrival of the 1825 sloop: Vikings were featured prominently in a Norwegian-American contribution to the 1921 New York exposition, “America’s Making,” as well as in many popular books and pageants. Writers managed to discover Norwegians in seventeenth-century America, among the Swedes and Finns in the Middle Colonies. Some efforts to demonstrate Norwegian contributions to the American past were more desperate and laughable. Partisans argued exhaustively that the very name of the nation’s great metropolis, New York, was of Norwegian origin, while others searched the genealogy of George Washington in an effort to prove that the first President was also the very first prominent Norwegian American. {24}

Taken together, the histories produced in the 1920s celebrated strong and admired individuals - colonists, founding fathers, and pioneer farmers - who contributed desirable character traits to the American identity. Individualism, hard work, love of freedom, habits of industry, obedience to law, good citizenship were counted as Norwegian gifts to the developing nation in the last century. Not surprisingly, such “Nordic” traits were those most cherished in American middle-class culture. Presaging Coolidge’s analysis of the [12] meaning of the hundred years of Norwegian-American history, one ethnic leader remarked in 1920 that, “of the immigrants, none have been more thoroughly and completely identified with American institutions, both as to its ideals and the social and individual fabric of the Nation.” {25}

With such proclamations ethnic leaders and amateur historians were not just responding to internalized fears of assimilation and dislocation, but were also seeking to reassure their American neighbors of Norwegian-American virtue and loyalty in an era of red scares and fears of local radicalism. Countering stories of the popularity of socialism among Scandinavians, Harry Sundby-Hansen, in Norwegian Immigrant Contributions to America’s Making (1921), admitted that the group may contain “a few scattered socialists,” but he quickly added that such persons “are neither Norwegians nor Americans.” “The vast bulk of the Norwegians in this country,” he claimed, “are either conservatives or believers in sane progressive politics.” {26}

In the works of writers such as Sundby-Hansen, Norwegians of the 1920s became good American citizens or as virtuous newcomers were willing to participate in American culture. The popular histories of the time taught that Norwegians of the 1920s were the noble heirs of timeless character traits, traits that had made their ancestors good immigrants and that now, at the end of a century of immigration, would make Norwegians good Americans. In an age of immigrant radicalism, Norwegians had neither the interest nor the inclination for Bolshevism or anarchism. “They are busy establishing their homes, sending their children to school, and engaging in gainful occupations,” Sundby-Hansen reported. {27} Occasionally, the message got through to the mainstream culture, as when the New York Evening Post praised the Bay Ridge colony as an area refreshingly free from slums and tenements, a fine “home section for self-respecting families.” {28} In this short tribute, a part of the American mainstream confirmed the Norwegian Americans as full, worthy participants in American life and culture. [13]

CONSUMER CITIZENSHIP

Increasingly in the 1920s, being an American meant being a consumer. Advances in mass production, marketing, and advertising of consumer goods presented the decade’s second challenge to Norwegians in America.

As the peacetime economy revived after 1918, investment capital began to flow into both new and expanded old ventures which manufactured goods for the domestic market. Mass consumer manufacturing led to mass marketing, as professional advertising agencies created national campaigns that sold the products by establishing a need for them, occasionally educating consumers about a need they did not know existed, and providing instructions for their use. New methods and techniques - such as the use of slogans and photographs - delivered new messages, of fulfillment of “needs,” gratification of desires, and relief from anxieties, that rendered the local “factual” advertising dull and outdated. The new approach tempted Americans of the “Jazz Age” with the promise of becoming citizens of what Roland Marchand calls “the democracy of goods,” the consumer utopia in which the ordinary citizen could “have it all.” Words and pictures presented standardized norms of appearance and behavior that defined American ways of life, of leisure, work, and housework. Along with the other national media of the era - radio and motion pictures - the new advertisements helped define the ways newcomers or outsiders could participate in American life.

