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“I met him at Normanna Hall”: Ethnic Cohesion and Marital Patterns among Scandinavian Immigrant Women*
    by Janet E. Rasmussen (Volume 32: Page 71)

*A preliminary version of this paper was presented at the Pacific Northwest History Conference, Helena, Montana, May 18, 1985. The author gratefully acknowledges a grant from the L. J. Skaggs and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation of Oakland, California, in support of the oral history collection on which this discussion is based.

Marriage patterns among immigrants have interested researchers of ethnic history ever since Julius Drachsler’s classic work Intermarriage in New York City, published in 1921. {1} A statistical study of the type undertaken by Drachsler generates powerful evidence of the trend toward endogamy, marriage within the ethnic group, among first-generation immigrants. Such an approach fails, however, to convey either the complicated human dynamics that surround choice of a marriage partner or the more subtle signals of cultural adaptation that may exist within endogamous relationships. Oral history interviews offer a vivid and nuanced picture of immigrant courtship and marriage patterns; as a result, a better understanding of the relationship between endogamy and cultural maintenance emerges. It will be seen that Scandinavian women in the Pacific Northwest displayed a high degree of ethnic loyalty in choosing a spouse, yet marriages in the immigrant community bore obvious signs of the new [72] environment. Modes of courtship and wedding celebrations changed in response to the rhythms and resources of immigrant life. Single women also boasted a high degree of autonomy, fostered by economic independence, demographic scarcity, and requisite self-reliance; this autonomy added its own flavor to immigrant courtship. For Scandinavians, adaptation coexisted with ethnic loyalty; changes in attitude and behavior took place simultaneously with the forging of endogamous marriages.

Seventy-two women who emigrated as unattached persons and who settled either immediately or eventually in the Pacific Northwest provide the life histories for this discussion of immigrant courtship. {2} An additional fifteen informants who married or became engaged to be married prior to emigration offer valuable perspectives on contemporary courtship and wedding customs in Scandinavia. Viewed together, the women immigrants, eighty-seven in all, display the following profile: they were born in the three decades between 1883 and 1914; they migrated across the Atlantic between 1901 and 1931; and they entered into their first marriages between 1907 and 1943. {3} The majority (fifty-three) of the women came from Norway. Ten Danes, ten Finns, and fourteen Swedes are also included. These twentieth-century immigrants from Nordic countries were found through an informal network of persons and organizations. They represent an important, but hitherto unexamined, regional presence. {4} The interviews with them will become part of the Scandinavian Immigrant Experience Collection at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. {5}

The technique of oral history was selected for three reasons: first, because interviews capture otherwise unavailable information; second, because oral history allows persons directly, and from their own point of view, to relate their own life stories; and third, because this approach mandates the consideration of human experiences in humanistic rather than primarily statistical terms. {6} These points emerge as especially compelling when the subject under discussion is women’s experiences, for women have too often remained silent about [73] their lives. The interviews in our project cover a range of topics and attempt to capture the major features of the individual lives, including social background, reasons for emigration, journey to America, settling in, employment, family life, community involvement, and awareness of heritage. Because of the unique nature of each narrative, topics are discussed more fully in some cases than in others and central points are occasionally overlooked.

Before proceeding with detailed description and analysis of the oral sources, a brief review of the pioneering work on the relationship between marriage and assimilation is in order. To set forth the marital patterns of European immigrants in the country’s largest metropolis, Julius Drachsler screened over 100,000 marriage licenses issued in the five-year period between 1908 and 1912 and tabulated the results for 79,704 marriages with identifiable ethnic composition. He urged the use of quantifiable data, such as that presented in his detailed tables, in order that public policies concerning immigrant assimilation might be intelligently formulated. Drachsler stated his understanding of the relationship between intermarriage and assimilation in this way: “Intermarriage, as such, is perhaps the severest test of group cohesion. Individuals who freely pass in marriage from one ethnic circle into another are not under the spell of an intense cultural or racial consciousness. Consequently, the greater the number of mixed marriages the weaker, broadly speaking, the group solidarity” or “to put it differently,” as he later suggested, “the higher the proportion of intermarriage, the higher is the degree of assimilation with other groups.” {7} A theoretical framework for the relationship between assimilation and intermarriage was provided by Milton M. Gordon who, in 1964, proposed seven stages or types of assimilation. On the assimilation scale, Gordon placed marital assimilation third, after both cultural and structural assimilation, implying that not only familiarity with the host culture’s language and customs but also access to its clubs and institutions would normally precede marriage outside the ethnic group. As Drachsler and Gordon both realized, loyalty to one’s own group or [74] exclusion from mainstream institutions could not fully explain the immigrant marriage market. Economic considerations and the ratio of men to women would necessarily influence marriage patterns as well. {8} Still, when dealing with a clearly defined ethnic community like the Scandinavians in the Pacific Northwest, the evidence supports Drachsler’s view of endogamy as a sign of ethnic cohesion; it also confirms these researchers’ understanding of marriage outside the group as an obvious but hardly definitive sign of assimilation. Not only did Gordon place cultural and structural assimilation prior in time to intermarriage, but Drachsler acknowledged that his use of intermarriage data would result in an underestimation of immigrant assimilation.

