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The Americanization of the Finns

John Wargelin, A.M.,

President of Suomi College and Theological Seminary

Chapter I.  Introduction. Meaning of Americanization Discussed.
Chapter II.  Historical Background of the Finnish Race.
Chapter III.  Causes of Immigration from Finland.
Chapter IV.  Finnish Immigration to America.
Chapter V.  Distribution and Occupations of the Finns.
Chapter VI.  Cultural Life of the Finns. a) School.
Chapter VII.  Cultural Life of the Finns (continued). b) Press.
Chapter VIII.  Cultural Life of the Finns (continued). c) Church.
Chapter IX.  Cultural Life of the Finns (continued). d) Societies.
Chapter X.  Naturalization and Political Life.

Chapter IX.
Cultural Life of the Finns. (Continued)

d). Societies.

Under this heading it is our purpose to acquaint ourselves with the kind of social life the Finns are leading. The most important group of any society is the intimate face-to-face association of home. It is mainly the basis for our larger social life. The Finnish home does not differ materially from those of other nationalities in America on equal economic footing. The family generally averages seven or eight members, some may have more, others less, but in general the families are of that size. The spirit of the home is rather conservative and mostly permeated by a warm Christian spirit. The children are brought up to respect and obey their parents with humble submission. This trait, in my opinion, has a tendency to develop in the minds of the children a sort of undue submissiveness to all authority and leadership, and is likely to destroy initiative. The Finn is generally obedient to the directions and commands of his superiors, but will also take offense easily, although he may not express it openly. This may be the result of his former political conditions and also from the caste system, which has existed in Finland in some form up to this century. By caste we mean, roughly speaking, "the rule of hereditary descent, as in the hereditary nobility of England or Germany". According to this system, which is a remnant of feudalism, the population in Finland was formerly divided into four separate social classes or estates. Caste in this sense should not, however, be likened to the rigid caste system still prevailing in India.1 It should be added, further, that by nature the Finn is not submissive, but has a strong sense of independence and freedom.

The home of the Finns is furnished as well as his means will permit, and both the husband and wife show the utmost loyalty towards its upkeep. "To own a home means liberty", might be said to be a motto of the Finn. We find that wherever he lives, his effort is bent towards buying or building his own home. One further noticeable feature concerning the Finnish home may be said to be its perfect cleanliness. Superintendent Gilruth, of the Hancock, Mich., High School, who has lived for a long time in communities where Finns are very numerous, said in a public address, "the Finnish homes are so clean that I would not hesitate to eat a meal off their floor."

In connection with physical cleanliness we may refer to the Finnish bath-house with which everyone who lives among the Finnish people soon becomes acquainted. It is one of the first of the many buildings that he builds on his farm. It consists of an oven, constructed of boulders in one corner of a log cabin which has only one window, at some height from the floor, to let in light. A fire is built of wood and allowed to burn, until the rocks have become intensely hot. The bath is then ready. A dressing room is first entered from the outside, which leads into the bath-house, "sauna", proper. Buckets of cold water are thrown over the rocks, which give forth clouds of hot steam. Some of the older men, who are well used to the "sauna", can stand an enormous amount of heat. A bath of this kind, although it may sound crude from our description, gives one a most soothing and rejuvenating sensation. On Saturday evenings, or when the men have finished their week's work, they are sure to go to the Finnish bath-house. It is our belief that the old saying, "cleanliness is next to godliness", is not very far from right.

An unfavorable thing which has been noticed concerning the American Finnish home is that a serious breach is developing between the older and the younger members of the family. The younger members generally converse in English in the home. In most cases the older members understand enough of it to follow their conversation, in general. But the breach does not result from this, it is rather a result of different interests and traditions. The young members, who have been born in America, do not know much about Finland and naturally do not care about the things in which the old folks are interested. In homes where the children have been given good home training, this feature is not so noticeable, but where it has been neglected, the results are serious. The children are ashamed of their parents and of their own nationality, a thing which is deplorable with anyone. What is the remedy for this condition which does not exist only among Finns, but is common with all immigrants to a greater or lesser extent?

