Let's Talk Swedish Royalty's Arriving To Honor A Heritage.

Posted: April 13, 1988

Their favorite food color seems to be white; pale food is a preference, blond food a specialty. They appear to know how to clean fish instinctively. They love sweaters.

Their number includes singer Peggy Lee, poet Carl Sandburg and astronaut Edwin Aldrin Jr., but few realize who these people really are. Their number also includes the inventors of the zipper and the heart pacemaker, and the designer of that most American of glass conveyances, the Coca-Cola bottle.

But their predominant image in America is one of automobiles and meatballs, and a simple, large-boned, bland persona.

That image is unfair and stereotypical. And, like most stereotypes, it is partially true.

They are the Swedes, perhaps as many as four million in the United States who trace their lineage to Sweden.

After being ignored in Philadelphia for more than three centuries, they will have their days today and tomorrow as King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden visit the area to help celebrate the 350th anniversary of the first Swedish settlement in the New World - in Delaware in 1638.

"Pennsylvania history always begins with William Penn, and it is just not true," says Mrs. George McFarland of Haverford, an official of the national Swedish Colonial Society, headquartered in Philadelphia. She traces an

ancestor - one Jonas Nilsson - back to the those early Swedish settlers and says that his wife's family owned the land where City Hall stands today.

Mrs. McFarland, who politely insists on being referred to as "Mrs. George McFarland," says the Swedish settlements in Delaware, New Jersey and Philadelphia "have not been taught, have not been emphasized."

She is correct. Not many people know that the Swedes predated Penn by more than 40 years. Nor do many know that their Delaware settlement, New Sweden, lasted only 17 years before the Dutch overran it in 1655. Or that about 500 hardy settlers actually lived in New Sweden and that an unknown number of them were Finnish.

Of that colony's impact, the word ephemeral is appropiate, says M. Mark Stolarik, president of the Balch Institute of Ethnic Studies.

Though the colony did not last very long, Swedish settlers stuck around. They brought to the new land the log cabin, though some scholars suggest that honor might actually belong to the Finns. One of the descendants of those Swedish settlers, John Morton, signed the Declaration of Independence. Another, John Ericsson, designed the metal-clad Civil War ship the Monitor.

Other famous people of Swedish descent range from actresses Greta Garbo and Ann-Margret to aviator Charles Lindbergh, former U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren (half-Swedish), current Chief Justice William Rehnquist (half-Swedish), opera singer Birgit Nilsson, sculptor Carl Milles, tennis star Bjorn Borg and labor hero Joe Hill.

Yet none of these people is remembered, or honored, for his or her Swedishness.

"In general, Swedish immigrants melted into the melting pot faster than many other groups," says Christopher Olsson, executive director of the Swedish Council of America, based in Minneapolis.

"We're not as many as Italians or the Irish or other immigrant groups, and we didn't have a critical mass in big cities. We immigrated to the Midwest, to farming communities."

Goran Sockenstrom, who heads the Swedish curriculum in the Scandinavian studies department at the University of Minnesota, says Swedes in America today have only a "vague recollection of Sweden."

The American image of a Swede is "big, blond, dumb and silent," Sockenstrom says. Part of that image is accurate. "Swedes do keep to themselves," he explains. "We are a quiet, polite people."

He adds that there are striking cultural differences between Swedes and Americans.

"Intimacy for an American is a face-to-face relationship between two people. To be intimate and silent together is intimate for a Swede. For Swedes, working shoulder to shoulder is intimate."

The dumb image is not dumb as in ignorant, but as in naive and simple, suggests Carolyn Wilson, a program manager for the Minnesota Historical Society.

Though the Swedes first settled a portion of the Philadelphia area, it is difficult to find them here. There is the American Swedish Historical Museum in South Philadelphia and the Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church in Queen Village, but that's about it for Swedish institutions. There are no Swedish neighborhoods, no restaurants.

Not so in Minnesota. "In Minneapolis," Wilson says, "you notice the Swedes. There is a Lutheran church on every corner. If it's called St. Olaf's, it's Norwegian, and if it's Emanuel Lutheran, it's Swedish."

Locally, we have not completely abandoned our Swedish founders. The Philadelphia and Pennsylvania flags are blue and gold, just like the Swedish flag.

"I used to be a dancer at the Vasa junior club when I was little girl," remembers Linda J. Smith, the former Linda Josefsson, current secretary of the local chapter of Vasa, the largest Swedish cultural and social organization in the nation.

There is no Vasa junior club anymore. Smith, who lives in Doylestown, says that most of the 90 Vasa members live in suburban communities from Hatboro, in Montgomery County, to Lansdowne. "Swedes don't stay together in a close-knit community like the Puerto Ricans or the Italians," she says.

Lena Carlsson, the assistant director of the Swedish museum here, has been in this country for 14 years. "I think we blend so well because we want to be accepted. We try to be Americans," she says.

Clarissa Solmssen, director of the museum, acknowledges that the image of Swedes often comes complete with Volvos, tall blond women and Swedish meatballs. "Maybe the Swedish cook on the Muppets," she adds.

"What is Swedish in everyday life?" she asks rhetorically.

Then, after a pause, she says, "Ikea."

Ikea. The trendy put-together furniture store advertises proudly that it is a Swedish concern.

"Yes, we don't hestitate to mention it. We say Ikea stands for common sense in Sweden," says Gunnar Thorlund, Ikea North America vice president.

"Before Ikea, I think people only thought of blondes, Bjorn Borg and moose. Why? Bad marketing from the Swedish side."

He noted that Swedish political neutrality has isolated it from world affairs and the magnifying glass of world opinion. It may have also contributed to the image of blandness.

"When you talk about the big events of modern times, you must talk about the Second World War. Sweden was not involved," Thorlund says.

American ignorance of geography - and Scandinavia in particular - does not help sharpen the country's image.

"People think the capital of Sweden is Copenhagen," Thorlund says. "They mix up Switzerland and Sweden. People have told me we have very nice cheese in Sweden."

Swedes or Swedish-Americans have made many contributions to American culture, ranging from the milk carton to the modern telephone receiver. But here's one vote for what may be the most enduring of Swedish gifts to the good life in America.


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