The perspectives of Gordon and Drachsler provide a helpful point of departure for a consideration of the first-generation Scandinavian experience, although the focus here will be on adaptation to the new urban environment of the Pacific Northwest rather than on assimilation in a purer sense. More importantly, Drachsler’s statistical analysis of Scandinavian immigrant women who married in New York City between 1908 and 1912 serves as the best yardstick for judging the representative quality of the oral history data from the Pacific Northwest, since the time period, the immigrant population, and a largely urban environment are points in common. In Drachsler’s study, between 63 and 76 percent of the first-generation Scandinavian women married someone of their own nationality. When his data are recalculated to include inter-Nordic marriages, the percentages range from a low of 79 percent to a high of 89 percent. {9} These figures correspond very well with the high rate of endogamy demonstrated by the oral history interviewees. Only seven of the seventy-two unattached women married non-Scandinavians when they entered the marriage market; fully 89 percent chose partners from the broadly defined ethnic group of Scandinavians. Some mixing occurred within the Scandinavian community, but this, too, was very modest. Five marriages joined different Nordic nationalities; in four of these cases, however, familial and linguistic ties supported the choice of mate. {10} [75] Seven marriages took place with second- or third-generation Scandinavians, though these matches also demonstrated clear loyalty to specific national identity. Leaving aside the non-Scandinavian and the mixed Nordic matches, 72 percent (fifty-two of seventy-two) of the single women married first-generation members of their own nationality. {11} The correlation with Drachsler’s figures is striking. Further corroboration comes from Patsy Adams Hegstad’s careful study of the 1900 census for Seattle and Ballard; she determined an endogamous/inter-Nordic marriage rate for Nordic-born men ranging from a low of 73 percent for the Danes to a high of 85 percent for the Finns. {12} Thus, the general marriage pattern of the immigrants under study here conforms to previously documented trends. What previous investigations have not fully captured is the range of factors behind the matches. Part of the explanation obviously derives from contemporaneous sex ratios.

The unmarried women found the Scandinavian bachelors in the Pacific Northwest most eager to make their acquaintance and it is perhaps not overstating the case to suggest that their relative scarcity supplied them with a certain leverage. Upon learning of a newcomer from the homeland, Norwegian males might waste little time before paying a social call, as this 1923 story from Tacoma indicates: “He was from Sykkylven, Norway. He came to my uncle’s house before I even knew he existed, ‘cause he’d heard that there was a nykommerjente [a girl newcomer] there. He came with my second cousin Oscar Olsen that he’d met here. But I wasn’t home that evening when he came over. We met at Normanna Hall, later, through somebody.” {13} On occasion, the men formed a reception committee for the arriving immigrant women. Hanna S. recalls her welcome in Astoria, Oregon, in 1919: “When I come here at first, they heard Finnish girls come to here. And they come to see us - boys come to see us. My husband was there. He was Finnish. It happened that he came from almost the same place. We were married in 1921." {14} Before they even had a chance to freshen up after the long cross-country train ride, Greta P. and her companions encountered [76] a group of keenly interested Danish men: “We came into Seattle on the 26th of August [1922]. When we came into the railroad station, they came some of the young fellows from the Danish Hall where they were staying as boarders; they came down to get us. There was a party at the Hall that night. They had to see these here Danish girls, you know. All these young Danes that were staying in this boarding house, they were anxious to see these Danish girls, naturally. But we weren’t looking our best. My hair was just like wire, from five days on the train.” {15}

The ardent attention paid to the newcomers points to the fact that Scandinavian women were in short supply in the Pacific Northwest. The State of Washington exhibited a high ratio of immigrant men to women, as signaled by the 1910 census (212.1/100); and while Italian and Austrian residents confronted an even greater sex imbalance, Swedish and Norwegian males outnumbered their respective female counterparts by an imposing 187.9/100 and 177.7/100. {16} The percentage of women in the Scandinavian population increased steadily between 1900 and 1940, but females remained in the minority. Figures from the city of Seattle illustrate the trend. In 1900, women made up 29.5 percent of Seattle’s Danish population; by 1940 this had risen to 37.5 percent. A similar pattern can be ascertained for the other Scandinavian nationalities in the city, with women constituting around 40 percent of the ethnic population in 1940 (see Table 1).