We shall try to answer this question partly from our experience of immigrant conditions, and partly from facts gathered from other sources. One way to remedy it, would be to have the older generation learn English more fluently and take part in the social activities of their communities. We have nothing against this plan of Americanization as long as it is worked out on a sympathetic and intelligent basis. But very frequently serious mistakes are made by well-intending but ill-advised social workers. We may be permitted to relate an incident to illustrate our point, and we feel justified in referring to it, for the other side of the case has been given wide publicity by different periodicals, for example, by "The Christian Herald", of New York, some two years ago. We refer to the "Speak English" propaganda carried on in St. Louis County, Minn., among Finnish settlers. A story is told, of a young lady who was teaching school in a Finnish community. She was strongly motivated by the idea of Americanizing that community, and she undoubtedly had plenty of reasons for feeling so. She commenced by having her Finnish pupils pledge themselves never to speak Finnish anywhere, neither at home, nor in school, nor on the playground. Some of the children became very enthusiastic followers of her instructions. One girl, for example, whose father owned a store, refused to sell the customers anything until they asked for things in English. The children would not speak Finnish to their parents but made them try to express themselves in English. This, apparently, was considered good Americanization work by the teacher; to her Americanism was synonymous with being able to speak English.

Now this plan is open to criticism for several reasons. Let us point out only three. First, it is a violation of the unity of the primary group, a matter to which we have referred above. In order that moral unity may develop, there must be loyalty to the primary group. Professor Cooley suggests in his book on "Social Organization", that the mother is the ideal of moral unity. Therefore, proper respect of parents must not be undermined by any educational process. Secondly, it was not the children but the parents that needed to learn English. The children were learning it daily at school, and as we have shown previously, they do learn it effectively. But were not the parents learning it through their children by this method? We have no reason to believe the negative, but it would have been infinitely better to organize an evening school for the parents in that community, for the Finnish people are very anxious to learn English, where an opportunity for it is provided. But the most serious fault we find with this method is that it is undemocratic. The parents were being compelled to submit to certain conditions rather than be persuaded to that viewpoint through voluntary choice. And in the writer's judgment of Finnish nature, it failed to create love for America, because it ignored the important psychological principle of gaining the confidence of the foreigner. It was the method of compulsion. And is it a crime, we may ask, to be able to speak some other language besides English in America? We have never been able to understand Americanism as being that narrow. The breach between the younger and older members of the family can not be remedied in such a way. The thing to do is to promote unity of spirit and interests, and this must be done through education that is democratic in spirit.

As far as the younger element among the Finns is concerned, they do not offer any special problem in Americanization, except that the unity of the home is often impaired to a more or less degree because of different interests of the older and younger members. But where the children learn something about Finland, its history and social and intellectual life, there it shows itself in respect for parents and a willingness to go under the name of their own nationality, as pointed out before. On the other hand, the older members have not been satisfactorily reached through socializing agencies. This fact is known to be true in the work among other nationalities also. Various organizations and institutions have been established, particularly after the War, but the consensus of opinion is that they have not reached the adults in so large a measure as possible.2

We wonder, whether among other reasons for this is, that it has been a case of approaching the immigrant from a wrong angle. Self-consious men with intelligence, resent any idea of coercion or compulsion that is exerted upon them from above. Quite often the immigrant feels himself subjected to this treatment and is made to feel his inferiority, because he can not understand the vernacular. But when he is approached in a friendly way, the immigrant will have a warm feeling towards such a friend. It would be an experience worth while for more of us to have an opportunity for travel in a foreign land, and experience for ourselves what it means to receive gentle treatment while among strangers. We feel the importance of this idea for we have experienced it ourselves to a great extent. We quote from the article just mentioned in this connection in order to emphasize this important point. "Abraham Lincoln says: 'If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say you what you will, is the greatest high-road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause; if indeed that cause be a really just one. On the contrary, assume to dictate, command, or mark him as one despised, and he will retreat within himself and close all avenues to his heart and head'." This, we are sure, is common sense morality, but the thing is, "go ye and do likewise."