In the world of the national advertising campaigns, Americans had become homogenized into stock characters: the middle-class head of the nuclear family, who owned his own home and automobile, and the homemaker wife; even children had roles in the culture through consumption. While promising to liberate Americans from local restrictions and provincialism, the mass advertising of the 1920s subtly imposed a new conformity. In the small dramas and comedies the stock characters played out on page after page of newspapers and magazines, regional differences and ethnic distinctions were few, merely objects of curiosity or humor. {29} [14]

Norwegians were shown ways to become citizen consumers as national advertising campaigns found their way into the urban ethnic press. The messages - both direct and subtle - were often translated into Norwegian:

  • “Drikk Coca-Cola,” large advertisements encouraged Norwegians in 1923 Brooklyn. After all, “alle liker den” (everybody likes it), including “deres familie og deres venner som kommer paa besøg” (your family and friends who come to visit): an appeal to etiquette and hospitality. {30}
  • Baseball stars Bob Musell of the New York Yankees and Lee Meadows of the Pittsburgh Pirates (neither of whom was a famous Norwegian American) urged Norwegians to smoke Lucky Strikes . . . in Norwegian. While Luckies’ slogan, “It’s toasted!”, was so well known that it did not need to be translated into Norwegian, other advertisements, featuring a sailor, suggested that readers “Grip efter en Lucky istedetfor søte saker” (Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet). {31}
  • In another cigarette advertisement, a young man offers a Camel to a woman. The selling line? The untranslatable Norwegian idiom, “Vær saa god, en Camel.” {32}
  • In a Rinso advertisement, a spunky little girl substitutes Rinso for her mother’s regular detergent. As a result, ”Mor” is able to impress the neighbor ladies with her clean wash, thus retaining her standing in the democracy of goods. {33}

Less dramatic appeals encouraged Norwegians to participate in that major American consumer adventure of the time, the purchase of a private automobile. Throughout the decade, advertisements, again in Norwegian, promoted nearly all makes of cars. Their success may be seen in Nordisk Tidende’s launching of a regular column of auto news in 1927. By 1941, it was reported that 38 percent of the koloni’s families owned a car, well above the 23 percent average for the entire city of New York. {34}

HOME OWNERSHIP AND SUBURBAN EXPANSION

In addition to patriotic conformism and consumer citizenship, a third challenge of the 1920s was the rise of the cult of home ownership and its expression in suburban expansion. [15]

The ideal of home ownership is not peculiar to twentieth-century America. Historians and sociologists identify the ideal as an expression of domesticity and private ownership, complementary principles of western bourgeois culture. Nonetheless, major developments after the First World War elevated home ownership to a prominent position in American culture and gave it a particular expression. {35}

Throughout the decade, the ownership of one’s home was celebrated as a universally desirable goal, a measure of a man’s character, and a source of social stability. In language echoing the founding documents of the Republic, a 1932 Presidential Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership proclaimed its “unarguable conclusion” that “every thrifty family has an inherent right to own a home.” {36} The qualification “every thrifty family” is significant, as the home reflected its owner’s character, specifically his ability to sacrifice in the drive toward success. In the culture of the 1920s, a private home was the ultimate and most visible achievement for the citizen of the democracy of goods. As a 1924 architecture book expressed it, “One of the greatest pleasures in owning a fine home is the sharing of its beauties with others.” {37}

The acquisition of the right home, of the right style, in the right location, was a gauge of how far an individual had risen above the tenement house and the apartment building. President Herbert Hoover blessed this idea in 1931 when he proclaimed, “To possess one’s own home is the hope and ambition of almost every individual in our country, whether he lives in a hotel, apartment, or tenement.” Hoover pointed out that great nostalgic ballads were written about “Home, Sweet Home” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” “They never sing songs about a pile of rent receipts,” the President quipped. {38}

Several factors intersected in the 1920s to elevate the value of home ownership and to give it a particular architectural expression - the private detached single - family home on a small lot in the suburbs. Increased popularity of the automobile - auto registration rose 150 percent between 1920 and 1930 - expanded the distance working Americans could conveniently live away from their workplaces. Cheaper building [16] techniques and materials and easy mortgage loans made the ideal of the one-family home more attainable for more American consumers. Mass advertising promoted the ideal of home ownership and the possibility of fulfilling it in the suburbs. {39}

The popularity of the ideal of home ownership is revealed in the statistics of the postwar period. By 1920, some 46 percent of families in the United States lived in their own homes. Between 1922 and 1929, some 883,000 new houses were begun each year, at twice the rate of the previous seven-year period. {40}

