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Washington Posten:
A Window on a Norwegian- American Urban Community*
    by Odd S. Lovoll (Volume 31: Page 163)

*This article is based in part on a paper read at the Conference on Scandinavian Immigration, Settlement, and Acculturation, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, August 27-30, 1984. The paper was titled “The Norwegian-American Press: Its Twofold Role in the American Transition.”

In 1938 Frank Oleson of Trondheim, Norway, described how he had happened to start a Norwegian-language newspaper in Seattle. “Early in 1888,” Oleson wrote, “I was employed as a distribution clerk at the post office in Seattle. . . . The entire staff consisted of four persons in addition to five letter carriers. As a clerk at the post office, I discovered that many bundles of Decorah-Posten, Skandinaven, Budstikken, and other Norwegian-American newspapers were being sent to subscribers here. They were not only for people in Seattle, but many were addressed to post offices in the surrounding area for which Seattle served as a distribution point. This circumstance gave me and my brother Richard, who also worked in the post office, the idea of publishing a Norwegian newspaper in Seattle. I was at that time twenty-six years old and my brother two years younger. We had no experience whatsoever in the publishing business and even less experience in editorial work,” Oleson concluded. {1}

Seattle in 1888 still gave the impression of being a [164] pioneer town; its institutions were yet to be developed. The traditional date of Seattle’s founding is November, 1851, when the first group of white settlers landed at Alki Point in west Seattle. The city established itself, however, to the east of Alki Point, where Elliott Bay, an arm of Puget Sound, provided an excellent harbor. Seattle was bounded by bodies of water, on the west by Puget Sound and on the east by Lake Washington. Wooded hills and slopes characterized the area, and in the distance mountains - the most imposing being Mount Rainier - provided a magnificent scene. The rugged beauty of the region might easily remind a Norwegian of the homeland. {2}

By 1890 Seattle’s population had grown to almost 43,000. On June 6 of the previous year much of the city’s downtown had been destroyed by fire. Rather than hampering growth, the disaster served as a spur to rebuilding and new development, so that the number of inhabitants nearly doubled in the next decade, to about 81,000 in 1900. Seattle gradually took on a Scandinavian flavor, although before 1890 the Nordic population in the city was not numerically significant. Of the citizens of Seattle in 1890, 3,335 had been born in Denmark, Sweden, or Norway - the Norwegian-born accounting for more than 40 percent of the total Scandinavian group. In addition there was a sizable second generation: in the Norwegian group it surpassed the parent generation by a few hundred. {3}

Communications eastward improved greatly with the completion of the Northern Pacific railroad line to Seattle in 1883. It carried people and goods, and it provided efficient postal service, which also, as has already been suggested, made ethnic newspapers accessible to Norwegians on the west coast. The number of Norwegians grew substantially from the 1890s, a large percentage moving out from the Middle West, and they naturally continued to subscribe to newspapers they were familiar with. “Wherever Norwegians go, Decorah-Posten follows” was a popular slogan. Other Norwegians moved to the region directly from Norway, arriving in Seattle by rail. By 1920 people of Norwegian birth or [165] descent formed an urban colony of 17,628. They represented a little more than a quarter of the Norwegian population in the state of Washington. {4}

“It had not really occurred to me how many Norwegians there were here until we began to celebrate May 17,” Oleson wrote. The first celebration of the homeland’s constitution day took place in 1889, and on that same day Oleson launched Washington Posten. {5} In time it became the Norwegian voice in the Pacific Northwest. Washington Posten addressed itself directly to the local Norwegian population and could thus serve its needs and interests better than the larger Norwegian-language journals published in the Middle West, although, as Oleson related, the link to these newspapers was direct. “We had not had time to get newspapers from Norway,” Oleson wrote, “so items from the homeland were taken from newspapers farther east which in turn had taken them from the Norwegian newspapers.” Washington Posten thus quite literally represented an extension of the immigrant press into the Pacific Northwest. {6}

The Norwegian-American press was well established when Washington Posten emerged as one of the 243 newspapers that were begun between 1877 and 1896, the period of the greatest expansion in the number of immigrant journals. A special Norwegian immigrant press had been initiated in July, 1847, when Nordlyset (Northern Lights), edited by the talented and versatile James D. Reymert, appeared in the Muskego settlement in Racine county, Wisconsin. This press had a remarkable vitality and tenacity. At least 400 Norwegian-language newspapers have been published in the United States up to the present time, an impressive fact even though, to be sure, one-third of the newspapers lasted less than a year. The most successful ones, however, such as Skandinaven in Chicago and Decorah-Posten in Iowa, had much larger circulations than the major newspapers published in Norway. Around the turn of the century the semiweekly Decorah-Posten found its way into 37,000 homes, and Skandinaven was the largest Norwegian-language newspaper in the world, with about 50,000 subscribers to its semiweekly [166] edition. Nearly half that many copies were distributed of its daily edition. Minneapolis Tidende also approached these circulation figures and was published in a weekly and a daily edition. Other successful Norwegian-American journals had circulations ranging from about 5,000 to 10,000. These become truly significant statistics when compared to the spread of newspapers in Norway. That country’s largest daily, Aftenposten (The Evening Post), was at the same time printed in an edition of only 14,000; its distribution increased, however, in the present century, so that in the 1960s it passed 170,000. {7} Still, the growth of newspapers in nineteenth-century Norway and the rapid expansion in American mass communication in the same period may not be directly comparable phenomena. America was “the land of newspapers,” as the pioneer editor of Skandinaven, Knud Langeland, described it. Newspapers appeared in small and large communities throughout America, gave essential information, and in the new land had a basic community-building function. The impressive circulation figures for immigrant journals attest to their vital importance in the ethnic community, as well as to their affordability. {8}

