The Lay of Per Svensson: Competing Propaganda Campaigns in 19th Century Swedish Emigration


In 1830, after one hundred years of unprecenteded population growth, emigration from Sweden became legal. Frustrated activists, reformers, and free-thinkers painted settling in the American Continent as an opportunity to reassert traditional Swedish values that had been repressed by an imported and unwelcome monarchical society.  

Many European emigrants saw America as a place to establish a new and authentic community. Germans, Latvians, Swedes, the Irish– all came to America to establish towns and countrysides full of their fellows. Although co-opted into myths of American individualism, the vast majority of European immigrants sought new freedom to be with their countrymen- to establish new Uppsalas, new Amsterdams, new Counties Clare.

The notion of ‘becoming American’ hardly existed and certainly didn’t have the meaning it has today. 

Once the first brave men and women escaped the poverty and oppression of feudal Sweden, they quickly realized they needed a lot more of their countrymen to live as they would like, in their own tongue, according to customs and beliefs specific to their shared history, and eating the dishes that tasted of home. Many were (or became) liars, opportunists, and thieves who knew how best to prey upon their own countrymen, but the communal human need they exploited was real.

Across Sweden a steady rain of leaflets fell, telling of the ideal conditions and perfect freedom migrants had to recreate their homeland away from the parasitical monarchy. Some of the information was true, much of it was lies. Emigration moved memetically.

Once sizable Swedish farming communities had formed on the prairie, the greatest impetus for further peasant migration came through personal contacts. The iconic “America-letter” to relatives and friends at home spoke directly from a position of trust and shared background, carrying immediate conviction. At the height of migration, familial America-letters could lead to chain reactions which would all but depopulate some Swedish parishes, dissolving tightly knit communities which then re-assembled in the Midwest. 

The powers that be in Sweden, however, were in a bind. Too little emigration meant civil unrest. Peasants were getting uppity all over Europe and the monarchs were antsy about it. Letting the most agitated loose their energies on the American wilderness was a much needed release valve. Too much emigration, on the other richly ringed hand, would deprive the landowners of their wealth of serfs.

So the government began a propaganda campaign of their own, replacing the idyllic scenes with representations, in many ways more accurate, of frontier terrors such as hungry cougars, hatchet-wielding natives, and hard weather. The local clergy, in their usual collusion with state power, also warned of moral hazards and foreign heathen. Those who left often did so secretly or in the face of public shaming only to arrive in an America vastly different from what was promised and sometimes in indentured servitude to more established families. The Swedish press, in its usual collusion with state power, stated: “No workers are more lazy, immoral and indifferent than those who emigrate to other places.”

This last attack was less directed at the potential migrants, experienced laborers eager to clear a cougar plagued wilderness and so not very lazy, than the mining, railroad, and lumber industry recruiters setting up offices around the countryside. These industries knew, however, that peasants isolated by language and culture would be less likely to resist exploitation– a fact that continues to drive migration today.

Another agent advocating emigration by printing and dispersing sunny pamphlets about the growing free Swedish metropolises was the Shipping Industry. They made out like bandits. The true extent of their influence is still unknown because most of the companies, which still exist today, refuse to open their archives to researchers. For thirty years these companies charged as much as they could to bring wealthier European peasant families to America. Once that resource was exhausted, shipping companies bottomed out the price so that the poorest could climb aboard. But don’t worry, they made up for the profit loss by packing migrants into desperate and choleric piles, charging exorbitant prices for rotten food and water stored in old turpentine barrels and coercing female passengers into prostitution– doing the deed we can imagine, on mattresses stuffed misprinted pamphlets extolling the freedom and ease of America.     

Rather than seeing these ‘hardships’ as an unbroken chain of exploitation that led migrants from European serfdom to helpless sea-bound chattel to American wage slavery and ultimately the dismemberment of their communal ideals, our myths portray the journey as a trial by fire that sanctifies their abuse and the country founded upon it.   

Are migrants, as a release valve for domestic tensions, easy marks for highway robbers, and then disenfranchised cheap labor, the grease that keeps the whole machinery of modern human cruelty running? Easy to think so if you’re in a Texas border town or in the sweatshops of Bangalore, less so if you’re on the streets of Lindsborg, Kansas, Little Sweden U.S.A. where for at least a little while the communal and egalitarian dream of Swedish immigrants thrived and the traces of it still remain.

(Photo credit: Jeff Cooper from the Salina Journal.)