Statistics also reveal the pattern of expansion of home ownership at the fringes of major American cities. Rapid suburban growth had attracted demographers’ attention as early as 1920. In a census survey of metropolitan districts that year, suburbs accounted for three-fourths of the land area of those districts and contained one-fourth of the population. At the end of the 1920s, suburbs accounted for nine-tenths of the area of the metropolitan districts and contained a third of the population. {41} Throughout the period, suburban districts of the “urban nation” grew faster than the cities that spawned them. Suburbs blossomed outside the cities with large Norwegian communities. In New York, railroads and highways pushed the practical commuting distance outward, from the old neighborhoods of Brooklyn into Westchester county, into Long Island, and across the Verrazano Narrows to Staten Island and northern New Jersey. In Minneapolis, increased automobility pushed the metropolis outward beyond the old streetcar lines that had promoted the rapid settlement of the city in the previous three decades. Minneapolitans jumped the city’s incorporated boundaries, into “new” residential suburbs of Hennepin county, including Richfield, St. Louis Park, and West Minneapolis (later renamed Hopkins). In both New York and Minneapolis, Norwegians participated in the American ideal of home ownership and the migration to the suburbs. {42}

It is possible that Norwegian-American suburban migration reflected more than a Yankee value imposed from above. The group’s own experience may have led them to embrace [17] the suburban ideal of the single-family home. Some immigrants may have recalled Norway as a small, crowded country. Crowdedness was cited frequently as a major incentive for leaving Norway in the nineteenth century, and the old country’s physical narrowness was a popular metaphor for restricted social and economic opportunities. {43} Minneapolis politician Lars Rand spoke frequently of a Norwegian childhood spent precariously “with the rocky hills upon one side and the angry waves of blue ocean on the other.” {44} Similarly, memories of the group’s American past in the previous century celebrated pioneers living on self-sufficient family farms. So the ideal of the single-family unattached private home - even a small bungalow on a tiny suburban lot - may have been as meaningful to Norwegians as it was for other immigrants. It was, in the words of urban historian Mark Girouard, “probably the ideal for which most immigrants were hoping.” {45}

While a suburban home was not an idyllic family farm, it was the ideal promoted heavily by the Norwegian-American press in the 1920s. Ethnic newspapers of the period contained numerous editorials, feature articles, and advertisements that touted home ownership as one way for the Norwegian to prove his Americanness. In a 1920 editorial titled “The Business of Making a Living,” American YMCA leader Arthur East admonished readers of Nordisk Tidende to “Own Your Own Home,” a theme trumpeted repeatedly by the newspaper’s editorialists throughout the decade. {46} After editorials urged Norwegians to buy a home, subsequent articles advised them on how to finance it. Practical information on deeds and mortgages was presented along with the moral message that debt incurred in pursuit of the ideal of home ownership was character-building. {47} Articles on how to furnish an American home properly were complemented by furniture store advertisements which exposed Norwegians to popular American styles of the time. {48} Advertisements from builders, realtors, and developers urged families to leave the koloni for the suburbs. One Norwegian-language notice suggested that the purchase of a Staten Island home in popular “English Colonial [18] Style” was the perfect way for Norwegians to turn their dreams into reality. Ethnic appeals were not completely absent; a 1926 advertisement for several Staten Island developments proudly assured readers that all the contractors listed were Norwegians. {49}

Encouraged by both the ethnic and the mainstream American cultures, Norwegian immigrants and their children joined the migration to the suburbs in the 1920s. Minneapolis Norwegians had begun dispersing outward from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood into all wards of the expanding city as early as the 1890s. By the 1920s, they joined the movement into the residential suburbs of Hennepin county. The trend is illustrated in census data: in 1920, 16,956 of Hennepin county’s residents were Norwegian-born; 16,389 of them lived in the city of Minneapolis, 567 could be classified as suburban dwellers or farmers living at the edge of the growing metropolis. Ten years later, 16,401 Norwegian-born persons lived in the county, 15,492 of them in Minneapolis. The remaining 909 were found outside the city on the suburban frontier. Statistics for American-born persons of Norwegian parentage illustrate the same trend toward suburbanization - of the 36,242 such persons living in Hennepin county in 1930, 33,917 lived in Minneapolis, 2,325 in the outlying areas. {50}