The immigrant newspapers served as urban community mediums and local news sheets, or they strove to become national Norwegian-American organs. They were all in the tradition of the penny press, written for, and frequently about, the common man. The penny daily, written in an entertaining and simple style, with its attention to local news coverage and its use of foreign correspondents, emerged in the mid-1830s. The newspapers were hawked on the streets by newsboys and sold for a penny. In Norway, also, periodicals intended for the ordinary person appeared, but the penny press was not a part of that country’s journalism in the nineteenth century. In 1870 the annual subscription rate to a Norwegian daily equaled ten days wages for a male industrial worker, and although this figure sank to six days in 1880 and three-and-a-half days in 1890, the high subscription price throughout the last century limited total newspaper circulation. {9}

The weekly Washington Posten was offered to potential [167] subscribers for $1.50 annually, “frit tilsendt” - ”sent free”; the rate was later reduced to $1.00. A weekly could obviously be sold cheaper than a daily, and the majority of immigrant journals were issued on a weekly basis, making them more affordable. Besides, people in Seattle had more money for newspapers. Wages in Seattle were above the national average, and they became even more inflated with the increased demand for labor after the fire of 1889, so that unskilled workers enjoyed a daily wage of $2.00 to $2.30 and skilled workers $4.00 to $6.00. These favorable circumstances did not automatically assure success for a publication venture, a fact Washington Posten’s publishers soon learned. In order to succeed, the newspaper had to gain the confidence and support of readers and advertisers; several Norwegian and other Scandinavian journalistic enterprises in the 1890s competed for the favor of the immigrant community. Washington Posten had 411 prepaid subscribers when it began publication; the American business community, according to Oleson, especially welcomed it as a means of reaching potential Norwegian-American customers. At first it carried an excessive amount of advertising, causing people to complain. {10}

Oleson himself left the newspaper venture in September, 1890; by that time it was in grave financial difficulties. Part of the problem was inexperience and mismanagement, and the fact that from early that year a newly formed company, Scandinavian Publishing Company, owned Washington Posten and published it along with Swedish and Norwegian journals in both Seattle and Tacoma. The inevitable competition for advertising revenue among the newspapers published by the same company caused a decline in advertising by American businessmen, who tended to limit themselves to only one of the newspapers. Washington Posten lost revenue. The Scandinavian business community was also divided in its loyalty. Scandinavian Publishing Company was owned by a group of Scandinavian businessmen who had thought to capture the advertising market within the Scandinavian community. The intrusion into this community by and its dependence on American commercial interests indicate an obvious symbiotic [168] relationship. The purchasing power of the Scandinavian community was considerable, while at the same time American businesses injected money into immigrant community ventures. {11}

The depression beginning in 1893 further weakened the base for the newspaper. The Scandinavian Publishing Company was dissolved in 1892; that year Washington Posten’s circulation fell to only 1,345 copies. During the next several years it went from owner to owner, its existence precarious and its future less than promising. On September 24, 1896, A. J. Thuland announced in Washington Posten that he had purchased the newspaper and gave the following critical assessment: “As I take over the publication of the newspaper, which for several years has been in the hands of various lease-holders whose interest was momentary, I express the hope that my own personal concern for securing the success of the newspaper will continue to make Washington Posten a welcome guest in the thousands of Norwegian homes out here. {12}

Thuland had emigrated in 1884, at the age of thirteen, from Vestfossen in Buskerud. He struggled to keep Washington Posten alive, but it was not a paying proposition, although its circulation increased steadily, to about 2,400 in 1899. This and later figures might, however, be somewhat inflated as they are the ones reported by the publisher, who for purposes of gaining advertising revenue might easily overstate the newspaper’s actual distribution. In any case, in 1902 Thuland sold Washington Posten and it again commenced on a succession of changes in ownership and editorial leadership. Then, in November, 1905, Gunnar Lund took over as publisher and editor. It was from that time that Washington Posten gradually attained its position of influence and power in the Pacific Northwest. Lund was born in Stavanger, Norway, on August 30, 1865. After having completed some secondary education, he emigrated in 1889 to the west coast of America. There he had to be satisfied with common labor on railroad construction and in the sawmills. In 1893 he moved to Chicago, taught English in night-school classes for [169] Norwegian newcomers, and started his own business. Returning to Seattle, he continued to make a living in the business world, but when Washington Posten was offered for sale in 1905, as his wife Marie Vognild Lund later recalled, the temptation to pursue intellectual interests as a Norwegian-American newspaperman moved him into journalism. Lund invested the family’s savings in the venture. He undoubtedly possessed business acumen, he had good relations with the Scandinavian commercial community, and he benefited from a surge of nationalism among Norwegian Americans following the dissolution of the Swedish-Norwegian union. Probably the greatest factor in his success was the big influx of Norwegian immigrants in the years prior to World War I. And Washington Posten prospered under Lund’s guidance, giving him social status and a comfortable living. Circulation rose from 2,900 in 1905 to 8,000 in 1915, and peaked in the 1920s at about 15,000; revenue from advertising, as was the case for successful urban newspapers in general, provided a handsome income. {13}