The knowledge and the ability to use English is of utmost importance to everyone of our citizens. Without it we can not communicate properly in our social life, neither can we take part in the life of the nation as a whole. It is also of practical value to everyone to be able to ue it. In this we all agree. In the bulletin of the Department of The Interior, Bulletin No. 76, 1919, on Community Americanization (a book which everyone, who is interested in this question, should read), we read: "While, theoretically, it may be considered that a foreigner may become a good American in spirit without knowing our language, it is generally granted that, if there is to be a community of interest, there must be a common language for conveying thought." But there is after all something more to Americanism than the mere knowledge of English. Language is only a means and not an end in itself. It is merely a tool. A man may be able to use English in an eloquent discourse and yet be un-American in spirit, and a foreigner may be ignorant of English and yet come closer to being a real American than the one who was born under "the Stars and Stripes". "Americanism is entirely an attitude of mind; it is the way we look at things that makes us Americans", writes Louise La Bella.

The writer's own humble judgment finds expression in the above classic words, and we feel that it would be a moral wrong not to accept them in our case. It is necessary to emphasize them further in the presence of such Americanzation plans as that of the Minnesota teacher. We hope to be forgiven for making personal references, but we deem the case in hand calls for it. We feel justified in saying that the writer's Americanism is not doubted by those who know him. But I wish to add, that there is another one whose case it is my duty to explain. She is thoroughly an American in spirit, although she is unable to converse in English. That person is the writer's mother. She came to America over thirty-two years ago with her family, to join her husband, who had preceded her by some two years. This mother has worked hard for her family. She has been the heart and soul in the education of her children. She loves this land of many opportunities just as much as her children do, although the same opportunities have not been afforded her. She has not been able to go to school and learn our great world-language, but through her many sacrifices the opportunities have been extended to her children. Yes, we repeat that it is our moral duty to interpret the soul and spirit of such Americans, who, because of various reasons not of their own choice, have not been able to learn our language. Are there not many, perhaps, of such mothers and fathers in our midst? Are they any the less Americans because of this deficiency? - But now to the other groups under this heading.

Of the societies peculiar to the Finns we may mention The Temperance Societies, The Knights and the Ladies of Kaleva, Musical organizations, Athletic associations, and Socialistic organizations, not speaking of other social institutions which they have in common with other citizens. Concerning the Temperance Societies it may be said that they have done a noble work among the Finns. The drinking habit has been a curse to many an immigrant in America, its appeal has been too strong for many a man who has found himself friendless among strange people. The Temperance Societies among the Finns provided the newcomers with clean social life and opportunity for discussion and communication with their fellowmen. Their work in the early years of the history of Finnish immigration can not be too highly praised. They afforded the simple peasant folks an opportunity for receiving their first parliamentary experience in conducting meetings. Many of the pioneers in temperance work have developed into effective speakers. The largest of the grand lodges of the Temperance Societies is The Finnish National Brotherhood Temperance Association, organized in 1885, with headquarters at Ishpeming, Michigan. At one time it had over a hundred local societies united with it and nearly ten thousand members. The importance of temperance societies in general has diminished among the Finns within the past ten years, partly because, with the adoption of prohibition, interest in temperance has waned, and partly because other societies have appeared which have taken together with temperance other issues on their program. The Finns have also largely adopted the Anti-Saloon League method of temperance work, i. e. the churches act as agencies for temperance work, special societies being thus less needed where churches are well organized. It has been said to the credit of the Finns, that the Upper Peninsula of Michigan made such a good showing in the fight for prohibition largely because of the firm stand Finns took for it.3 And they are still among the most ardent supporters of law enforcement. They believe that prohibition law has, not created lawlessness; it has only brought to the surface our great laxity in moral questions in general.