Table 1
Percentage of Women in Immigrant Population in Seattle

  Danes Finns Norwegians Swedes
1900 29.5 16.1 34.8 32.2
1940 37.5 43.2 39.9 41.1
Sources: Figures for 1940 are drawn from Calvin Schmid, Social Trends in Seattle (Seattle, 1944); figures for 1900 from Hegstad, “Citizenship, Voting, and Immigrants.”

Nationwide, too, Scandinavian men outnumbered Scandinavian women; however, the discrepancy was greatest in [77] the western states. This may explain in part why Mina B. had a west-coast suitor while she was working in Chicago in 1917: “I knew him from Norway. He was out here in Seattle. He called me and wrote to me and wanted me to come to Seattle. He was working out here - fishing.” {17} A Norwegian bachelor living in rural Montana (later Washington), likewise seized the opportunity to court an eligible woman across the miles. His wife, a nurse, explains: “So one day I had night duty and here come a fellow from America, he was a friend of my sister’s husband. I had already asked for my passport and I told him I was coming to America. After he find that out, he just write and write every week and I don’t know how often. So I met him in Glasgow, Montana [where the married sister lived] and I don’t think he asked me to marry him then. But he came clear to Chicago and asked me if I would marry him and I said yes. So he went back to his job and I was working in Cook County Hospital for two years and then we get married in Chicago in a big church.” When the newlyweds traveled to eastern Washington in 1929, Gertie H. discovered to her dismay that the new house was located in a “little Godforsaken country” with “no running water, no electricity.” {18} Like electrical power, single Scandinavian women, especially women with Gertie’s training, were a scarce resource in rural communities in the Pacific Northwest.

This narrative mentions a referral from Scandinavians in America to a woman in the old country. Other interviews relate similar situations. Jenny P., a twenty-two-year-old seamstress in Esbjerg, Denmark, fancied a Danish American named Chris: “I kind of liked him. He was dressed a little different; he had more American-style clothes on. He wasn’t the same type as what we met at home, you know.” And how did Jenny and Chris come to know each other? “He visited my sister that lived over on Bainbridge Island [Washington]; they got together all these Danes once a year for a reunion. . . . And so my sister said to him, one day, why don’t you go over to Denmark and visit over there and see your mother . . . and I have a sister at home not married, why don’t you go home and marry her?” {19} Chris brought greetings from Jenny’s sister in [78] 1921 and they were married the following year. Five other women in the group of fifteen married or engaged emigrants had also been courted by visiting Scandinavian Americans. For males, the marriage market was better in Scandinavia than in the Pacific Northwest, since the sex ratio there tipped toward the female side and a Scandinavian American might appear exotic and impressive. {20} The chain of personal ties across the Atlantic grew stronger as direct migration to the Pacific Northwest escalated. Women immigrants, like Jenny’s sister, could have had their own motives for long-distance matchmaking, including a desire for female companionship. After Anne H. left Denmark in 1908 to homestead in central Washington - an experience she describes as like “climbing a mountain, starting on the steep side” - her sister followed to marry Anne’s brother-in-law and become Anne’s homestead neighbor. {21} Thus female kinship networks might play a direct role in the recruitment of brides.

During the early twentieth century, Scandinavian immigrants exhibited considerable transatlantic and transcontinental mobility. As a result, some men compensated for the unfavorable sex ratio in the Pacific Northwest by extending the marriage market to both midwestern settlements and the homeland. {22} But not all immigrant bachelors could afford to travel or were so inclined. Unlike the Italian men discussed by Robert F. Harney in his well-known article “Men Without Women,” Scandinavians did not automatically look to the home community for a marriage partner. {23} Instead, the local ethnic scene fostered the principal courtship and mating activity. During this period, Scandinavians in the Pacific Northwest maintained a rich network of secular and religious organizations, a network which provided a forum for socializing between the sexes.

The importance of the ethnic network is shown by a review of the avenues through which the seventy-two unattached women became acquainted with the men they eventually married (Table 2).

Table 2
Ways Scandinavian Immigrant Women Met Spouses

  Scandinavian Husband Non-Scandinavian Husband Ethnicity of Husband Unknown Total
Through Relatives, Friends, Neighbors 31 2 33
Through Churches, Clubs, Lodges 19 1 1 21
Through Workplace 5 2 7
Acquainted from Scandinavia 6 6
Not specified 3 2 5
Total 64 7 1 72

Most women met their husbands either through friends and relatives or through an organization. Fifty-four of the matches described in the interviews [79] (75 percent) developed within such a framework; all but four of these were endogamous relationships. The oral testimony reveals that fellowship with other Scandinavians provided a welcome antidote to the initial loneliness and awkwardness of immigrant life. Henny H. felt that her first domestic job was too isolated, so after nine months she quit and took a position close to the Scandinavian neighborhood in Tacoma: “And then I was all set. Then I started going to Normanna Hall where all the Norwegians gathered, you know, and I met friends and then I was on easy street.” {24} The single women were employed primarily as domestic servants. Such jobs were in plentiful supply and the compensation was generally favorable. Because they lived in American households, the Scandinavian domestics acquired familiarity with local customs and English vocabulary. This combination of financial security and language facility heightened their sense of personal autonomy and pride. Still, the women gravitated toward the ethnic community during scheduled hours off on Thursdays and Sundays in order to hear their own language, to relax, and to socialize. [80]