Shortly after the war, New York Norwegians began to leave Brooklyn for Staten Island and port cities in New Jersey, prompted by the desire for more space as well as by the migration of maritime jobs. On Staten Island and in such New Jersey industrial towns as Hoboken and Elizabeth, Norwegians replicated many of the elements of the ethnic koloni. {51} In the 1 920s, movement out of the city expanded and diversified as Norwegians settled in new residential suburbs farther into northern New Jersey as well as in popular suburban destinations in Westchester county and Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties. Staten Island contained 1,582 Norwegian-born residents in 1920, 3,502 in 1930. On Long Island, Nassau county’s Norwegian-born population boomed from 361 in 1920 to 1,883 in 1930. Neighboring Suffolk county contained 304 Norwegian-born residents in 1920, 817 in 1930. [19] Five hundred sixty-five Norwegians resided in prestigious Westchester county in 1920; 1,427 lived there in 1930. Across New York harbor, Norwegian-born population in suburban New Jersey counties increased rapidly in the decade: Bergen county’s tripled from 354 in 1920 to 1,252 in 1930; Union county’s grew from 470 to 748; Essex county’s from 563 to 1,046. {52}

The Norwegian populations of individual residential suburbs in 1930 suggest an important characteristic of Norwegian group life outside the urban milieu. At the end of an era of vigorous suburban expansion in Westchester county, very few Norwegians, of the first or second generation, could be found in individual communities: Mount Vernon had 230, Yonkers contained 709, New Rochelle counted only 337. The popular Long Island suburb of Hempstead included only 78 Norwegians in the 1930 census. {53}

These small numbers - even with the second generation added - reveal that these suburban communities did not contain ethnic concentrations large enough to sustain a well-defined community life. They confirm that the movement to a suburb in twentieth-century America was an individual decision, not a group venture. In this vein, historians, most notably Lewis Mumford, have characterized American suburbanization as a middle-class expression of individualism, an effort to find a private solution for - or escape from - social problems. In leaving the city to recreate life on one’s own terms, the suburban migrant reduced his immediate “community” to one individual or, more commonly, to one individual and his nuclear family. {54} The all-encompassing urban communities - such as the Norwegian-American koloni - were left behind. In the suburbs, Norwegian Americans may have had access to a Lutheran church, but one in which they shared services and sacraments with Germans, Swedes, and other suburbanites whose surnames had long ago become detached from their ethnic origins. The new suburbs lacked the ethnic organizations - the rifle companies, the athletic clubs, the artistic, musical, and theatrical societies - that had shaped and identified the social parameters of norskheten in the American [20] cities. One organization that did thrive in the suburban 1920s was the Sons of Norway. The fraternal society’s insurance and cultural programs multiplied as lodges sprang up in small towns and suburbs across the country. The Sons of Norway provided Norwegian Americans of the 1920s with a means of voluntary organization that fit well with the suburbs’ individualist ethos. {55}

The church and the lodge provided a part-time alternative to the diverse organizational life of the urban community. The suburban culture of privacy and individualism allowed for a more personal definition of Norwegianness, one that found expression in the celebration of holidays and preparation of ethnic foods within the family home and in occasional attendance at Sons of Norway or church activities outside the home. This development reflected the fragmentation of identity common to American suburban life, in which one could segment elements of one’s life, variously and voluntarily identifying oneself by occupation, interest group, or social circle. {56} In the suburban context, ethnic identity became one element of self-definition, to be regulated at will with minimal interference from an ethnic community.

One further aspect of suburbanization reshaped norskheten in the 1920s. Contemporary sociologist Harlan Paul Douglas noted that suburbanization was not influenced merely by the positive desire for privacy and space but by a more negative aversion to the city. The years after World War I, Douglas remarked in 1925, were marked by “a revulsion from civilization which has as its climax a condemnation and repudiation of the city as its most characteristic and fatal vehicle and expression.” In contrast to the idyllic prospect of suburban serenity, the city was depicted as dystopia. Urban problems were conceded to be unsolvable, and each incident of crime, each case of disease, and each speck of dirt was seen as evidence of the debilitating environment of the city. Critics and suburban developers condemned cities as dehumanizing by nature. As sociologist Douglas concluded, “A crowded world must be either suburban or savage.” {57}

This anti-urban sentiment found expression in many [21] contexts in Norwegian America. It influenced an effort to relocate the campus of Augsburg College in the 1920s. Citing the “encroaching influences” of pollution, commercial development, and residential blight in Minneapolis’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, school officials and lay leaders proposed moving the Lutheran college to a new site in suburban Richfield. In particular, the leaders lamented the demise of the old residents of the neighborhood and their replacement by “a more or less undesirable class of people of varied race and color.” In contrast, the proposed new campus in Richfield, within a neighborhood of stable homeowners, was considered a preferable alternative. Before the plan was abandoned in 1929, leaders praised the “Augsburg Park” development for its natural beauty, its accessibility to the city by road and train, and its potential as a congenial neighborhood. {58} The hymns sung in praise of the plan nearly comprise a textbook definition of the American suburban ideal.