Lund ran the newspaper business until his death in 1941. The most important person in Washington Posten in the next few years was O. L. Ejde, who assumed ownership in 1943. Ejde had emigrated from Orkdal in South Trøndelag in 1910 as a young man of twenty-one. He had worked on Washington Posten since 1913, save for a brief absence in the 1920s, and from 1941 he had had sole editorial responsibility. In June, 1959, he sold Washington Posten to Henning C. Boe, a Norwegian typographer and newspaperman, who in 1961 decided to give the newspaper a broader geographical appeal by changing the name to Western Viking. It was then printed in less than 4,000 copies. In this essay the role and character of Washington Posten will be considered up to that time - a period of seventy-two years. {14}

The democratic tone common to immigrant newspapers was evident in the columns of Washington Posten. Readers maintained a lively contact with the newspaper. It became a friend, and people wrote to Washington Posten to relate [170] personal experiences, request information, express opinions, or reach friends. In 1925, for instance, a subscriber who had moved back to Norway wrote: “As we would like very much to greet friends and acquaintances in Bellingham and wherever else they might be on the coast, I cannot think of a better way than using Washington Posten, as most of them read it.” Or someone might begin in the following fashion, as a contributor did in 1926: “Dear Editor, As I send my subscription money, I would like to add a couple of words which if you have a little space and do not consider them too trivial you can put in your paper.” And the publisher felt obliged to do just that, even when, as in this case, it was a lengthy letter dealing with several issues, but mainly an argument for preserving “good Norwegian.” Newspapers in America became the province of the common man. Readers of the immigrant journals had a proprietary attitude, at times to such an extent that the editor in 1953 reminded people that subscribing to Washington Posten did not guarantee that they could “get in the paper.” But the situation - the interest in the ordinary person and the closeness between reader and publisher - is important to bear in mind when considering the function of ethnic newspapers. {15}

In many communities the editor and the publisher of an immigrant journal were prominent cultural and social leaders, active in clubs and organizations and in arranging public festivals. The offices of a newspaper might become an important center. When Washington Posten moved to new quarters in 1961, Editor Ejde nostalgically noted that “in and out of this office since 1917 have wandered most of the thousands of Norwegians who live in Seattle, in other towns and cities in Washington, and in neighboring states.” For nearly fifty years the old offices of Washington Posten, on the ninth floor of the Seaboard Building on Fourth and Pike in Seattle, were a fixed point of orientation in the lives of Norwegians on the coast. The newspaper as a prime mover in upholding a separate ethnic community life was a familiar and reassuring weekly guest in the homes of its many readers. {16}

A large percentage of the Norwegians moving from [171] Norway to the Pacific coast hailed from North Norway or the coastal districts in West Norway. The topographical, physical, and climatic similarities between those regions and the Pacific Northwest attracted them to that part of America. An exuberant testimony from a former resident of the west coast, one 0. H. Skotheim, then living in Albert Lea, Minnesota, was inserted in Washington Posten for August 17, 1906: “People generally have a deep longing for our wonderland around Puget Sound. A land that is free from blizzards, tornadoes, hail in the middle of summer, and booming thunder with murderous lightning has a special appeal for people here in the east. And our wonderful west coast is out there, with its multitude of resources, its constant betwitching power for the imaginative and industrious, its alluring beauty for the nature lover, and its promises of a brighter and richer future than any other part of America has offered any generation that has ever lived.” It might be claimed that a Norwegian coastal culture was transferred to the west coast of America. Not only was the landscape reminiscent of home, but there were also familiar modes of livelihood in shipping, fishing, and lumbering which added to the region’s appeal. {17}

People reading Washington Posten’s coverage of events and circumstances in Seattle could almost imagine they were in Norway. A sense of living in a Norwegian coastal city was created, an illusion of being in Tromsø, Alesund, or Stavanger, or one of the other port cities of the homeland. Topics and concerns were similar. And in reality, the move from rural Norway, where many of the immigrants came from, to one of these Norwegian cities might not have differed much except in distance from the move to Seattle. Both represented a move from a rural to an urban environment. The comparison is appropriate and intriguing.