The individual church congregations had strong ethnic identities and served social as well as spiritual needs. Laura F. participated in the Danish church in Seattle in the 1920s: “All of us girls, all these young girls, we were all working in homes as domestics and we had Thursdays off. So Thursday afternoon we would meet at the church. We had joined the Danish Young People’s Society, and, of course, that got the ball rolling. Then we got acquainted with girls and young people our own age. And it was all clean fun like picnics and basket socials and little plays and entertainment evenings and what have you. And that’s where all the young people met. The fellows after work would come in the evening and play croquet out on the lawn.” {25} Hilma N. left Norway with several members of her family in 1903; she worked as a domestic in Tacoma and was active in her church and the Good Templar lodge: “Sometimes when we went to church on Sunday evening, I think we went there just for to meet our dates. My husband, he was singing in the choir.” Like Laura, Hilma noted the “nice clean fun” that they had while dating and in groups. Her friends belonged to the temperance society; thus a certain screening occurred within the specific ethnic group - “the boys we went out with, they were temperates, they didn’t drink. " {26}

The secular lodges with their various spin-off activities - singing and dramatic societies, dances and socials - also proved a welcome source of new friends, and eventually of a husband. Arriving in Seattle in 1916, Ida A. found it easy to become acquainted with other Norwegians. She especially enjoyed the chance to interact with a larger circle of people than her home community in Norway could boast: “I joined a mixed group - men and women - that met in Norway Hall, which was of course our meeting place. And that was really nice. Then I met more people from other places in Norway. We’d sing. We had a little choir. I met my husband at Norway Hall, of course, at Boren and Virginia. He was in the Navy at Bremerton. He was a Tacoma boy - of course he was born in Norway. He joined the Navy because he did not want to go in the Army. One of my neighbor boys from home was in the [81] Navy and that’s how I met Andrew.” In this case an extra stamp of approval was placed on the already positive fact of Andrew’s Norwegian birth by introduction from a trusted neighbor. Ida knew her situation was not unique: “I think lots of young people met husbands through the Norwegian organizations. Sometimes they met someone from their own home place.” {27}

Introductions by family and friends were frequent and typically casual. One woman reported, “He came up to the house, because my brother knew his brother and he went together with them.” {28} Another said, “My husband was a friend of my uncle. They knew one another, see. So that’s how I met him . . . He came over from Norway in 1911, so he was about twelve years older than I was.” {29} Anna J., a Swedish-speaking Finn, became acquainted with her husband through a midwest network transplanted to the west coast: “My husband came from Alaska. He had been in the service in World War I and couldn’t get a job back east and then he went up to Seattle and hired out on a boat to go fishing in Alaska. And then he came from there. I had known him - he sang in the choir in Bemidji, Minnesota, in a church there. I was slightly acquainted with him there. In Everett [Washington], he had his good suit stored over at Selma Johnson’s place and he came over to get his suit. And I met him then.” {30}

An example from Astoria, Oregon, reveals the possible interrelationship between the workplace and the ethnic community: “When I got through the eighth grade, I got a job. It was at a department store, it had everything - clothing, shoes, just about everything. I got to work there and he [my husband] and the lady that raised him lived nearby and he came and shopped there . . . I didn’t take lunch and I didn’t want to walk home for dinner so I used to eat my lunch at the Finnish Boarding House and he was eating there, too, sometimes when he was working. He lived near the boarding house and he came to shop there and I got to know him. We were married for sixty-three years. This was 1917.” {31} For Freda R., on the other hand, work in a service job brought contact with a non-Scandinavian spouse. “Then I worked in a restaurant. It [82] was City Restaurant in downtown Tacoma . . . I had to be at work at six o’clock in the morning and make sandwiches and lunches for people who came to buy their lunch. That’s what I did. I did that until I met my husband . . . My husband worked at the restaurant; he was a waiter. His name was Dan Ranney. He was from Iowa. His mother was Irish and his father Scotch; but they come over on the Mayflower, so they was oldtimers. {32} Interestingly, Freda’s first-generation immigrant perspective has exaggerated the husband’s American identity.

