Chicago is attempting to turn its ethnic neighborhoods and museums into tourist attractions. This is an excellent idea. Last week Ruth and I visited as many as we could and judged the Swedish American Museum among the best.
Around since 1976, the Swedish American Museum is on Clark Street in the Andersonville neighborhood once heavily populated by Swedes. SAM has moved only once and is now in a former Swedish hardware store. The Brunk Children’s Museum dominates its 3rd floor and enchanted teacher Ruth. The 2nd level, where I hung out, has exhibits with more adult appeal. Level one offers temporary show space and the really fine Kerstin Andersson Museum Store that specializes in Scandinavian gifts from Costa Boda glass to Lingonberry jam.
Due to food shortages, compulsory military service, etc. one million citizens left Sweden between 1850 and 1930. By 1910 20% of all Swedes lived in America. There were an estimated 1,500 Swedish newspapers here between 1895 and 1940. Four remain. In 1880, 13,000 Swedes called Chicago home, enough for the Windy City to also be nicknamed the Swedish capital of North America. Wanting cultural links to each other and their homeland, Swedish immigrants established 130+ organizations like The Order of Vikings between 1880 and 1920. Most of these have not survived, but today there is real interest among many to learn about their Swedish roots. This Museum helps with an Immigrant Wall of Honor and genealogical research. Historic city maps help the curious discover where their ancestors might have lived.
One display on level 2 recreates a typical Swedish/Chicago parlor. An entire area that appears to double as a boardroom is a tribute to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved up to 100,000 Hungarian Jews from death. Arrested by Russians, Raoul disappeared and his fate remains unknown. Among the many fairly typical exhibits are interesting costumes, Swedish food items, a thoughtful exploration of the Swedish American Line, Ellis Island info, etc. But the room where I spent the most time was about the contribution of Swedish architects and construction workers who built Chicago’s landmark Water Tower, the Wrigley Building, Marshall Field Department Store, the Baha’i Temple, etc. Famous American Swedes include Charles Walgreen, founder of the drugstore chain, poet Carl Sandburg, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
Women are certainly not ignored. I noted a glamorous period magazine photo of actress Ingrid Bergman and learned about Gunhild Malm. She ran a successful auto service station. From 1890 to 1910 one-third of all Swedish/U.S. immigrants were females who usually found work as servants or nurses. Ruth & I passed a Swedish gift shop and the Swedish Covenant Hospital on our way to SAM.