Washington Posten carried such regular features as Nyheder fra Kysten (News from the Coast), Fra Havnen (From the Harbor), Bynytt (City News), or Seattle-Nytt. Under these general headings one might find news items about the launching of a new halibut schooner, the departure of the halibut fleet for the Alaskan fishing waters in spring, and individual catches [172] upon its return. There were reports and advertisements about employment possibilities. In 1917, for instance, Nordby Fisheries Supply Company advertised for men for the cod fishing season in the Bering Sea. And in 1906 the local employment office sought fifty newcomers to work in lumber operations or on railroad construction. If one adds the notices indicating activity in the building trades and, for women, the many appeals for “capable maids,” not uncommonly inserted by non-Scandinavians, most of the major economic pursuits of Norwegians in Seattle have been listed. {18}

“The advertisements of the priest, the doctor, and the lawyer appear as soon as the immigrant community attains any size,” wrote sociologist Robert E. Park in The Immigrant Press and Its Control (1922). Washington Posten soon after its appearance in 1889 listed “Our Lawyers” and “Our Doctors,” as well as other Norwegian professionals, and encouraged its readers to patronize these countrymen. In early 1892 the Scandinavian-American Bank, owned and operated by persons in the Scandinavian business community, opened its doors to serve the Nordic population in Seattle. At the personal level the newspaper gave intimate glimpses of life among the immigrants. In 1917 a Norwegian bachelor advertised for a Scandinavian woman between the ages of seventeen and thirty who would consider marriage; in the same issue of Washington Posten the editor congratulated Mr. S. J. Hannevig and his wife at 2853 West 69th Street on the birth of a baby daughter. A more disturbing insight was given in 1890 when Washington Posten reported the suicide by hanging of one Christ Johnson. The community focus of the newspaper was obvious. {19}

Charitable concern encouraged social functions. An active hospital society arranged annual picnics and bazaars to raise funds, and in 1923 this society opened a Norwegian hospital in Seattle “where the sick boy’s message will be understood and sent back home to an old mother.” An appeal was made to ethnic solidarity in this and numerous other community projects. It is indicative of the role of ethnic newspaper publishers that Gunnar Lund, the editor and [173] publisher of Washington Posten, served as chairman of the hospital society.

Many of the needs of the poor, ill, and aged members of the Norwegian community were met by religious groups. Yet historians have identified a certain religious indifference among Norwegian Americans on the west coast. Far fewer Norwegians than in the Middle West sought a church home. This circumstance may have had several causes. It might even point up a general regional condition. A new society was taking shape, and opportunity for material advancement attracted people to the region from Europe and from other parts of the United States. Their arrival coincided with a period of increasing secularization and a consequent decrease in religious fervor. Perhaps temporal interests were fueled by a certain anti-clericalism, at least in the Norwegian group. And those who came were in large part, as is the case in most new societies, young men not ready to settle down and establish permanent commitments to church and community. As recently as 1940 the percentage of men among Norwegians in Seattle was 60.1. Newcomers arriving after the turn of the century frequently intended to return to the homeland and their sojourn in America was thus seen as temporary. Under such conditions organized religious life was bound to suffer. Furthermore, they tended to enter non-farming occupations in an urban center with many competing interests. A pronounced lukewarmness to religion is evident. Washington Posten, to be sure, opened its columns to religious denominations, whether Lutheran, Baptist, or Methodist, and to evangelical missionary efforts, but secular interests were better represented. Norwegian newspapers in the Middle West, with their large readerships of churchgoing rural people, gave considerably more attention to religion. {20}

Washington Posten wrote mainly for an urban Norwegian-American population with many non-churchly interests. These interests produced a lively ethnic organizational and social life. Washington Posten regularly carried advertisements and announcements for Scandinavian dances, lodge meetings, amateur theater productions, workingmen’s [174] societies, Norwegian coffee houses and restaurants, and stores that sold ethnic foods. Washington Posten played a significant role in transforming what to begin with had been merely ethnic neighborhoods into a Norwegian community, and in making Norwegian Americans, wherever they resided within the city, feel a part of and participate in the life of this community. It was not necessary to reside in an ethnic neighborhood to join Norwegian-American organizations or to found societies of compatriots; and Washington Posten also made its influence felt among Norwegian Americans in other towns and communities on the west coast. Still, Norwegians in Seattle tended to be more residentially segregated than most other ethnic groups. Ballard in the northwestern part of the city, which was annexed in 1907, had the greatest concentration. Of the foreign-born in Seattle in 1940 the Norwegians were the second largest group after the Canadians, and about one- fourth of them resided in Ballard. As the Norwegian community in Seattle changed with time, so did the appearance and content of Washington Posten. {21}

Analyses of the foreign-language press have generally been based on its function. That is also a concern of the present essay, although the discussion will move beyond the limiting question of whether the press, along with other immigrant institutions, retarded assimilation or represented the first step toward it. Marion Marzolf in her study of the Danish-American press suggests that these two functions - as preserver of ethnic cultures and as Americanizer - do not conflict. The twin roles were played out simultaneously. Even more significantly, they represented neither a clannish segregation nor a passive acquiescence in the inevitability of assimilation, but rather a dynamic interplay with the larger society based on ethnic social and cultural resources. The press consequently became a primary expression of the resilience of ethnic cultures, their interaction rather than assimilation with American society, and their influence on the cultural, social, and political fabric of the American social order. {22} [175]