Images of urban blight and suburban utopia motivated Norwegian leaders in Brooklyn to embrace a similar project in the 1920s. For decades, community leaders and editors decried the appearance of “outsiders” - Italians, Jews, and blacks - in the koloni. Racial fears - as well as boosterish resentment over the Midwest’s monopoly of Norwegian-American seminaries and colleges - made Brooklyn leaders receptive to a plan to create a Norwegian college in Berkeley Heights, near the bedroom community of Summit, New Jersey. There, far from the docks and rooming houses of Bay Ridge, the proposed college was to be the centerpiece of an ambitious new suburban development. Ironically, the project was sunk by not only economic but also ethnic concerns after several community leaders expressed shock at discovering that the development company was headed by Irish Catholics and that Norwegian students at the new college would come into close contact with Italian and Jewish neighbors in New Jersey. {59}

The city was more ignored than vilified in the celebration of the rural roots of Norwegian Americans in the 1920s. As the leaders of Norwegian America described their group and [22] its history to the next generation and to other Americans, they described a past that was predominantly rural. The history produced by the new Norwegian-American Historical Association emphasized the saga of pioneers settling on the farms of the Midwest. {60} Ole Rølvaag’s epic novel Giants in the Earth (1927) provided many American readers with their first glimpse of Norwegians in America - as homesteading farmers. These images of nineteenth-century rural Norwegians appealed to readers caught up in the complexities, alienation, and dangers of life in modern America. The independent farmer, the strong Godfearing immigrant who lived in harmony with nature, family, and neighbors, stood in marked contrast to the Norwegian worker occupying a squalid rented room in a Cedar-Riverside boardinghouse or the New Jersey homeowner removed from the everyday influence of the Norwegian community. The image of the pioneer Lutheran church with its social homogeneity and well-defined values contrasted with the institutional displacement that accompanied the rootlessness of the drive to become American, to become suburban.

The celebration of a rural immigrant past was one part of the ethnic leaders’ struggle with the challenges of the 1920s: patriotic conformism, consumer citizenship, and suburbanization. In meeting the new America, they attempted to reconcile two seemingly contradictory positions. On the one hand, they wished to present an identity that was safely American. In the face of a homogenizing culture, they also wished to be seen as interestingly different, something more than a ladleful of the bland broth of the melting pot.

Responding to the decade’s challenges, ethnic leaders promoted the image of a group that had evolved from wholesome rural roots and ancient Norse values to become not totally Norwegian and not totally American, but Norwegian American. This dual identity, the product of their struggle, was celebrated in the summer of 1925 when Norwegian immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren came from American farms, small towns, cities, and suburbs to applaud a president who acknowledged their self-defined place in [23] American culture. To them, Coolidge’s warm words legitimated the process of redefinition of Norwegian-American identity. His was the highest blessing of the host culture, giving the Norwegian leaders permission to promote an image of their group that was somewhat different, yet a recognized part of the often threatening but ever-changing mainstream of American life.

Notes

<1> Norse-American Centennial, 1825-1925 (Minneapolis, 1925), 51. Recent historical treatments of the 1925 centennial include: Odd S. Lovoll, A Folk Epic: The Bygdelag in America (Boston, 1975), 145-173; Ingrid Semmingsen, Norway to America: A History of the Migration (Minneapolis, 1978), 152-161; Lovoll, The Promise of America: A History of the Norwegian-American People (Minneapolis, 1984), 195-196.

<2> Calvin Coolidge, The President’s Tribute to Norwegians (Decorah, Iowa, 1925), 4-9.

<3> Coolidge, The President’s Tribute, 9-10.

<4> U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States: Population (1930) (Washington, D.C., 1932), 2:232.

<5> See Howard P. Chudacoff, “A New Look at Ethnic Neighborhoods: Residential Dispersion and the Concept of Visibility in a Medium-Sized City,” in Journal of American History (1973), 89; and Kathleen Neils Conzen, “Immigrants, Immigrant Neighborhoods, and Ethnic Identity: Historical Issues,” in Journal of American History (1979), 612-613, 605. On Brooklyn, see Christen T. Jonassen, “The Norwegians in Bay Ridge: A Sociological Study of an Ethnic Group” (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1947); A. N. Rygg, Norwegians in New York, 1825-1925 (Brooklyn, 1925); “I Strøget,” in Nordisk Tidende, January 3, 1921; “De Amerikanske Byers Udvikling,” in Nordisk Tidende, August 10, 1923. On Minneapolis, see Carl G. O. Hansen, My Minneapolis: A Century of Life in the City (Minneapolis, 1956), 145-153. On Chicago, see Lovoll, A Century of Urban Life: The Norwegians in Chicago before 1930 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1988).

