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Labor Migration Ambivalence: Adaption of the Finns to American Society. Their Integration and Impact in Finland after Return*

Keijo Virtanen

Roughly 90 % of the Finnish emigrants to America between 1860 and 1930 planned to make only a preliminary working trip: their purpose was to earn money and then return to Finland. Of the 380000 emigrants only 20 % came back permanently. This contrast between the original motives of the migrants and the final result of the Finnish overseas emigration is the viewpoint here. The Finnish experience,will be analyzed as a twofold phenomenon: 1) the adaptation of the Finns to American society, and 2) their integration and impact in Finnish society after return. This way the paper aims to define the central factors in the life-cycle and identity of the overseas migrants.

There are several questions to be analyzed. Firstly, why did the great majority of the Finns stay in America for good even though their original plan was different? Secondly, what impact did this original motive have on the willingness of the Finns to integrate into American society? Thirdly, because of this ambivalence, was the Finnish community somehow unique in its attitudes towards American society? Fourthly, about 20 % of the immigrants actually returned to Finland. Did they follow their original plan: did they succeed well in America, or did they fail? Fifthly, what was their cultural, political and social impact in the Finnish society? To what extent were they able to put into practice their "American values" in the home country?

I am not going to present information about the sources of migration, nor the present state of research, nor the general causes of emigration, nor the general-type (macro-level) factors influencing the settlement or return. I have treated these questions widely in my book titled Settlement or Return: Finnish Emigrants (1860-1930) in the International Overseas Return Migration Movement.1 The present paper takes a more personal and cultural point of view, aiming at a synthesis on the life of the migrant.

From the point of view of an overall study of overseas migration, research must concern itself with four phases: life in the country of origin, emigration, life in the host country, and return. Return may lead to a new departure, and so on, but one day the circle comes to an end, either in the host country or in the country of origin.

The emigration from Finland to overseas countries took on the nature of a mass movement at a later date (in the 1870s) than that from many central European and Scandinavian countries; but it was in full swing when the "new" immigration began to reach North America.2 The beginnings of the emigration from Finland thus fall somewere in the middle of the European development.

The analysis of the Finnish return migration and its comparison with the movements from the Scandinavian countries reveals considerable similarities. The Finnish return rate was about one-fifth, which is on the same scale as in Sweden and Denmark.3 The situation was quite different in countries such as Italy and Greece, which were typical "new" migration countries, where a large proportion of the migrants returned home, perhaps subsequently to commute overseas to work again.4

The predominant motive for emigration also in Finland - let me repeat - was the search for better earnings leading to an improved standard of living, and a subsequent return home. Consequently, over half of the Finnish migrants who returned did so within five years of emigration. Studies of migrants from other countries, both of the "old" and "new" migrations, have revealed similar patterns.5

But most emigrants to America settled there permanently; they did not follow their original plan. Therefore, it is no surprise that a lot has been written on immigration and assimilation of immigrants during the last 100 years. Research on the adaptation and assimilation of immigrants has been almost completely in the hands of the investigators in the receiving countries. The immigrant has been seen as a stable phenomenon, i.e. that he is ready and willing to settle permanently immediately after arrival. The motives for departure have not been taken into account in assimilation studies.

The concept "assimilation" is used differently in different contexts. Speaking of immigration, a common approach is to study the stages of adaptation, starting immediately after arrival to the new country. The assimilation process is completed when the immigrant has fully accepted the new culture - not only its external features but also its values and norms. He does not emphasize consciously his ethnic background any more but connects himself and his interests to his new home land.6

The assimilation research that has been accomplished in the receiving countries, especially in the United States, can be divided in three - at the same time chronological - groups. Firstly, the advocates of Anglo-Saxon culture thought that it was possible and also necessary for the immigrant to throw out the old language and the old habits in favor of the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant core culture of America.7

Secondly, a new interpretation was born in the beginning of this century when the departure area of European emigration spread to the southern and eastern parts of the continent. The rapid industrialization and urbanization of the United States needed a lot of cheap labor power. In 1909 the term "melting pot" was born.8 It claimed that the immigrants of various nationalities and races would assimilate into one entity in the new country. Soon, however, this new vawe of immigration caused a reaction in the American society. It culminated in the quota system of the 1920s which was designed to prevent the "new" immigration: the Americans thought that these immigrants would not be able to assimilate nearly as well as the western and northern Europeans.9