Any more restricted view obscures the active participation of immigrants in the shaping of industrial and urban America. In the traditional scholarly debate, ethnic institutions of all kinds have in general been seen as lessening a sense of dislocation in new and strange surroundings, and they have therefore primarily been thought of as aiding in the process of adjustment and assimilation. Robert Park, for example, described the ethnic press as an instrument of Americanization, but qualified this view by maintaining that the extent of the Americanizing influence depended on the contents of the individual journals. These publications could if they so chose explain the American environment in a familiar language. Thus, Park did not regard immigrant institutions per se as a step toward Americanization. In his study of the German-American press Carl Wittke expressed the idea that the ethnic press tended to retard assimilation, but he also described how the immigrant press eased the immigrants into American society. “The immigrant press, besides preserving old memories, opens the gate to new experiences and boundless hopes,” Wittke stated. A major function of the immigrant press, he maintained, was to assure contact between the old country and the new, “which is so important in the early years of residence in a strange land, if serious maladjustment and mental and emotional conflicts are to be avoided.” In Wittke’s view it was essential to preserve ethnic cultural values and identification with an ethnic past in a transitional period. The press, according to Wittke, facilitated Americanization while it also encouraged nationalism. {23} Wittke’s ambiguous conclusion suggests the limits of this approach.

There is, in fact, no definitive study of subscribers to ethnic newspapers: educational background, length of time in America, first or second generation, and so on. In his study, The Relation of the Swedish-American Newspaper to the Assimilation of Swedish Immigrants (1935), Albert F. Schersten merely showed that readers of Swedish-American newspapers were in general less assimilated than non-readers, but he did not demonstrate a causal relationship. His investigation revealed little about the tendency of readers or non-readers to become [176] Americanized, only that, as one would expect, people who felt closer to the homeland’s culture were more likely to read an ethnic newspaper than those who had moved farther into American society. Norwegian-American statistics likewise indicate that it was the rural, and least assimilated, Norwegian Americans who subscribed to Norwegian-language publications. In 1906, for instance, only 53 percent of the Norwegian-American population was rural, yet 76 percent of the press circulation was in rural communities. Such statistics reveal little about the actual Americanizing impact of immigrant newspapers. {24}

How then did the publishers of immigrant journals see their role? The answer to this question is much clearer. Although few newspapermen actually discussed the issue, through their editorial policies they consistently strove to provide their readers with news and information that would facilitate adjustment to American society. For example, Washington Posten took great pains to instruct its readers in how to become American citizens, printing in several installments the questions and answers on American history and government that ought to be memorized for the naturalization proceedings. Emigranten, the most important immigrant journal before the Civil War, in its first issue, published in Inmansville, Wisconsin, on January 23, 1852, had addressed itself directly to “Our American Friends” in English to reassure them that the main purpose of Emigranten was “to emancipate ourselves from the degrading bondage of ignorance, regarding your institutions and customs, regarding the privileges and duties devolving upon us with the rights of citizenship extended to us.” The goal was thus to Americanize Norwegian immigrants through the medium of a Norwegian-language newspaper. {25}

With the emergence of Skandinaven in 1866 there came into being a newspaper that to a greater degree than Emigranten addressed itself to the ordinary immigrant, in conviction as well as in subject matter and linguistic style. It is significant that it was published in a large urban center; it was distributed far and wide among Norwegian Americans [177] throughout the country. A smaller daily edition served the Chicago Norwegians. In the same manner as Washington Posten did in Seattle, it knit Norwegians who belonged to churches, fraternal societies, and other kinds of social and cultural groups together into a unit. The national semiweekly edition of Skandinaven with its wide circulation from coast to coast encouraged a sense of a national Norwegian-American community.

Americanization, according to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, is “instruction of foreigners in the English language, in United States history and government, and in other studies to prepare them for life in the United States, or familiarize them with United States culture, institutions, and ideals.” It is this traditional definition of cultural assimilation that most people have in mind when describing what Americanization implies. Emigranten, for example, embarked upon the publication of a translation into Norwegian of a general history of the United States. Other journals in time gave instruction in English and advice on how to enter civic life, or they provided information on many practical aspects of life in America, from purchasing land to cooking American foods. Certainly, if judged by content, immigrant newspapers thought of themselves as agents of Americanization.

The term “Americanization” as thus defined is, however, limiting, since it tends to place the immigrants in a passive role, rather than seeing them as actors in a larger drama of cultural change and transformation. In order to have relevance to the actual situation the term must be further refined. The environment the immigrants entered was not merely American but urban. Cities were growing in America and in Norway, as well as elsewhere. Historian Frank Thistlethwaite views the entire saga of migration in the nineteenth century as a part of a worldwide process of urbanization, whether regional or international in character. Americanization might therefore more properly be equated with urbanization. “To the country people of the Norwegian fjords a fellow countryman on his way to embark was already an ‘American,’ and even after the second World War [178] ‘Americanization’ was a synonym for ‘urbanization’ in an immigrant Norwegian community which was attempting to preserve its Lutheran integrity in rural Wisconsin,” writes Thistlethwaite. {26} Mass emigration occurred during the period of the urban revolution, when a factory culture was enveloping all of Europe and transforming America into an industrial giant. Patterns of behavior and life-styles spread from the cities and modified the traditional rural existence. “The history of the latter part of the nineteenth century,” writes the historian Carl Degler, “can be written in terms of the gradual spread of urban life until it pervaded the uttermost crannies of society.” {27} Immigrant peasants had to adapt their folk society to the modern world - back in Norway a similar process was taking place. In America the ethnic press became a primary guide to an urban way of life.

