A 'Swenglish' journey through family photos, notes and postcards from the early 20th century.


Why Did They Emigrate?

Hands Across the Sea_0001


In English

How is it that one never seems to think of the questions to ask until everyone who might be able to answer them is already gone? Is it because the right questions don’t arise until you’re old enough to begin to get a bit of perspective on your own life? Or even that there might be some questions that cannot be asked until you’re free to use your own imagination to fill in the details?

I do remember from my childhood, that my p.grandmother Sally used to talk about her big family and the farm where she grew up. But I never really got a time-perspective on it. All the names were a blur, and I never quite ‘got’ who was who among all the family portraits that sat on top of the cupboard in my grandparents’ living-room.

Family portraits are funny like that – frozen in time – some people forever old, others forever young, depending on when they happened to have their photo taken. A bunch of familiar faces (when you’ve been looking at those portraits all your life) but if you never knew them, there is really no clue who was the oldest or the youngest among them. Or even who is who!

I always knew that my grandma Sally had a bunch of older half-siblings, but I don’t think I ever quite got how much older most of them were. Like the fact that her oldest half-brother Carl, who also lived on the farm where she grew up, was in fact 30 years older than Sally; and only nine years younger than Sally’s mother! Or that she had nieces /nephews older than herself. Or that her father died when she was only seven. Or that she can’t really have had any early childhood memories of the two youngest half-siblings from her father’s first marriage – Gustaf and Gerda – because they went off to America when she was about 2½, and did not come back until she was 11.

And until I found the postcard albums that belonged to Gustaf and Gerda, even less has it ever occurred to me to think about things from their point of view. (Gustav I never met because he died before I was born. I’m not sure if I ever met Gerda either, even though she lived to be 92.)

When their mother Anna Sophia died (at the age of 57, and having given birth to nine children), Gustav was 16, Gerda 13.

When, four years later, in December 1898, their father Samuel (63) got remarried to Selma (a 37 year old widow with a young daughter), Gustaf was 20 and Gerda 17. My grandma Sally was born just over a year later, in February 1900. 1½ year later, in the summer of 1902, another baby was born, Sally’s brother Nils.

It seems to have been in the autumn/winter of 1902, that Gustaf and Gerda both went off to seek their fortune on the other side of the Atlantic. Gustaf was 24 and Gerda 21. Their father had started over with a new family (also including a step-sister, by then 10 years old); with their oldest brother to help. There were enough people living on the farm. The other older siblings had their own lives. Work opportunities in Sweden were hard to find.

At least part of 1901, Gerda was living or staying with her sister Emma (married with children) and Gustaf may have been staying with his older brother Oscar (also married).

I’m not sure if Gustaf and Gerda went to America together on the same boat, but it can’t have been far between. They did not go to live in the same place or even the same state, though.

At Christmas 1902, Gustaf was in Pennsylvania. It seems he stayed in Pennsylvania until he went back to Sweden in 1911.
At New Year 1903, Gerda was in Chicago; and still there in 1910.

Gustav came back to Sweden to live and work on the family farm in the summer of 1911. (Samuel, the father, had died in 1907.)

I’m not sure when Gerda came back, but I found evidence that in 1913 she was living in Ronneby in Sweden (south-east coast).

The facts I’ve extracted partly from reading the addresses on random postcards, partly from dates of births and deaths collected by my father and one of his cousins (son of grandma Sally’s younger brother Nils).

Additional information from Wikipedia:

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, about 1.3 million Swedes left Sweden for the United States. The main "pull" was the availability of low cost, high quality farm land in the upper Midwest (the area from Illinois to Montana), and high paying jobs in mechanical industries and factories in Chicago, Minneapolis, Worcester and many smaller cities. The American environment also provided low taxes and no established state church or monarchy. Push factors inside Sweden included population growth and crop failures. Most migration was of the chain form, with early settlers giving reports and recommendations (and travel money) to relatives and friends in Sweden.

By 1890 the U.S. census reported a Swedish-American population of nearly 800,000. After a dip in the 1890s, emigration rose again, causing national alarm in Sweden. A broad-based parliamentary emigration commission was instituted in 1907. It recommended social and economic reform in order to reduce emigration. The effect of the measures taken is hard to assess, as World War I (1914-1918) also had its effect on migration. From the mid-1920s, there was no longer a Swedish mass emigration.


1 The postcard is an unwritten and undated one,
found at the back of the postcard album.

Royal Mail Ship (sometimes Steam-ship or Steamer), usually seen in its abbreviated form RMS, a designation which dates back to 1840, is the ship prefix used for seagoing vessels that carry mail under contract by Royal Mail.  --- It was used by many shipping lines, but is often associated in particular with the Cunard Line,2 Royal Mail Lines and Union-Castle Line, which held a number of high-profile mail contracts, and which traditionally prefixed the names of many of their ships with the initials "RMS".


2R.M.S. Caronia was built in 1905, in service for the Cunard Line 1905-1932 (scrapped 1932)


  1. I can see that this blog is probably going to be even more interesting than I first thought. Not just because of the family and people interest but because of the general social and, in this case, the shipping interest too. The latter is something hard to escape living in Liverpool when I was young and the shipyards and the docks from which ships sailed all over the world stretched for miles along the River Mersey.

    1. I am amazed myself at how interesting each postcard is proving to be, when one tries to look at it in the context of history. Using Google search and Wikipedia to look things up, and checking the inherited notes on family history as well, I can spend hours on just one card!

  2. I was going to add that I've probably spent about 30 minutes reading around the subjects of this post. Wonderful.

    1. I'm glad that it proves to be of interest to more people than myself! Makes it even more worth while to continue to explore.

  3. I'm still amazed by the shape the postcards are in, this one of the ship is in excellent condition. Good to know why Gustav came back! Now if we only knew why Gerda did...maybe things didn't work out here and she was homesick. It would be nice to think that they both were kind of re-united in their later days.

    1. Ginny, yes, most of the postcards are in quite good condition (except the stamps having been removed). With some of them I'm using digital editing to improve clarity in details when publishing them here; but I think this one was actually good just as it was scanned.

      As for reunion, Gerda ended up in Stockholm but yes she did keep in touch and visit the family including both Gustav and my grandmother Sally. Gustav died in 1952, Gerda 1973 - she lived to be 92 years old. I'm hoping for a few more details to be revealed as I continue exploring the postcard album. Around 1930 is as far as that collection goes though.

  4. (Sorry if anyone subscribing to comments have been getting double comment emails from me - I discovered I was commenting under different id, wich might be confusing for some readers.)