Thirdly, researchers of immigration had taken for granted that various nationality groups would rapidly assimilate in the new environment after the first stage of adaptation. To their surprise they found, however, that immigrant communities were still alive decades after the great emigration period. During the last 15-20 years the melting pot theory has been put aside, and it has been replaced by a new term "ethnicity", which refers to the maintenance and preservation of the original features of different groups.10 Today scholars of ethnicity do not think that the assimilation begins when somebody decides to emigrate, or - at the latest - when he arrives in the new country.11

Still, the common philosophy of all these three approaches has been in the assumption that immigrants have come over the ocean to settle permanently. They have not paid attention to the so called temporary labor power. While keeping this in mind and knowing that - in spite of their motives at the time of departure - only one-fifth of the Finnish emigrants, for example, returned permanently home, we can find new dimensions in the assimilation and adaptation conversation. Why has the ethnic identity of various groups survived so long? Had the immigrant any reason to try to adapt or assimilate into the new society since he planned to stay there only for a few years? The immigrant was an egotistical person: the strengthening of his own economic situation guided his actions almost completely. An American scholar concludes that the Finnish immigrants in the Copper Country of northern Michigan were so stubborn that they did not even want to learn English language.12

On the other hand, it was necessary for the immigrant to find features which eased his stay in the new society. It is a well-known fact that different groups tended to settle in the same areas; Finns in the little towns and countryside in northern Michigan and Minnesota, Italians in the big cities of the eastern parts of the United States, etc. In these communities immigrants founded all kinds of organizations and had other activities.

For adaptation and assimilation these had a double meaning. On the one hand, these group activities eased the cultural shock that the immigrant had to face after arrival. Immigrant communities helped him to get used to the new surroundings. But on the other hand, these communities were an obstacle to a complete assimilation. The immigrant was isolated, his ability to create new contacts was limited because of language difficulties alone.

Over the years and decades the immigrant became so used to his new home, however, that he did not return to the old country; thus most Finnish immigrants stayed for the rest of their lives as immigrants. There were many reasons for this. One was the continuous flow of new immigrants up to the 1920s. The immigrant communities received new members, men sent tickets to their families, relatives, and friends, etc. A counter-weight to the idea of returning was also the overall situation in the country of origin, i.e. economic conditions at emigration, and critical attitudes towards emigration in the home country.13

After the adoption of quotas in the United States, the process of assimilation changed its nature with the ending of the new flow of immigrants.14 The immigrant community got older, and the children and grandchildren of immigrants became an important factor for assimilation. They went to English-language schools, they were able to make contacts outside their own community, and they married persons from other ethnic groups which had been rare among the first generation of immigrants. In other words, they assimilated rapidly, and simultaneously this had a considerable impact in binding and connecting their parents to the American society. It has been stated that immigrants with families assimilated faster than unmarried persons.15

Even though the mass emigration to the United States ended half-a-century ago we still can find a lot of ethnic communities. Especially those groups whose immigration was heavy by numbers have been able to preserve their Italys and Irelands in the new environment. But even from a small immigrant group - like the Finns - we can generalize that the first generation did not assimilate if the criterion is a complete identification to a homogeneous American community. The immigrant adapted himself to the new conditions but only his children became Americans. He himself was an immigrant with citizenship.

The Finnish immigrant belonged to three worlds: 1) to the immigrant world where Finnish language dominated and where all the activities were concentrated around Finnishness, 2) to the receiving country, which became more familiar over decades and because of children, and 3) to the old country, the home village, which he never could forget. Probably in most cases the immigrants were able to acquire a reasonably nice standard of living in the new world. But it was only the death which cut off their Finnishness even though they had not seen their home contry in decades.16 The immigrant community had taken good care of their ethnic identity - as also the fact that their idea of permanent settlement in America had developed only gradually; it had not been their original purpose.

One-fifth of the Finns came back to their home country. Did they follow their original plan? Many did but it also can be said that the achievement of their objectives was not the only motive for migrants to return, since adversities might also send them back. The most common cause mentioned by the migrants themselves was homesickness, arising from a failure to adapt to the host country, and this was at its strongest soon after arrival. These are typical expressions: "Longing for the old country brought me back to where I was born" (a returnee of 1938),17 or "I felt homesick the whole time" (a returnee of 1933).18

Not only did the culture of the host country cause difficulties of adaptation of immigrants, but there were also tensions operating within the ethnic groups which aroused controversy. The Finnish immigrants were very active in political radicalism. In the 1920s about 40 % of the members of the American communist party consisted of Finns. It also has been estimated that about 25 % of the Finnish immigrants were socialists and communists in the United States and Canada.19 Others were "Church Finns", "National-minded", etc., which made the cooperation inside the ethnic group sometimes difficult.

