The Scandinavian Immigrant Experience in Utah, 1850-1920 : Using Material Culture to Interpret Cultural Adaptation
University of Alaska Fairbanks
From 1850 to 1920, over 25,000 Scandinavians who had joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints emigrated to Utah to unite themselves with fellow Church members (Mormons) and build their Zion. These Scandinavian immigrants brought distinctive cultural heritages and traditions that contributed to the collective identity in Utah. The majority of literature on Scandinavian immigration to America and Scandinavian immigrants in America, however, neglects to consider the Mormon Scandinavian immigrants in the larger discourse. In addition, many historians of Utah history have concluded that Scandinavian immigrants assimilated culturally and left no trace of their Danish, Norwegian and Swedish traditions.
To understand the Scandinavian immigrant experience in Utah, this study examines the material culture emigrants took and produced in their new home. These objects reveal that rather than totally jettisoning homeland heritage, Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants maintained and modified
their traditional folkways, skills, and crafts while comingling them with new cultural traditions.
The work presented here is the product of four years of fieldwork
throughout areas in Utah that were predominantly settled by Scandinavians in the nineteenth century. The study concentrates on furniture, pottery, folk painting, textiles, embroidery, tools and implements. Each object was compared to similar objects in Scandinavia to verify their validity as Scandinavian, then the history of each object was investigated though archival research. Objects and contextual material were examined to elicit their reflection of the immigrant experience and cultural adaptation, especially to understand the evolving identities of Scandinavian Mormons in their new land.
This dissertation analyzes material culture to explore the concepts of acculturation and identity. The artifacts suggest that while immigrants adapted to Utah's desert landscape and adjusted to gendered Church expectations, they retained core aspects of their homeland identities. The findings thus illustrate complexity of identity; that it evolves and that certain threads are perhaps more resilient than others.
The findings of this study contribute to the broader discourse on Scandinavians in America and assert that Scandinavians in Utah maintained and perpetuated skills and traditions acquired in their homelands as they adjusted to the culture and environment of their new home.