The Norwegian-American press was well represented in towns and villages, but most of these journals fall into the category Park described as provincial. They were filled with local gossip and local news items and their circulation was small. It is significant that only one major Norwegian-language newspaper was published in a small town. This was Decorah-Posten, founded in Decorah, Iowa, in 1874, which existed for nearly one hundred years. Its success and long life are indeed a reflection of the rural preeminence of Norwegians in America. The newspaper was oriented toward a rural and established immigrant tradition. But all other major Norwegian-American newspapers were urban mediums, including Nordisk Tidende, founded in Brooklyn in 1891, Skandinaven, from 1866, and Minneapolis Tidende, founded in 1887. These, as well as Washington Posten, became primary instruments in urbanizing Norwegian immigrant peasants. Ethnic newspapers, states Morris Janowitz in his The Community Press in an Urban Setting (1952), “mediate the impersonalized aspects of urban life for a wide portion of the population.” {28}

Thus, when speaking of the Americanizing influence of the ethnic press, what is actually being considered is its role in preparing immigrants to live in a rapidly changing urban environment. Subscription to a Norwegian-language [179] newspaper might lead to interest in Norwegian cultural values, and thus to joining a male chorus or a reading society. The like-minded could meet in social settings, whether formalized through organization or not; and all could participate in public celebrations based on old-country memories and historical events. These were urban activities, and they were also to a marked degree ethnic. They promoted group cohesion and Norwegian cultural expression. The columns of Washington Posten indicate that many of the social activities might even be based on regional loyalties - attachment to a specific rural community in Norway. Yet the societies that were formed based on these loyalties, such as Sunnmørslaget (Society of Sunnmørings), were urban organizations, which met to perpetuate the memories and traditions of home. Norwegian folk life thus survived in new surroundings. {29}

One may follow the process of growth and adjustment of the Norwegian community in Seattle simply by studying the advertisement and announcement sections of Washington Posten. There are clearly definable stages in the life of the community. It emerged during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, reflected in advertisements for real estate sales, notices for workingmen’s societies, employment opportunities, appeals from charitable organizations, and announcements of public festivals. There were numerous notices of secular and religious activities. By the I 890s there were, in fact, no needs, either for professional services or for daily living, that the immigrant community itself could not satisfy. In the 1920s greater prosperity is evident in advertisements for homes in the suburbs, national advertising for automobiles, and not to be forgotten, the regular advertisements claiming, in Norwegian, that there is no friend like a Camel cigarette. Norwegians were entering the consumer society of the post-World War I era.

Washington Posten was closely connected to the community and its development. But the impact of the urban press went beyond the local community. The newspaper carried local news items from Norwegian communities throughout the state and beyond. It helped to spread an urban way of life [180] far outside the boundaries of Seattle. “Long before radio and the movies,” writes Bernard A. Weisberger in The American Newspaperman (1961), “the newspaper played a part in infusing the countryside with urban attitudes and habits, dulling the edge of conflict between the two worlds but preparing the inevitable triumph of the city.” The ethnic journals took part in this process. The communities these newspapers served did not, however, surrender to the new environment, but adjusted to it and interacted with it. It was in such a context that the immigrant press functioned and played out its dual role. {30}

Perhaps the two areas where the immigrants most visibly interacted with the American environment and influenced American institutions were the work place and the political arena. Occupational patterns, as has been suggested earlier, reflected old-world experience in fishing, lumbering, the building trades, and beyond the city in farming and mining. Employment considerations might also motivate involvement in American politics; places of employment had to be protected, supported and on occasion regulated through legislative action. In 1896, for instance, Washington Posten appealed in English to the state legislature to curb the greed of the canning factory operators, who, it insisted, practiced wholesale extermination of fish through maintaining fish traps. The common fisherman needed to be protected from this practice. {31}

From the start Washington Posten limited its news coverage mostly to happenings and events within the Norwegian-American community, with a strong local emphasis, and to news items from the homeland. This practice became even more evident in the latter history of Washington Posten; the newspaper became more ethnic in its reporting, focusing ever more narrowly on affairs of special interest to a dwindling readership. {32} Only during such dramatic events as the union crisis between Sweden and Norway in 1905 and the traumatic upheavals during the periods of the two world wars did Washington Posten regularly report world news on its front page. On its editorial page there were, however - at least [181] until the end of the 1930s - opinions on political issues: local, national, and international.