However, these tensions were probably not of great significance in relation to return; on the contrary, with the growth of the numbers of Finns in a particular area conditions were likely to become more pleasant. It should be mentioned though that the political radicalism of the Finnish immigrants did cause a movement from North America to the Soviet Union in the early 1920s and early 1930s. Thousands of Finnish immigrants moved there to build the "Republic of Work". About half of them came back, either to the United States, Canada, or Finland.20

Our analysis does not include answering the question as to how many migrants would have returned if they had had the opportunity. However; from the point of view of the processes in deciding whether to return or not this is of relevance. While it is impossible to obtain any exact information some indications are available. Migrants who were unable to afford the journey home were entitled to receive a repatriation grant from the United States Government during the early 1930s.21 There are no data available on how many actually applied for this assistance. We do know - on the basis of the estimate made by shipping companies - that about 10 % of those returning had been so unsuccessful abroad that their families in Finland had to send them the money for the return ticket.22

In the early 1970s there were still old Finnish lumberjacks living in the "hotels" in Duluth, Minn., who had stayed there for decades with no real contacts to the world outside, not even the Finnish community. We may presume that many of them would have returned to Finland during the depression years of the 1930s if they had had money for the return ticket. The purpose of these examples is only to show that the migrants had differing motives for their return - not only the one which was most common at the time of original emigration.

Where homesickness or similar reasons drove many of the migrants back to Finland, their intention in the majority of cases was, clearly, to settle permanently there. But return did not necessarily mean that the migrants would be happy back in Finland either. During their years of absence, changes had taken place in their home area, as also in the migrants themselves, sometimes creating insuperable tensions. About 10 % of all the Finnish migrants made two or more journeys overseas in the period up to 1930.

The immigrants in North America were aware of the possible problems that might await them in the old country. Concrete evidence of this is to be found in plans for return in large groups, which envisaged settlement in an area entirely occupied by return migrants. During the depression years of the 1930s there were plans for a mass movement back to Finland, to establish a lakeside community settlement somewhere near the largest cities (Helsinki, Turku, or Tampere). A community of only Finnish-Americans would help the returning migrants to readapt to Finnish society more successfully.23 Plans for common settlements of returnees were still being discussed in several places at the time of the Second World War,24 but they were never realized.

These plans illustrate that many different problems had to be faced in connection with return, and that efforts were made to solve these in advance. One such effort in Finland was the foundation in 1933 in Helsinki of the society of American Finns. It ceased its activities very soon, however, as did another similar organization, founded in 1934, which had only 38 members two years later.

After all, the returning migrants had a relatively good chance of readjusting to life back home, primarily due to the fact that in most cases they had only been abroad for a few years. The majority also tended to be fairly well-off when they returned; and since they often invested their savings either in farming or some other form of real estate, this too was likely to strengthen their ties with the area they had settled in and to lead to the abandonment of any ideas of re-emigration overseas.

It was natural that the returning migrants brought new influences back with them, which they tried to put into practice in Finland. But since the numbers returning to Finland were so small, this impact is not as clearly identifiable as for instance in southern Europe, where the economic significance of the return migration was considerable.25 One Finnish returnee of 1928 states:26

"In a town (urban) society there wasn't much chance for unskilled emigrants to have much effect on the life of the town. I'm sure that returning emigrants - despite their hardworkingness and the bit of money they had - were on the receiving end."

In Finland, too, the most easily recognizable impact of the returning migrants was in the economy, but only in rural areas in the regions of high migration, where the return was locally significant even in absolute terms. They bought farm land, repaired buildings, built new houses, introduced technological (especially agricultural) innovations.

The returning migrants also wished to use the "mental capital" they had acquired abroad. Typical were opinions like "views broadened, practical experience, learned to live". The time spent abroad was "the best high school you could hope for". But their access to local influence depended on the attitude in their home area to the various kinds of new ideas they held. Intellectual, moral and political ideas were more likely to encounter an emotional reception than economic influence, depending on the attitudes and value judgements of the people involved.