We produce further facts in support of this opinion, Raymond B. Fosdick, in American Police system, shows by carefully compiled police statistics that "crime is far more prevalent in American cities than in the cities of England, France, and Germany. In 1916 Chicago with its 2,500,000 people had 20 more murders than the whole of England and Wales put together with their 38,000,000 people" (p. 10). "In 1915, New York City had approximately eight times as many burglaries as London and nearly twice the number of burglaries reported in all England and Wales" (p. 15). Dr Frederick L. Hoffman, comparing the homicide rate of England and Wales with that of the United States, estimates that the former is about one-tenth of the latter.4 It is also a known fact that the United States has more divorces every year than any other country, with the exception of Japan.5

The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act cannot be considered as causing lawlessness; they have only revealed a lawless spirit in quarters where it was not suspected. The fact seems to be, though humiliating, that we are as a nation lawless in comparison with other civilized countries. Our Americanization workers need to recognize this serious problem and lay plans for effective moral education. We need to learn law respect and reverence. This problem concerns the immigrant as well as the native born.

That the Finns are strong prohibitionists in America is not surprising when we recall that Finland was the first European nation to vote prohibtion, but due to its dependence on Russia at that time, the law was not ratified by the Czar. Finland has, however, adopted prohibition since receiving its independence.

The Knights and the Ladies of Kaleva are secret orders fashioned after the American secret orders, e. g. the Masonic lodges, though on an independent basis. The membership of these organizations is scattered throughout America. We are not able to give any figures concerning them, neither can we say much about their activities as their work is done in secret. Whether the work of the secret orders can be said to be un-American, we are not in a position to decide. But judging by the example shown by our deceased President and other leading Americans, there should be no reason for doubt in this respect. It does, however, appear to us on the basis of impartial reasoning that the secret orders may become undemocratic institutions in the hands of unscrupulous politicians who may use them as their tools, thus creating state within state and thwarting the will of the people, without offering the public an opportunity to know of their contrivances. Many men, undoubtedly, join them in order to receive backing from them in their political aspirations. We have, however, no reason to believe that the orders under discussion here come under such criticism. But the recent experiences of our country with the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, lead us to reflect on such thoughts. The question concerning secred societies does not concern the Finn alone; it is still an open question in our social life. - Besides the Knights and the Ladies of Kaleva, some Finnish men and women belong to other national secret orders; the chief reason for their joining being mostly a desire for protection under the benevolent features of these organizations.

Of the Musical Organizations we name briefly mixed and male choirs and bands. The Finns are great lovers of music; they sing when they are sad as well as when they are moved by lighter and happier emotions. They possess a wonderfully rich supply of folk-songs and lyric poems. "Kalevala," the national epic of Finland, was collected by Elias Lönnrot among the Karelians and published as a book in 1835. It aroused great enthusiasm and interest in folk-lore and mythology at that time. The epic was translated into most of the European languages and our own poet, Henry W. Longfellow, was inspired by it. The monotonous metre of the Finnish epic suited his theme, and so he wrote "The Song of Hiawatha', in trochaic metre. Page's "Chief American Poets" (p. 158), says on this point: "The metre was avowedly taken from that of the Finnish epic Kalevala, which he had read with Freiligrath twelve years before.6

"Kalevala" describes the magic power of music as used by Wäinämöinen. His might was in his song and harp-playing. Even the sun stopped in its course to listen to the Northern Orpheus, and the beasts of the forest gathered around him, enchanted by his ecstatic strains. The Finns have always sung, and when they came to America they had reason to sing of their longing for home, and of their childhood memories and youthful loves, whispered under the "midsummer-night sun", when nature was awake in its sleep, and the evening embraced morning without the shadow of night on its brow. We may say that nearly every larger Finnish community has had, and still has, some kind of a musical organization connected with the Temperance Society or existing at times as an independent institution. Song-festivals have often been held to which as many as fifteen choirs and perhaps nearly as many bands have come from several neighboring states. They have afforded much healthful enjoyment and wholesome amusement to large numbers, and we see no reason why such use of leisure time should not become more common among all classes of Americans.