<6> "Hvem er hvem?” in Nordisk Tidende, September 7, 1922; John R. Jenswold, “The Rise and Fall of Pan-Scandinavianism in Urban America,” in Lovoll, ed., Scandinavians and Other Immigrants in Urban America (Northfield, Minnesota, 1985), 163.

<7> Carl H. Chrislock, Ethnicity Challenged: The Upper Midwest Norwegian-American Experience in World War I (Northfield, Minnesota, 1981).

<8> Nordisk Tidende, June 27, 1918.

<9> Nordisk Tidende, October 4, 1917; January 17, 24, May 24, September 5, October 3, 17, 31, 1918. [24]

<10> Nordisk Tidende, October 11, December 13, 1917; February 7, March 8, 1918.

<11> Quoted in Nordisk Tidende, March 21, 1918.

<12> Nordisk Tidende, May 17, 1917; May 16, July 11, September 5, October 3, 1918.

<13> Nordisk Tidende, March 28, May 16, 1918.

<14> Nordisk Tidende, May 25, 1922; January 28, 1926.

<15> Nordisk Tidende, May 23, 1918; January 28, 1926.

<16> Nordisk Tidende, 1921-1922.

<17> Nordisk Tidende, December 2, 1920; November 19, December 3, 1925; January 21, 1926; September 15, 1927; see also Chrislock, Ethnicity Challenged, 130-131.

<18> Nordisk Tidende, April 10, July 17, 1925. The first English columns appeared July - August, 1924.

<19> Nordisk Tidende, December 3, 1925.

<20> Nordisk Tidende, June 7, 1926; see also Nordisk Tidende, May 13, 1920; May 5, 1921.

<21> Minneapolis Journal, May 18, 1924; Nordisk Tidende, May 19, 1927.

<22> Nordisk Tidende, October 4, 1923; October 27, 1927.

<23> Nordisk Tidende, August 14, 1924; Ole E. Rølvaag, “Hvorfor jeg er medlem av historielaget,” in Lutheraneren, March, 1926; Minneapolis Tribune, October 1, 1950.

<24> Norse-American Centennial, 19; John O. Evjen, Scandinavian Immigrants in New York, 1630-1674 (Minneapolis, 1916); George T. Flom, A History of Norwegian Immigration to the United States (Iowa City, Iowa, 1909), 23-24, 421; Harry Sundby-Hansen, Norwegian Immigrant Contributions to America’s Making (New York, 1921); Nordisk Tidende, February 8, 1923.

<25> O. M. Norlie, in Norse-American Centennial, 53. Other testimonials to “Norse traits”: Nordisk Tidende, March 4, May 20, 1920; June 1, 1922.

<26> Sundby-Hansen, Norwegian Immigrant Contributions, 12 1-122. See also Nordisk Tidende, February 7, 1918.

<27> Sundby-Hansen, Norwegian Immigrant Contributions, 122; Norse-American Centennial, 53.

<28> Reprinted in Nordisk Tidende, March 8, 1928.

<29> Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley, California, 1985), 166, 198, 218, 363; see also Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness (New York, 1976), 19.

<30> Nordisk Tidende, May 24, 1923.

<31> Nordisk Tidende, January 1, April 19, 1928; February 14, 1929.

<32> Nordisk Tidende, August 19, 1926.

<33> Nordisk Tidende, April 4, 1929.

<34> See, for example, page 6 of Nordisk Tidende, May 3, 1924; Nordisk Tidende, 1927; Facts about the Norwegian-American Colony (Brooklyn, 1941), 3.

<35> Frank J. Coppa, “Cities and Suburbs in Europe and the United [25] States,” in Philip C. Dolce, ed., Suburbia: The American Dream and Delusion (Garden City, New York, 1976), 169; Witold Rybczynski, Home: A Short History of an Idea (New York, 1986), 75-77, 220; Kenneth Jackson, The Crab-grass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York, 1985), 288; Mark Girouard, Cities and People: A Social and Architectural History (New Haven, Connecticut, 1985), 239; David P. Handlin, The American Home: Architecture and Society, 1815-1918 (Boston, 1979), 69; Gwendolyn Wright, Moralism and the Model Home (Chicago, 1980), 83.