The Finnish-Americans have been shown to have brought about an increase in rural radicalism in Finland; in the towns, on the other hand, socialist ideas were mainly home-grown. Between the achievement of Finnish independence in 1917 and 1933, there were at least 15 members of the Finnish parliament who had been migrants in North America. Several of the socialists had studied at the Finnish-American institution, the Work People's College, in Duluth, Minn.27

It also has been shown that the returning migrants had an impact on religious life and the Church of Finland. The spread of the Free Churches, in particular, and the introduction of legislation ensuring liberty of religion, has been attributed partly to the migration. A concrete example of the religious impact of the returning migrants was the foundation in 1882 of the first Methodist congregation in Finland.28 All this led the official Lutheran Church to adopt a critical attitude towards the emigration as a whole.29

In general, however, the returning migrants do not appear to have caused much irritation in the surrounding community; with the exception of the high emigration areas in western Finland there were simply too few returning migrants for their impact to be identifiable. A returnee of 1932 stressed the overall limitations of the new experience:30

"Those American or Canadian emigrants who were working in the forests, or other kinds of casual work, had very limited opportunities to participate in social, political, or cultural activities, so I don't think they had anything to offer in these fields. They might have new ideas to do with the economy, though. I don't think there were any big differences in morality."

This comment, even though somewhat pointedly stated, underlines the main results derived from my analysis. Only in high emigration areas the rural economy received a stimulus, and the returning migrants were quite active in local affairs. In general though, the intellectual impact of the migrants remained modest or insignificant, and the same also appears to apply to nations where the return migration occurred on a much larger scale than in Finland. Those who had never been away were not willing to modify their thinking, with the result that the ex-migrants had to adjust, and in the course of time abandon many of their ideas.

In terms of the return migration in a wider context, the balance of Finnish overseas migration was definitely negative, for Finland only regained 75000 of the 380000 persons who had "commuted to work" overseas prior to 1930. The final balance in a "new" migration country such as Italy was quite different, where the economy visibly prospered from the busy movement back and forth between Italy and the United States and from the capital brought back by those returning. Thus the Finnish migration differed radically from the overseas migration movement in southern European countries, which was essentially a temporary phenomenon, an intercontinental working trip.

In the final analysis, for most Finnish migrants this overseas working trip was a one-way street, which never led to a permanent return even though this had been their original idea. The investigation of the Finnish overseas migrants may offer comparative material when recent migrations are studied. For example, there has been a large amount of emigration from Finland to Sweden since the Second World War, to a lesser extent also to Canada and Australia. These labor migrations are caused basically by similar factors and pass through similar stages even though the chronological and geographical context is different.

* Presented at the American Studies Association's Conference "Boundaries of American Culture" in San Diego, California, Oct. 31-Nov. 3, 1985.

1. (Helsinki 1979).

2. Cf. Theodore Saloutos, They Remember America: The Story of the Repatriated Greek-Americans (Berkeley 1956), p. 1-2; Arnold Schrier, Ireland and the American Emigration 1850-1900 (Minneapolis 1958), p. 9, 158-159.

3. Cf. Kristian Hvidt, Flugten til Amerika. Eller drivkrafter i masseudvandringen fra Danmark 1868-1914 (Odense 1971), p. 327-328; Lars-Göran Tedebrand, Västernorrland och Nordamerika 1875-1913. Utvandring och återinvandring (Uppsala 1972), p. 223.

4. Robert F. Foerster, The Italian Emigration of Our Times (Cambridge, Mass. 1924), p. 23; John S. Lindberg, The Background of Swedish Emigration to the United States. An Economic and Sociological Study in the Dynamics of Migration (Minneapolis 1930), p. 252 footnote 2; Saloutos, They Remember America, p. 29-30; Betty Boyd Caroli, Italian Repatriation from the United States, 1900-1914 (New York 1973), p. 49-50.

5. See Foerster, Italian Emigration, p. 35; Ingrid Semmingsen, Veien mot vest. Annen del. Utvandringen fra Norge 1865-1915 (Oslo 1950), p. 460; Anthony H. Richmond, Post-War Immigrants in Canada (Toronto 1967), p. 231; Caroli, Italian Repatriation, p. 50; Lars-Göran Tedebrand, "Remigration from America to Sweden", in: Harald Runblom and Hans Norman (eds.), From Sweden to America. A History of the Migration (Uppsala 1976), p. 225-227; Saloutos, They Remember America, p. 51.

6. See Lawrence Guy Brown, Immigration. Cultural Conflicts and Social Adjustments (New York 1969), p. 369-372; William Carlson Smith, Americans in the Making. The Natural History of the Assimilation of Immigrants (New York 1970), p. 114-139; Charles Price, "The Study of Assimilation", in: Migration. Ed. by J. A. Jackson (Cambridge 1969), p. 181-183.