No special conclusions can be reached about the ways in which the women met their non-Scandinavian husbands. What does distinguish this small group, however, is age at emigration. Five of the seven women who married outside the ethnic network were under the age of confirmation (less than fourteen years old) when they came to this country. Thus, while only a small percentage of the unattached informants married non-Scandinavians (7 out of 72 or 10 percent), a much higher percentage of the subgroup who made the transition from childhood to adulthood after arrival in America did so (5 out of 13 or 39 percent). Three of the younger emigrants entered into unions with second-generation Scandinavians and one, a Dane, crossed national boundaries to marry a Swede. So only 30 percent of the pre-confirmation emigrants married first-generation countrymen, a pattern to which 78 percent of the total group subscribed. Statistical information drawn from the interview sample must not be given undue weight; the important point is not the percentages but the general pattern they suggest, with the evidence here supporting the view that the younger one is upon emigration, the weaker the ethnic loyalty one exhibits.

It has already been noted that eager courting of the scarcer immigrant women by Scandinavian men and the welcoming bosom of the ethnic community helped account for the high incidence of female endogamy. Domestic workers, even though exposed to American household environments throughout the week, used their hours off to socialize with fellow Scandinavians. Certain features of courtship and [83] marriage will now be examined where the matter of adaptation to the American environment may be tested, namely age of marriage, courtship dynamics, wedding customs, and female autonomy.

The first factor, age of marriage, shows obvious continuity from the homeland, with the average age of marriage for the women immigrants close to the Scandinavian norm. During this period, women in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark were, on the average, 26 years of age when they married; the women immigrants were, on the average, just under 25 years old. Once again, the pre-confirmation emigrants display a somewhat different profile, with an average age at marriage of 22 years. Interestingly, this corresponds to the median age at marriage of 22.4 years for women born in the United States between 1905 and 1914. {33}

Though the adult emigrants married according to the Scandinavian timetable, they encountered and adapted to a different set of courtship expectations. In rural Scandinavia, marriages were typically motivated by property and class considerations; appropriate marriage partners could be encouraged by the family and a very low-key courtship carried on until the conditions for marriage (land, inheritance, sufficient capital, pregnancy) were right. Whereas the community was intensely concerned with the propriety of a match and needed to sanction it, courting itself was not conducted in the public eye. Until the late nineteenth century, the established avenue for young people to become better acquainted with each other was night courtship or bundling. Although this custom had largely died out by the turn of the century, the public display of emotions or obvious favoring of an individual prior to an official engagement was still considered improper. {34} The urban environment of the Scandinavian community in the Pacific Northwest fostered a different courtship pattern. The immigrants were by and large wage earners for whom class distinctions based on property ownership were irrelevant. Here courtship consisted primarily of attending social events together: “We used to go to dances and had a wonderful time. We went together about four years [84] before we got married.” {35} This represented a reversal of expectations: whereas the choice of a marriage partner was now largely an individual matter, courting itself became a public phenomenon.

According to Ellen Luoma, dances became the principal courtship vehicle among Finnish immigrants, because the “rituals were easy to learn and enforce” and “were not tied to the rural status system.” Romance rather than property propelled a couple together: “partners were chosen on the basis of personal characteristics - charm, appearance, the ability to dance.” {36} Personal attraction obviously sparked many of the relationships described in the oral history interviews and women were not simply passive recipients of male attention. Sara V. recalls meeting her husband at Normanna Hall in Tacoma: “I remember standing by the steps. I always did like him. He had curly hair and I wanted children with curly hair. He came and asked me, ‘Do you want to dance?’ So we danced then and we started to go steady for three years and then we got married.” {37} Sigrid K., a Finnish immigrant, tells this story: “I met him in the church in San Francisco. He was outside standing with his brother. So we came out; we were quite a few girls. So he told his brother, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry.’ His brother said, ‘How do you know if she will want you?’ ‘I don’t know, but I’m going to find out!’ We were married sixty years.” {38} But for persons who had been taught to hide their feelings, there was an awkward and uncertain side to courtship in public. Anna E. had been in Tacoma two years when her future husband attended a Norwegian Christmas party. The meal had been served and the young men were sitting in a row, waiting to start the traditional dances around the Christmas tree. “And so we girls went to sit down on the other side. And I come walking by there and only one guy got up and said hello to me and shook hands with me and that was my husband - isn’t that funny? Oh, I felt so cheap. And the rest of the boys, I knew them, and they laughed, and I thought it was so silly . . . So then we started to go around the Christmas tree and he came and got me. He was kinda bashful like, I think. Ole went with me home on the bus, just to the [85] building where I was, so he knew where I lived. He was from Ålesund in Norway. He was down from Alaska for the winter.” {39} Anna conveys both her awkwardness at being publicly singled out and the bashfulness she feels her suitor had to overcome (“His brother said to me later, ‘I thought he turned crazy that night.’“)