The publisher of Washington Posten might reap personal benefits from rallying compatriots around a specific cause or political candidate. And there was by no means a political consensus among Norwegian Americans. Obvious political and social cleavages existed. Kenneth O. Bjork in his West of the Great Divide (1958) found Norwegians on the west coast to be less dogmatic in political persuasion and generally more liberal than Norwegians residing in the Upper Midwest, although they were influenced by the same partisan drives. Bjork treats only the early period of Norwegian settlement, and it might be argued that conservative leanings became more evident as the immigrant community matured, at least as they were expressed in Washington Posten. During its initial five or six years Washington Posten, save for a short-lived attempt by the immigrant commercial elite to move it into the conservative camp, held to liberal Democratic or Populist views. From the summer of 1890 until early in 1893 the liberal Peter Røthe from Hardanger edited the newspaper; he later stated that his editorial policy had been a struggle between “conservatism and progress, between corruption and honesty, between trolls and humans.” {33}

In 1896 Populists and Democrats gained political control of the state, while nationally the Republicans were the victors. The depression years of the 1890s stimulated liberal and radical thinking and the many Norwegian workers and small farmers on the coast frequently sided with the liberal forces. But Washington Posten deplored the liberal political victory locally, having moved into the Republican fold when Thuland purchased the newspaper in September of 1896. Thuland was well connected in the Republican party and had the support of Norwegian businessmen in Seattle; the hope of the conservatives had been to win the immigrant vote in general. Editorially Thuland comforted himself with the thought that the Republicans had fought manfully against the enemy. {34}

Nationalistic pride tended, however, to blur political distinctions, so that ethnic origin - Norwegian or at least [182] Scandinavian - frequently became a determining factor in gaining Washington Posten’s support. And whenever the welfare and honor of the immigrant community was at stake, the newspaper acted with dispatch to come to its defense. Local concerns dominated. In 1900 Washington Posten cooperated in organizing the Scandinavian Republican League to get Scandinavian candidates on the Republican ticket for King county, where Seattle lay. That year they were not successful in finding Scandinavian candidates for county offices. Scandinavians had, however, long served in the state legislature. As early as January, 1891, Washington Posten listed the names of three Scandinavian members of that legislative body, all of them Republican. {35}

Gunnar Lund continued Washington Posten’s affiliation with the Republican party, and in 1905 when he took over the newspaper, a number of Norwegians and other Scandinavians were running for both local and state offices. In 1912, however, the newspaper’s support went to the Progressive party, but in doing so, Washington Posten reminded its readers that the foremost concern should be to elect Scandinavians, if they were otherwise able men. Because, as Washington Posten noted editorially, “one can safely assume that Nordic men through their upbringing are Progressive regardless of the ticket on which they appear.” The prevailing progressive spirit and movement for reform were subjugated under ethnic self-assertion. Washington Posten argued the question of Scandinavian representation to the point of wanting to set up a quota system which assured fair Scandinavian input in city and county affairs. Considering what Scandinavians had done to develop the region, Washington Posten was convinced that other nationalities would see the justice of such an arrangement. {36}

After its return to the Republican party in 1914, Washington Posten continued to insist on a greater Scandinavian political say. In the Norwegian community there was considerable evidence of a growing political maturity and ethnic independence. In 1928, for instance, the Republican Washington Posten abandoned the Republican candidate for governor, [183] Roland H. Hartley, whom it had supported in two previous elections. Washington Posten portrayed the governor as being incompetent; besides, he had insulted the Norwegian community and offended their national sentiments. Washington Posten reminded its readers that the governor had been invited to be present at the large Norse-American Centennial festival in Seattle in 1925, but had not even had the grace to respond to the invitation. When asked why, he had answered arrogantly: “Well, I didn’t owe those Swedes anything.” {37}

In the national election that year, on the other hand, Washington Posten vigorously supported the Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover while attacking the Democratic candidacy of Alfred E. Smith. Editorially the newspaper joined in the racist and biased attacks on Smith, “who is a representative of those elements in our population who more or less consciously oppose the Anglo-Saxon point of view which has governed this country.” “This view,” Washington Posten declared, “is by and large the same as the Nordic view.” A more self-confident and prosperous Norwegian community was, if judged by the opinion expressed in Washington Posten, obviously identifying itself closely with a Protestant Anglo-Saxon tradition. As members of the community moved into middle-class America, they put a distance between themselves and more recent immigrant groups from southern and eastern Europe, the element Smith was seen as representing. Hoover won the favor of Washington Posten also in the next contest in 1932, but the newspaper editorially predicted defeat, contending that the American people were looking for a scapegoat for the grave economic situation. By the next presidential election, however, Washington Posten had embraced the Democratic cause and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program. It thereby followed the change in political allegiance of many immigrant journals and a movement of Norwegian-American voters into the Democratic party, which in 1936 assumed political control of Washington state. {38} [184]

Washington Posten maintained a Norwegian voice in the Pacific Northwest. Its impact in the immigrant community and on the region of course diminished as immigration from Norway slowed and American-born generations moved away from the old-country heritage. The most vivid impressions of a developing immigrant community and its relations with the host society emerge in the four or five initial decades of its existence. A correct reading of Washington Posten shows the newspaper as an active agent in the process of immigrant adjustment; this adjustment was based on a national Norwegian heritage, rural folkways, and experiences from the homeland. Using these resources the immigrants ultimately helped to give form to an increasingly industrial and urban nation. The nature, phases, and dynamics of this process as it pertains to a regional urban community of Norwegian immigrants may be seen in the many volumes of Washington Posten.


<1> Washington Posten, May 13, 1938.

<2> For a popularly written history of Seattle, see Roger Sale, Seattle Past to Present (Seattle, 1976).