<36> President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership, Planning for Residential Districts (Washington, D.C., 1932), xi.

<37> Charles S. Keefe, ed., The American House (New York, 1924), 3.

<38> Herbert Hoover, Speech at Constitution Hall, December 2, 1931, quoted in Jackson, The Crabgrass Frontier, 172. In a similar vein, see Handlin, The American Home, 370.
<39> Jackson, The Crabgrass Frontier, 176, 290-296; Handlin, The American Home, 237-238; Girouard, Cities and People, 362; President’s Conference on Home Building, 211.

<40> Jackson, The Crabgrass Frontier, 175.

<41> Fourteenth Census: Population (1920), 1:63; United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, Metropolitan Districts: Population and Area (Fifteenth Census, 1930) (Washington, D.C., 1932), 16.

<42> Fifteenth Census: Metropolitan Districts (1930), 131-132, 140-148; State of Minnesota, Legislative Manual (St. Paul, 1931), 452-463.

<43> See, for example, Johan R. Reiersen, Pathfinder for Norwegian Emigrants (Northfield, Minnesota, 1981), 60.

<44> Chrislock, “Profile of a Ward Boss: The Political Career of Lars M. Rand,” in Norwegian-American Studies, 31 (1986), 36-37.

<45> Girouard, Cities and People, 361.

<46> Nordisk Tidende, January 8, 1920.

<47> Nordisk Tidende, September 18, 1924; see also Nordisk Tidende, April 23, 1925; February 3, 1927.

<48> Nordisk Tidende, May 22, 1924; April 14, 1927.

<49> Nordisk Tidende, March 11, 1926; June 21, 1928; see also advertisement for land in Hempstead, Long Island, in Nordisk Tidende, March 30, 1922.

<50> Fourteenth Census: Population (1920), 1: 521-522; Calvin F. Schmid, Social Saga of Two Cities: An Ecological and Statistical Study of Social Trends in Minneapolis and St. Paul (Minneapolis, 1937), 101-103, 146, 157.

<51> For Staten Island, see Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.), New York: A Guide to the Empire State (New York, 1940), 270, as well as Nordisk Tidende, May 11, 1922; June 19, 1924. For New Jersey industrial towns, see Rudolph J. Vecoli, The Peoples of New Jersey (Princeton, New Jersey, 1965), 100; W.P.A., New Jersey: A Guide to Its Present and Past (New York, 1929), 237, 239, 697; Abraham V. Honeyman, History of Union County, New Jersey [26] (Camden, New Jersey, [1924]), 256; as well as Nordisk Tidende, June 15, 22, 1922, and September 4, 1929. By the autumn of 1924, Nordisk Tidende had initiated regular columns of news from Norwegian communities in Staten Island and New Jersey.

<52> Fourteenth Census: Population (1920), 2:653 (New Jersey), 2:703-704 (New York); Fifteenth Census: Population (1930), 1:207, 209 (New Jersey), 1:298, 300, 302, 304 (New York).

<53> Fifteenth Census: Population (1930), 2:207 (New Jersey), 2:298, 300, 302, 304 (New York). Similar statistics for Minneapolis’s suburbs are not available as they did not qualify as communities over 10,000 in total population in 1930.

<54> Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origin, Its Transformation, and Its Prospects (New York, 1961), 491-494. See also Richard Polenberg, One Nation Divisible (New York, 1980), 145.

<55> Hansen, History of the Sons of Norway, 1895-1945 (Minneapolis, 1945), 163-225.

<56> Mumford, The City in History, 484-486.

<57> Harlan Paul Douglas, The Suburban Trend (New York, 1925), 304 ff.

<58> Folkebladet, August 24, 1921; Chrislock, From Fjord to Freeway: 100 Years, Augsburg College (Minneapolis, 1969), 149-150.

<59> Nordisk Tidende, August 6, 1925; February 25, March 4, 1926.

<60> See, for example, the description of the works published by the Norwegian-American Historical Association in its first fifty years as traced in Lovoll and Kenneth O. Bjork, The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1925-1975 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1975), 42-53, 64.

 

<<   Previous Page   |   Next Page   >>


 
To the Home Page