Sometimes the courtship lasted less than a year, but a waiting period of two or more years was fairly common. For one thing, the men held jobs as loggers and fishermen and typically worked away from the cities (Tacoma, Seattle, Everett) for long stretches of time; for another, the women were for the most part settled in good-paying jobs and had no economic incentive to marry. Gunhild S.’s remarks reflect the new context of urban courtship and the individual responsibility she felt for her decision: “I came in ‘21 and I met him in ‘22 in the latter part of the year. ‘23 we got engaged. So I guess I knew what I was doing.” She was married in November, 1924. In a bow to old-country tradition, Gunhild’s boyfriend wrote to her father in Norway. This was just a courtesy, though, for Gunhild’s high opinion of the boyfriend was the only thing the father could judge: “He was kinda nice because he wrote back to my dad and asked him for my hand. There’s very few that do that. But he did and told him he would take care of me, you know. Dad didn’t quite believe that before I wrote and said how nice he was. Then he wrote, if you say so, it must be.” {40}

As celebrated by the immigrants, weddings were a second point of contrast to old-world traditions. Wedding customs were undergoing a gradual change in Scandinavia as migrants to the cities began to opt for civil nuptials and scaled-down festivities, but the rural ideal of a church wedding followed by an elaborate celebration for neighbors and kin retained its force in the early years of the century. Local traditions lent many special touches to these important occasions, but in general the event lasted two or three days, included several full-course meals (some of the food for which was supplied by the guests), a procession of the bridal party and guests through the countryside or village streets, dancing, [86] and ritualized speeches and toasts. {41} Hilda M. married in 1913, a week before emigrating to America with her husband: “We got married in Finland. We got a big wedding party - three days . . . They built a big platform outside where people could dance. There were flowers on it and it was beautifully decorated.” {42} In 1922, Elsie M.’s fiancé came home to Sweden from America. One should not be misled by her use of the adjective “little”: “They had a little party for us at my grandmother’s. There was a smorgåsbord . . . So all the farmers that lived there in Mossebo, they came over and then we had a party - a dance, and an accordion player, and lots of food.” {43} Olga Ha. remembered her 1926 wedding to a returned emigrant, an event which caused quite a sensation in the northern Norway community and filled the church: “The party after the wedding lasted until the next day. We had that at my mother and dad’s house. There was a whole lamb that was butchered for that and we had two cooks there. We had Alexandra pudding [rum pudding] for dessert . . . First we had dinner and then you walk around and some of them, if they want to dance, they had the floor in the barn. Your barn is all washed in the summertime so they were dancing over there; they had an accordion.” {44}

The immigrants replaced the stylized ritual with a simple ceremony, often in a parsonage parlor rather than a church, followed by a modest meal. Without the support of a large family, it was difficult to afford or stage an elaborate celebration. Freda R. was married in Tacoma: “I had a very simple wedding. I was married at my sister’s house. I had a Lutheran minister come there and marry us. I was married in a nice suit. I didn’t have any money. I bought the suit on time. It took me I don’t know how many months to pay for it. It was just my sisters at the wedding. Then we went to Seattle for a trip.” {45} Olga He met and married her husband in Bellingham, Washington: “We were married in 1920. We just went to the minister. We invited some people in for the reception, for supper or whatever you call it. You didn’t see much of big weddings in those days.” {46} Perhaps the most matter-of-fact situation is described by Mira B., who was married the same day [87] she arrived in Seattle from Chicago: “I came from the train, went up to the minister and got married, went back to the apartment and cooked the dinner.” {47} A modest celebration was typical. The difference in style between their weddings and those of both traditional Scandinavia and present-day America accounts for the frequent use by the interviewees of terms like “simple,” "just” and “no (real wedding, wedding trip, white dress).”

Both courtship and wedding customs became modified in the new country. Women were active participants in the less formal social patterns. The experiences of Anna H. provide a nice example of this point, as well as being representative of the process as a whole. Anna met a fellow Norwegian through an ethnic activity - a snowball fight after an event at Normanna Hall. During their three-year courtship, employment demands kept them seasonally separated. He fished in Alaska during the summer; she was successfully employed as a domestic worker in Tacoma. Anna felt no economic incentive to marry: “There I got $50 a month. That was really good wages for that time, because lots of the men were working and they didn’t have more than a dollar a day for working.” The sense of autonomy she brought to this courtship is suggested by the active, first-person form of her statement, “I decided to go up to Alaska and we got married up there, in Cordova, Alaska.” In other words, she presents this as an independent, personal choice. The marriage ceremony was performed at the courthouse with two of his friends as witnesses. Anna remained in Alaska all summer: “That was a lovely summer up in that fishing camp.” {48} Anna’s economic independence and self-reliant spirit empowered her to make decisions and take responsibility for herself.

Although one of the interviewees rebuffed a boyfriend by telling him, “I haven’t come to this country to get married; I have plenty of chances to get married in Finland,” it would be an exaggeration to characterize Scandinavian immigrant women as reluctant brides. {49} They did, however, possess considerable freedom of choice as to whom and when they would marry. They typically spent a number of years in the labor [88] market prior to marriage and in most cases their employment in the homes of American families supplied them with a far more intimate knowledge of American customs and values than that obtained by the bachelor loggers and fishermen. At the same time, they retained a sturdy ethnic pride and looked favorably upon Scandinavian suitors, as evidenced by the striking number who married endogamously.