<3> Sale, Seattle Past to Present, 51; Patsy Adams Hegstad, “Scandinavian Settlement in Seattle, ‘Queen City of the Puget Sound,’” in Norwegian-American Studies, 30 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1985), 57.

<4> Jorgen Dahlie, “Old World Paths in the New: Scandinavians Find Familiar Home in Washington,” in Pacific Northwest Quarterly, April, 1970, 65-7 1; Odd S. Lovoll, “Decorah-Posten: The Story of an Immigrant Newspaper,” in Norwegian-American Studies, 27 (Northfield, 1977), 94; Lovoll, The Promise of America: A History of the Norwegian-American People (Minneapolis, 1984), 156.

<5> Washington Posten, May 13, 1938; Trønderlagets aarbok 1940-1941 (n.p., 1941), 57-61.

<6> Washington Posten, May 13, 1938.

<7> Lovoll, “Decorah-Posten,” 93-94; Jean Skogerboe Hansen, “Skandinaven and the John Anderson Publishing Company,” in Norwegian-American Studies, 28 (Northfield, 1979), 35-68; Svennik Høyer, Norsk presse mellom 1865 og 1965. Strukturutvikling og politiske mønstre (Oslo, n.d.), 24-25; Chr. A. R. Christensen, “Fra ‘Tiden’ i 1814 til vår tids presse,” in Johan T. Ruud, ed., Dette er Norge 1814-1964 (Oslo, 1964), 383; O. M. Norlie, Washington Posten 185 Norwegian-American Papers, 1847-1946 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1946), 33-34.

<8> Lovoll, The Promise of America, 117-133.

<9> Høyer, Norsk presse, 24-25; Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States through 260 Years, 1690 to 1950 (rev, ed., New York, 1950), 228-241.

<10> Washington Posten, May 17, 1889, May 13, 1938; Hegstad, “Scandinavian Settlement,” 59.

<11> Washington Posten, May 13, 1938.

<12> Washington Posten, September 24, 1896; N. W. Ayer & Sons, American Newspaper Annual (Philadelphia, 1892), 766.

<13> Decorah-Posten, October 21, 1943; Sønner av Norge, January, 1941; Trønderlagets aarbok, 1940-1941, 59; Ayer, American Newspaper Annual (1899), 843, (1905), 891, (1915), 1009, (1929), 1131.

<14> Washington Posten, July 6, 1945, March 26, May 22, June 6, 1959, May 12, 1961; Ayer, Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals (Philadelphia, 1961), 1072. Henning C. Boe continues as publisher and editor of Western Viking, which is one of the very last representatives of a once flourishing Norwegian-American press.

<15> Washington Posten, December 25, 1925, October 1, 1926, April 3, 1953.

<16> Washington Posten, May 26, 1961.

<17> Washington Posten, August 17, 1906.

<18> Washington Posten, April 27, 1906, March 16, 1917. See files of Washington Posten in the archives of the Norwegian- American Historical Association, Northfield, Minnesota, and at the Luther College Library, Decorah, Iowa.

<19> Robert E. Park, The Immigrant Press and Its Control (New York, 1922), 121; Washington Posten, July 19, 1890, May 16, 1917.

<20> Washington Posten, March 23, 1928; Calvin F. Schmid, Social Trends in Seattle (Seattle, 1944), 111.

<21> Schmid, Social Trends in Seattle, 99, 111.

<22> Marion Tuttle Marzolf, The Danish- Language Press in America (New York, 1979), 3-19, 217-221.

<23> Park, The Immigrant Press, 49-88; Carl Wittke, The German-Language Press in America (Lexington, Kentucky, 1957), 1-8.

<24> Albert F. Schersten, The Relation of the Swedish-American Newspaper to the Assimilation of Swedish Immigrants (Rock Island, Illinois, 1935); Park, The Immigrant Press, 323.

<25> Washington Posten, series beginning January 29, 1926; Lovoll, The Promise of America, 71.

<26> Frank Thistlethwaite, “Migration from Europe Overseas in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in XIe Congrès International des Sciences Historiques, Rapport V (Uppsala, 1960), 53.

<27> Carl N. Degler, Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern America (rev. ed., New York, 1970), 314. [185]

<28> Morris Janowitz, The Community Press in an Urban Setting (Glencoe, Illinois, 1952), 29.

<29> For a history of the movement, see Odd Sverre Lovoll, A Folk Epic: The Bygdelag in America (Boston, 1975).

<30> Bernard A. Weisberger, The American Newspaperman (Chicago, 1961), 149.

<31> Washington Posten, November 12, 1896.

<32> It is generally true that ethnic newspapers as they address a gradually smaller group of readers become more limited in focus, concentrating on events and personal relationships within this group.

<33> Kenneth O. Bjork, West of the Great Divide: Norwegian Migration to the Pacific Coast, 1847-1893 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1958), 601-621.

<34> Washington Posten, October 8, November 5, 1896.

<35> Washington Posten, January 22, 1891, August 10, 1900.

<36> Washington Posten, September 20, November 1, 1912.

<37> Washington Posten, September 7, 1928.

<38> Washington Posten, June 22, July 6, November 2, 1928, November 4, 1932, October 30, 1936.


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