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May 11, 2011

Norwegian American Women

Filed under: Book Excerpt, Event, Immigration, MHS press — Alison Aten @ 8:38 am

Norwegian community picnic, WI, ca. 1873. Used with permission from Wisconsin Historical SocietyNorwegian American Women: Migration, Communities, and Identities, a new book edited by Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum, explores the vital role of women in the creation of Norwegian American communities–from farm to factory and as caregivers, educators, and writers.

Meet Betty and Lori at The Best of Times Bookstore in Red Wing this Saturday, May 14, at 11 a.m. as they share their research into the lives of women in Norwegian America.

They will also be the keynote speakers at Norwegian Heritage Day at St. Olaf this Friday May 13th.

Below is an excerpt from the chapter “Women, Work, and Community in Rural Norwegian America, 1840-1920″ by Lori Ann Lahlum.

In addition to their work in the Ladies Aid, Norwegian American women participated in other community activities, and in many ways gender framed the nature of their participation. Indeed, it  was often women’s domestic skills that made community activities and events possible. When Norwegian Americans gathered socially to celebrate events, especially weddings, women  cooked, cleaned, brewed beer, and sewed in preparation for the event. In times like these, the exchange of labor and the sharing of resources became important. Weddings also represent efforts to retain  Norwegian cultural traditions as well as the acculturation of Norwegian Americans. Some Norwegian immigrants held to the tradition of hosting large wedding parties like those celebrated by well-to-do farmers in Norway. Other couples opted for small weddings at home with few guests or a ceremony before a justice of the peace.

The large weddings depended on the abilities of women. In 1880, Johanna Wroolie married Chris Weholt in southern Minnesota. As in Norway, the wedding was announced three times in church. Wroolie’s mother baked, cooked, and brewed beer, and guests danced “all night.” When Ane Vatne married near Cooperstown, North Dakota, in 1889, more than a hundred “Norwegians” attended the celebration. Vatne served veal for dinner and cold cuts for supper. Although the meal consisted of a variety of foods, they were foods unfamiliar to her family in Norway and Vatne did not know how to describe them. She also emphasized that guests feasted on grapes between dinner and supper, again, something not common in rural, Norwegian, peasant communities. A few years later, Vatne’s brother, Ole Lima, married. Vatne did the cooking and baking, and the meal consisted largely of American foods. According to Martha Lima (Ole’s bride), “To be sure we had neither ‘lefse’ nor ‘gome,’ but many fine cakes, fruit, and baked spare ribs, and mutton, and many other things.” At the time, Martha and Ole lived with the Vatnes, and Vatne also sewed Martha’s dress. Christine Dahl estimated that 350 people attended her daughter Martha’s 1880 wedding dinner in Texas, many of them staying for festivities in the evening and the following day. In Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota, wedding guests attended a morning ceremony followed by dinner and lunch. Whether a wedding included a dance varied, but when the celebration did so, guests frequently “danced till morning.” In some Norwegian American communities, hosts served alcohol to guests, adding to the festivities, and interestingly, in North Dakota this custom continued in some locales even after the state became dry in 1890.

. . .

Norwegian Americans also took part in more organized social activities. In 1884, Scandinavians in the Waco, Texas, area celebrated the new year with a masquerade ball. Because it was a leap year, the young women paid for the tickets. Such festivities were not common in all Norwegian American communities because some Norwegian immigrants objected to such behavior. Dancing was a popular but also a contested activity in Norwegian American communities. Members of the High Prairie Lutheran Church (LaMoure County, North Dakota), for example, opposed drinking, dancing, and gambling. Particularly pious Norwegian Americans objected to dancing, placing it in the same category as drinking excessively. Some ministers used the pulpit to preach against the twin evils of drink and dance. Thurine Oleson recalled that in one Wisconsin community, the church actually split over these issues. Those who objected to the minister’s position on drinking and dancing left and formed a new congregation so close that members of the two congregations could “hear each other singing.”

–excerpt from Norwegian American Women (source notes omitted), published by Minnesota Historical Society Press

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