7. Price, "The Study of Assimilation", p. 183.

8. Henry Pratt Fairchild, The Melting-pot Mistake (Boston 1926), p. 9.

9. Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration (Chicago 1960), p. 276-277.

10. Nathan Glazer & Daniel P. Moynihan, "Introduction", in: Ethnicity. Theory and Experience. Ed. by Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan (Cambridge, Mass. 1975), p. 1-26; Leonard Dinnerstein & David M. Reimers, Ethnic Americans. A History of Immigration and Assimilation (New York 1975), p. 150-156.

11. See Smith, Americans in the Making, p. 124.

12. Arthur W. Thurner, Calumet Copper and People. History of a Mining Community, 1864-1970 (Hancock 1974), p. 18.

13. See, for example, Matti Tarkkanen , Siirtolaisuudesta (Mikkeli 1902), p. 25-26; Teo Snellman, Ulkokansalaistoiminta ja siirtolaisten huolto 1 (Helsinki 1929), p. 10.

14. Price, "The Study of Assimilation", p. 209.

15. S Brown, Immigration, p. 253-256; Maurice R. Davie, World Immigration. With Special Reference to the United States (New York 1936), 490-491; Smith, Americans in the Making, p. 376-386; Dinnerstein & Reimers, Ethnic Americans, p. 146-150.

16. John I. Kolehmainen, "Americanization and the Search for Identity", in: Old Friends - Strong Ties. Ed. by Vilho Niitemaa, Jussi Saukkonen, Tauri Aaltio, Olavi Koivukangas (Vaasa 1976), p. 265-266.

17. The interview questionnaire collection at the University of Turku, reference: TYYH/S/1/5732.

18. The interview questionnaire collection at the Univeristy of Turku, reference: TYYH/S/1/6181

19. See Auvo Kostiainen, The Forging of Finnish-American Communism. 1917-1924. A Study in Ethnic Radicalism (Turku 1978), p. 32, 138.

20. More closely, see Ritva-Liisa Hovi, "Amerikansuomalaiset osuuskunnat Neuvosto-Karjalassa 1920-luvun alkupuolella amerikansuomalaisten ja neuvostokarjalaisten sanomalehtien valossa", in: Turun Historiallinen Arkisto XXIV (Turku 1971), passim; Ritva-Liisa Hovi, "Amerikansuomalaisten maanviljelyskommuuni Etelä-Venäjällä", in: Turun Historiallinen Arkisto XXV (Vammala 1971), passim; Bill McNitt, "Americans in Soviet Russia: The Kuzbas Experiment" (Unpubl. seminar paper, University of Michigan 1971), p. 1, 9, 17-18; Yrjö Raivio, Kanadan suomalaisten historia I (Vancouver 1975), p. 487; Reino Kero, "Emigration of Finns from North America to Soviet Karelia in the Early 1930's", in: Michael G. Karni, Matti E. Kaups, Douglas J. Ollila Jr. (eds.), The Finnish Experience in the Western Great Lakes Region: New Perspectives (Vammala 1975), p. 220; Reino Kero, Neuvosto-Karjalaa rakentamassa. Pohjois-Amerikan suomalaiset tekniikan tuojina 1930-luvun Neuvosto-Karjalassa (Helsinki 1983), p. 198-199.

21. See Industrialisti (Finnish-American newspaper), Duluth, June 27, 1931.

22. See Rafael Engelberg, Suomi ja Amerikan suomalaiset. Keskinäinen yhteys ja sen rakentaminen (Helsinki 1944), p. 382.

23. Lännen Suometar (Finnish-American newspaper), Astoria, July 19, 1932.

24. Engelberg, Suomi ja Amerikan suomalaiset, p. 381, 384-385, 388-390.

25. See Saloutos, They Remember America, p. 117-121, 123-124, 130-131; Caroli, Italian Repatriation, p. 57-61, 93, 98-99.

26. The interview questionnaire collection at the University of Turku, reference: TYYH/S/I/7149.

27. Yrjö Leiwo, "Hakemisto", in: Politiikkaa ja merkkimiehiä (Helsinki 1935), passim.

28. Walter Sjöblom, Kristinestads historia (Kristinestad 1915), p. 286.

29. Bill Widén, "De religiösa återverkningarna", in: Emigrationen och dess bakgrund (Ekenäs 1971), p. 87-89.

30. The interview questionnaire collection at the University of Turku, reference: TYYH/S/1/7234.

Published in Turun Historiallinen Arkisto 42(1987), p. 499-510.

© Keijo Virtanen

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