A Swedish Yankee in Connecticut

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By Elizabeth J. Normen
Fall 2013

V11N04In our Fall 2012 10th Anniversary issue we explored Connecticut’s enduring reputation as The Land of Steady Habits—a term that stood for nearly 200 years of political leadership drawn from a handful of founding families. That tradition, as state historian Walt Woodward put it in his column in that issue, ensured, depending on your point of view, “wise governance, order, stability, virtue, Congregational piety, and considered resistance to radical and untested innovation” or “aristocratic rule, cronyism, inequitable taxation, entrenched corruption, and backward thinking.”

The state’s Standing Order and the homogeneous population that elected it began to give way in the second quarter of the 19th century as the industrial revolution and large-scale non-English immigration gained momentum. A century later, Connecticans had become remarkably diverse. According to the U.S. Census, in 1930 a whopping 65 percent of Connecticut’s population was foreign-born or first-generation American (one or both parents were foreign-born). That, in a nutshell, is what this issue is about.

In the pages of the Fall 2013 issue we cover stories about Connecticans who settled here after 1820. My father’s parents were among them: Olof Johnson and Edith Normen emigrated from Sweden in 1917 and 1923, respectively. They were not part of the first wave of Swedes that headed to the Midwest in search of farmland in the late 19th century. They were part of the second wave that tended to settle in the industrialized northeastern states. The men took jobs as machinists, electricians, iron and steel workers, painters, carpenters, and tailors; the women primarily worked as domestics and laundresses.

At 14, my grandfather came with his mother and younger siblings to Connecticut; his father and older brothers had come some years before. He worked on a farm in West Hartford and as an errand boy for a florist until Connecticut’s latest round of child labor laws forced him back to school. As an adult he became a machinist. My grandmother (16 at the time), her mother, and her sister Ruth joined an older sister she’d never met (Signe had been sent to the U.S. at age 11 before Edith was born) in Branford. Edith and Ruth worked as maids for a wealthy family in New Haven and then on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

My maternal lineage goes back to the Mayflower Pilgrims John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley. I’ve always appreciated having one foot in the New England Yankee and the other in the 20th-century immigrant story. While my family celebrates Thanksgiving New England-style, every Christmas Eve involves a smorgasbord made from recipes handed down from my grandmother. Lit by lots of candles, the meal, in which nearly everything is salted, pickled, or pressed—not a green leafy vegetable in sight—is a touchstone to a time when the short days, long nights, and lack of refrigeration meant the foods for the feast had been put by weeks or months beforehand. It’s admittedly a tough tradition to hold on to, especially as some members of the family have come to shun salt and fat and others have become vegans and vegetarians. I’m sure other readers share the modern-day challenge of keeping their cultural heritage alive.

Connecticut’s immigrant history is rich and deep. With apologies to several major immigrant groups who are not covered in these limited pages, we have sought to offer a sense of the trajectory of immigration in Connecticut along with a sense of its diversity. For further reading, we point you to stories in earlier issues, particularly “Tobacco Valley: Puerto Rican Farm Workers in Connecticut” (Fall 2002), “Maria Sanchez: Godmother of the Puerto Rican Community,” (Summer 2003), “Making Their Presence Known: Jewish Settlement in Hartford” (Summer 2005), “Hebrew Tillers of the Soil” (Spring 2006), “Peter Paul’s Path to Sweet Success” (Spring 2010), and “French Canadians Colonize Connecticut” (Fall 2012). And we encourage you to explore the museums and festivals highlighted in this issue’s stories. In just about the only Swedish this “svenska flicka” (Swedish girl) knows, “Tack så mycket!” (Thank you very much.)

Elizabeth J. Normen
Publisher

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