The kind of music they sing and play is also worthy of being noticed here. The musical standard of Finland is very high; several first-class musical colleges, conservatories, and organ-schools are found in which some of the leading musicians of the world are associated, e. g. Jean Sibelius, Erkki Melartin Selim Palmgren, Oskar Merikanto, Madetoja, Ojanperä, and others. Musical standards have been raised in the country so that one can hear the best classical music wherever any music is played. This has also had its influence upon the musical activities of the American Finns. The choirs and bands generally render classical music within their range of interpretation. The cultural value of this kind of social activity must be said to be very high. The music is selected from the classical compositions of all nations without regard to its national origin, for there is no creed nor racial distinction in art.

Finnish music has become known quite generally in America, as is witnessed by the programs of the leading musical organizations in our music centers, and the tribute paid Finnish music in best American musical magazines. A few musicans have also visited or given concerts in America, and they have been received with warm praise and admiration. The Harvard University conferred upon Jean Sibelius the honorary degree of Doctor of Music, and Selim Palmgren is at the head of the piano department in the famous Eastman Conservatory, Rochester, N. Y. Madame Maikki Jarnefelt-Palmgren an operatic star, who has spent the last three years in America, and has given concerts in many of our large cities to American audiences, is also engaged as an instructor in the Eastman Conservatory.

Athletic Activities. It is hardly necessary to speak here of the athletic interests of the Finns, this fact being so generally known in America at the present time. The names of such men as Kolehmainen, Nurmi, Ritola, and others, are familiar to all lovers of sport, of which America has a goodly number. Gymnastics of all kinds, including calesthenics, skiing, skating, swimming, running, etc., have been systematically practiced for years in Finland in connection with the activities of various social organizations; and physical training has been found in the curricula of the public schools for a long time. This fact had not been generally known concerning the Finns, but the international Olympic games have helped to acquaint other nations with this sturdy small nation of the far north. Their achievements in the field of sports is not limited to the Olympics that were held in 1920 at Antwerp; they had already made creditable showing in the previous games. But formerly they had to appear under the Russian banner, while in 1920 they were privileged for the first time to take part under their independent colors of white and blue. The United States captured the first place; Finland came second. The results, however, were a surprise generally to the other nations, for Finland was able to send only 24 men, while many other countries had many times that number. The press of different countries was unanimous, in praising the work of the Finnish athletes.

The New York Journal said : "America is the victor of the seventh Olympics, but the largest part of actual victory goes to another country, much smaller than ours. Finland, who had a team of only 24 men, gained fully half as many points as America, although America's team numbered more than ten times this number. In the history of the Olympics such remarkable results have never been seen before as the Finns won in the Olympics of Antwerp."

The New York American wrote at that time: "Finland surprised the whole world. She gained as many victories as America. Myyrä made the world's record in javelin throw, and Kolehmainen in the Marathon run. According to the judgment of experts great credit falls to Finland,who had only 24 men in her team. If she had not lacked a few first class short-distance runners, she would have hopelessly beaten all competing nations."

The New York Evening Telegram, just to quote this final editorial, wrote: "Now when all is over, it is just and fair that America, who won the 1920 Olympic games so easily, do justice to the one to whom justice is due. We won only nine first places, and the Finns, whose team was composed of only 24 men, gained just as many. - In the preceding Olympics, in which Finland gained very notable results, she was still forced to remain under the Russian flag, so that the victories of this time were not really credited to the account of Finland; but now, when these Northerners have waved their own flag among the nations for a year, they prove that even the regime of oppression of the Czars has not been able to subdue their vigor.7

Many other large daily papers both of America and Europe paid tribute to them in similar words of praise. Our purpose here is not to eulogize these accomplishments, but rather to point out in the words of others, a characteristic concerning the Finnish race in order to understand their social activities as immigrants in America.