An endogamous marriage offered clear benefits. For one thing, it seemed natural to associate with persons of a like background. A comfortable relationship is remembered by one who married a fellow Swede: “He had gone through the same thing I had and he had come from the old country, just about eighty miles from where I was. And his mother was dead and my mother was dead and there were so many things. We just clicked together.” {50} Social standing, reputation in the home community, and familial approval could no longer function as gauges for a potential spouse. Under these fluid circumstances, it was no doubt reassuring to embark upon a relationship that was at least based in a common ethnic background. And prospective husbands were plentiful; the women encountered a large contingent of single men within the Scandinavian community in the Pacific Northwest, men who were anxious for female companionship. As a result of such factors, Scandinavian immigrant women married predominantly first-generation men of the same national origin. The high incidence of female endogamy, while significant in itself as a feature of the Scandinavian community in the Pacific Northwest, does not, however, convey the changing dynamics and expectations of courtship and marriage. From oral history interviews, one gleans relevant features of the female role, of courtship patterns, and of the transition to married life. While marriage outside the group may well be synonymous with assimilation, it can also be seen that endogamy need not be synonymous with a lack of assimilation. As Thomas Archdeacon points out in his recent book Becoming American: “The Scandinavians, in conforming to the American value system, did not have to dissolve their ethnic group connections, and the evidence suggests that the ties remained firm.” {51} Through [89] their work lives and through the changing fabric of the ethnic community, immigrant women began to adapt to American ways before they married. Their choice of spouse served as a statement of ethnic loyalty but not to the exclusion of American values. These insights prepare us better to interpret women’s roles within the Scandinavian-American family.


<1>Julius Drachsler, Intermarriage in New York City (New York, 1921).

<2> With the exception of one widow and one woman abandoned by her husband, none of these emigrants had ever been married. The rise in individual, as opposed to family, migration was a marked trend in twentieth-century emigration from Scandinavia; also rising was the percentage of female emigrants. Andres A. Svalestuen provides a useful overview of these trends in “Nordisk emigrasjon: en komparativ oversikt,” in Emigrationen fra Norden indtil 1. verdenskrig. Rapporter til det nordiske historikermøde i København 1971, 9-12 august (Copenhagen, 1971), 9-60. He reports that during the decade 1901-1910, unmarried adult (15 or older) women comprised 29.9 percent of the total emigrants from Sweden, 24 percent of those from Norway, and 20.4 percent of those from Finland.

<3> One informant who emigrated in 1938 is included here since she was born in 1902.

<4> The major regional studies to date focus primarily on the formative years; these include Kenneth O. Bjork, West of the Great Divide: Norwegian Migration to the Pacific Coast (Northfield, Minnesota, 1958);Jørgen Dablie, A Social History of Scandinavian Immigration, Washington State, 1895-1910 (New York, 1980); Patsy Adams Hegstad, “Citizenship, Voting, and Immigrants: A Comparative Study of the Naturalization Propensity and Voter Registration of Nordics in Seattle and Ballard, Washington, 1892-1900” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, 1982); and volume 30 of Norwegian-American Studies (Northfield, Minnesota, 1985).

<5> The Scandinavian Immigrant Experience Collection is a special collection of the Robert A. L. Mortvedt Library at Pacific Lutheran University. Oral history interviewing began in 1979 as a class project with undergraduate students and continued as a grant project with staff interviewers. Most of the interviews were recorded between 1981 and 1983.

<6> Two special issues of Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies focus on the value and techniques of women’s oral history: 2/2 (1977) and 7/1 (1983). James Bennett argues for a “humanistic oral history” in his article “Human Values in Oral History,” in Oral History Review, 11(1983), 1-15.

<7> Drachsler, Intermarriage, 18-19. [90]

<8> Milton M. Gordon, Assimilation in American Life (New York, 1964), 71, 80-81; Drachsler, Intermarriage, 42.

<9> Drachsler, Intermarriage, 97, 159-179.

<10> The inter-Nordic marriages represent the following pairings: Dane- Swede; Swedish-speaking Finn-Swede; Finn-Norwegian (with family ties to Finland); Finn-Norwegian (of Finnish background); Norwegian-Swede (mother a Norwegian).

<11> The marriage partners of the 72 unattached emigrants may be described as follows: first-generation, same nationality: 52; second- and third-generation, same nationality: 7 (this includes one match between a Swedish-Finnish woman and a Swede); first-generation, other Scandinavian nationality: 5 (see note 10 above); non-Scandinavian: 7; nationality unknown: 1.