The Finns have been very much interested in athletics in America. It is quite common to find athletic organizations in connection with their temperance lodges or socialistic societies. And frequently they gather together during the summer months in their annual festivals, where athletic contests and competitions in choir renderings form an important part of the program. Such festivals have been held in Northern Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, people gathering to them from the neighboring states, respectively. They have been very important factors in the work of Americanization, for the custom has generally been to invite distinguished Americans, viz. governors of these states, members of Congress and state legislatures and other prominent citizens, to take part in the programs as speakers. And it must be said with due respect to these American friends, who have condescended to mix with the Finns in this way, that they have learned to understand better the social mind of this class of our immigrant population. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the great majority of our native born citizens do not wish to take part in any activities that have been arranged by the immigrants, even in cases where some of the best talent of Finland has appeared. Such a spirit savors of aristocracy which has no place in democratic America.

This we consider a problem in the work of Americanization. The immigrant is often expected to show interest in various kinds of programs and meetings that have been arranged admittedly for his enlightenment and Americanization, and much good may be accomplished through them. But when it is done with the spirit of superiority on the part of such organizers, intelligent immigrants, some of whom may be found as leaders in every racial group, are bound to eschew such methods. And a distinction must be made between different immigrant groups. Too often it is the attitude of the would-be reformers that they possess all the desirable qualities which the immigrant is to learn. The thing to do would be to get acquainted mutually, and then we would be better able to judge what the immigrant needs and in what respect it would be desirable to have him change.

A little incident, serving to illustrate this point, occured in the experience of the writer a few years ago in a certain city in which he happened to reside. A young American pastor came to the city who happened to be very much interested in social work among the immigrants. He had learned that a great number of Finns lived in the city, so he planned to work among them. He thought they needed some social organization to get them together, and that an athletic association would be most desirable. Accordingly, he undertook to organize such an association without knowing that the Finns already had two athletic clubs in that city. Not meeting with success in his plans, he called on a leading Finn of the community and there learned the true facts. He further learned that a good percentage of them were already attending an evening school in the city public school, and were making commendable progress in their work. The conclusion was, that he decided to work among some other nationality who did not happen to be so well organized in that particular community.

This only shows how badly one can be mistaken concerning the needs of immigrants, unless he make a more thorough study of their life and characteristics. They do not always need new organizations, but those that exist could be made more serviceable in the work of Americanization by bringing together, through them, men and women of both sides. Important questions could be discussed and many racial difficulties in the community life could thereby be eliminated. Our social life in many mining and industrial towns is sadly in need of mutual communication and intercourse between different classes of citizenry. This fact should be recognized by every agency aiming to assist in the work of Americanization. Ideal Americanization can not be concerned with the question of naturalization alone, it must have for its aim the making of ideal Americans of all its citizens, native born alike with the citizens through adoption.

1 See "Social Organization", Cooley, Ch. VIII.

2 See "The Spirit of Americanization", by Louise La Bella, Education, April, 1921.

3 See Rural Michigan, Chase p. 167.

4 Letter to The New York Sun, February 3, 1922, quoted in the "The Minute Man", February 22, 1923.

5 See "Marriage and Divorce, 1867-1906: Bureau of the Census, Washington, 1908, 1909, Vol. I, p. 41; and Blackmar and Gillin, Outlines of Sociology, New York, 1916, Chap. VI.

6 See also Freiligrath's letter in the London Athenaeum, Dec. 22, 1855.

7 See "Seitsemännet Olympialaiset Kisat", pp. 250, 251, in Finnish.

Publication: John Wargelin, The Americanization of the Finns. The Finnish Lutheran Book Concern. Hancock, Michigan 1924, 185 pages.

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