<12> Hegstad, “Citizenship, Voting, and Immigrants,” 146, table 12. Her figures for endogamous and inter-Nordic marriages have been combined. As it will be seen below, women were in the minority in the immigrant population; thus a higher rate of endogamy would be projected for them. Janice Reiff Webster found surprisingly low rates of endogamy for women in her household sample (57% of Swedish women and 62% of Norwegian women), but this may relate to difficulties in interpretation of data; see her “Domestication and Americanization: Scandinavian Women in Seattle, 1888 to 1900,” in Journal of Urban History, 4 (May, 1978), 282, 289, note 32.

<13> Each interview tape (SPEC T) is identified by number and all quotations from the oral history material will here be referred to by tape number. In an effort to preserve some measure of anonymity, narrators are referred to by first name and last initial only. The quotation is from SPEC T146.

<14> SPEC T87.

<15> SPEC T198.

<16> David L. Nicandri, Italians in Washington State: Emigration 1853-1924 (n.p., 1978), 31-32.

<17> SPEC T220.

<18> SPEC T274.

<19> SPEC T147.

<20> In his Flight to America: The Social Background of 300,000 Danish Emigrants (New York, 1975), Kristian Hvidt analyzes the sex ratio among the emigrants and in Denmark. See especially chapter 8.

<21> SPEC T251.

<22> Webster also reports a pattern of Scandinavian women coming from the Midwest to marry in Seattle in “Domestication and Americanization,” 28 1-282.

<23> Robert F. Harney, “Men Without Women: Italian Migrants in Canada, 1885-1930,” in The Italian Immigrant Woman in North America, ed. Betty Boyd Caroli et a!. (Toronto, 1978), 79-101.

<24> SPEC T146.

<25> SPEC T193. [91]

<26> SPEC T233.

<27> SPEC T182.

<28> SPEC T79.

<29> SPEC T149.

<30> SPEC T104.

<31> SPEC T70.

<32> SPEC T203.

<33> Sources for Scandinavia include: Historisk statistik for Sverige. 1. Befolkning (Stockholm, 1955), table B7; Erik Høgh, Familien i samfundet (n. p., 1969), table 1.4.1; and Sidsel Vogt Moum, Kvinnfolkarbeid. Kvinners kår og status i Norge 1875-1910 (Oslo, 1981), 36, 63. For the United States, see table 1 in John Modell, Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr., and Douglas Strong, “The Timing of Marriage in the Transition to Adulthood: Continuity and Change, 1860-1985,” in American Journal of Sociology, 84, supplement (1978), S123.

<34> For more information concerning the custom of night courtship, see Michael Drake, Population and Society in Norway 1735-1865 (Cambridge, England, 1969), and Ellen Luoma, “Courtship in Finland and America: Yö juoksu Versus the Dance Hall,” in Finnish Americana, 22 (1979), 66-76. No mention of bundling is made in the interviews, although familial approval is discussed and the unequal economic status of a Finnish husband and wife was a strong impetus for their emigration to America.

<35> SPEC T225. A. William Hoglund offers a good discussion of these aspects of the immigrant experience in a chapter entitled “Love” in his Finnish Immigrants in America 1880-1 920 (Madison, 1960).

<36> Luoma, “Courtship in Finland and America,” 71.

<37> SPEC T115.

<38> SPEC T224.

<39> SPEC T140-141.

<40> SPEC T190.

<41> For a photographic essay on a traditional Norwegian country wedding, see Dale Brown, The Cooking of Scandinavia (Alexandria, Virginia, 1968), 62-71. Further information is available in Robert T. Anderson and Barbara Gallatin Anderson, The Vanishing Village: A Danish Maritime Community (Seattle, 1964), and Aagot Noss, “Høgtider i livet,” in Gilde oggjestehod, ed. Halvor Landsverk (Oslo, 1976), 5 1-71.

<42> SPEC T80.

<43> SPEC T229. They also had cornflakes, which she explains as follows: “There was one from America and she came home and she had it with her. That was something we never had seen before and heard about, so we had that on the table, too! We ate it; I didn’t care for it.”

<44> SPEC T200.

<45> SPEC T203.

<46> SPEC T256.

<47> SPEC T220. [92]

<48> SPEC T113.

<49> SPEC T83. Luoma quotes a related sentiment in “Courtship in Finland and America,” 7 1-72. Recent research on Irish women in America suggests that they married rather late and with some reluctance. See Hasia R. Diner, Erin’s Daughters in America (Baltimore, 1983), especially chapter 3.

<50> SPEC T24. A woman who married outside the group commented on the loss of customs and language: “See, I married an American. And he was one of them who didn’t want me to even teach the boys any Norwegian. He didn’t like any of that Norwegian food; he wanted American food. So I cooked American food.” (SPEC T210).

<51> Thomas J. Archdeacon, Becoming American: An Ethnic History (New York, 1983), 110.


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