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Chicago as Viewed by a Norwegian Immigrant in 1864
    A letter translated and edited by Brynjolf J. Hovde (Volume III: Page 65)

Democracy is writing its biography, at last. The interest in social history evidenced by the first volume of the monumentally conceived History of American Life, edited by Professors Schlesinger and Fox, is compelling historians to search for new or hitherto neglected sources. Parallel with this movement, and in its larger aspect a phase of it, there is a growing demand for the investigation of the causes and effects of emigration and immigration. To both fields of historical endeavor the letters passing between European immigrants into America and their connections in the "old country" must prove extremely fertile source material. The newly arrived immigrant, by the very fact of being unidentified with American life, was sometimes able to turn upon it an observational power of unusual acuteness; furthermore, these wholly personal documents are likely to be peculiarly revealing, both of the immigrant mind and of the process of readjustment. How much more accurately the causes of great popular movements could be assessed if historians had available a large collection of such letters, than when, as now, they are compelled merely to infer them from government statistics and from plausible coincidences! Similarly, students of European history would gain from the letters of those who remained behind a much more intimate knowledge of the effects of emigration and of the reflex action of America upon Europe.

A letter written by an emigrated Norwegian to someone whom he left behind has always in Norway been placed in a class by itself as a matter of almost public interest, and has been called Amerika-brev, -- " America letter." It is impossible to overestimate the importance of such letters in stimulating emigration and in acquainting the common people of Norway with American life. Among Norwegian immigrants a letter from the old home has also been a matter to share with fellow immigrants, and is known as a Norges-brev, "Norway letter."

The particular "America letter" here translated was written by Christian H. Jevne to his parents in Hamar, Norway. Jevne spent his boyhood in Hamar, where his father was a master tanner. {1} Upon finishing the public school, he was sent to Vigness, a small trading point at the head of Lake Mjøsen, across the water from the better-known town of Lillehammer. There he was placed with an uncle, Ole Kolberg, who operated a general store. "Vigness was a small place of twenty-five or thirty houses, the trade being mostly with the farming community, so he found plenty of time for study, music, and gardening of which he was very fond. This may surprise those who knew him in later years when business seemed to be the all absorbing passion with him." In Vigness he proved his ability as a business man, and became the manager of his uncle's establishment. But an "America letter" from an emigrated uncle, Otto Jevne, in Chicago, the first in fifteen years, was destined to change his whole life. "At the same time advance copies of 'Chicago Illustrated,' published by Jevne and Almini [his uncle's firm in Chicago], copies of which are to be found in the Chicago Historical Society, were sent home with description [sic] of the wonderful city springing up on the shores of Lake Michigan." On July 4, 1864, Christian H. Jevne landed in New York, and proceeded at once to Chicago. There his uncle, a prominent fresco painter, helped him obtain a position with Knowles Brothers, with whom he did so well that after only ten months he was selected to be a partner of their brother-in-law, one Mr. Parker, whom they wished to see well started in business. In October, 1866, Mr. Jevne's two brothers Hans and Carl joined him in Chicago upon his own request; then he bought out his partner, and placed his brothers in the store. Both of them had studied English for two years in Norway in the expectation of coming to America. Mr. Jevne made excellent progress in business, and though he was burned out by the fire in 1871 his energy, reliability, and capacity enabled him quickly to regain his former position. He operated what for many years was the largest wholesale and retail grocery business in Chicago. "It may be of interest to know that the first electric light used in Chicago was installed in the Jevne store in 1880 by the Edison Co. and the coffee roaster and mill was also run by electricity. Crowds jammed the street night after night to witness the illumination." Christian H. Jevne died in 1898, a prosperous and highly respected citizen of Chicago.

Chicago, December 10th, 1864

Dear Parents !

As I had already begun to fear, that my letter had not come through, {2} I was just in the act of writing to you, when Uncle on the 5. Nov. brought me a letter from O. Kolberg which destroyed my doubt, it had worried me a great deal that you perhaps remained uncertain whether I had reached my destination or not, and I knew that that would have caused you great uneasiness, which was unnecessary, as I not only am safely arrived, but also have been well the whole while, and am getting along in every way as well as one could wish, considering that I am in a strange land, and among strange people, and a strange language, for I can not get these cussed {3}Yankees to speak Norwegian, I therefore have to jabber English all day long, it is far from being of the best, but that makes no difference, because they are used to broken English. My word! {4} How the English language is mutilated here, Frenchmen and Italians especially deal with it in a barbarous manner.

Never a day passes in which I do not send a thought over to dear Norway, in recollection of you my precious parents, and of relatives and friends as well. Oh, what a joyous day it will be for me when I once again set foot on the cliffs of Norway. (They are quite as dependable as America's stone-less, sandy soil.) and that the great happiness, might be vouchsafed me, to see you once again. I am coming home some time, provided God will let me live and keep my health. You may be sure I had a good many moments of hesitation before I could make up my mind to undertake so long and uncertain a journey, and to leave the Wignes [sic] which has become so dear to me it was absolutely one of the hardest days I have experienced, when I left Wignes and when I left you, my dear parents, weeping on the dock, not knowing whether I should be able to see you again or not, but all things pass, the farther I got along on the way the better it became, because then I had to think about finding my way through to my destination, although I wished in a small way that I could have turned back, but when one is aboard the train one must travel with it. Perhaps it was as wise as it was bad for me that I got the impulse to come here, for I must admit, in order not to be unfair to this country, that there are better and more numerous chances {5}for young men here than in Norway, when they once become familiar with conditions here, but when one arrives and gets off at the railway station, comes out upon the street, and does not know which way to turn, and besides cannot speak with people, then one is likely to wish he were back home, and that he never had seen America, but it would not go any better with an American if he should come to Norway under the same circumstances. Very likely there are many who set out in the belief that they will find here both wealth and ideal conditions, {6} but alas, how bitterly are they disappointed in their expectations, here one must work, for here nothing may be had for nothing.

There are many here, perhaps the greater number, who waste what they earn, by frequenting the dance halls and the saloons, there are any number of such delights.

I am still with the same man, {7} and we get along pretty well, at first it was somewhat difficult, to be sure, as I had to stand there like a Hottentot able to do only what they pointed to, but now I can dispatch every customer that enters just as efficiently as a Yankee, and it is all about the same sort of thing as standing behind the counter at Wignes, except that I am occupied all the time, and must be in the store from 7 o'clock to 6:30 in the evening. I attend school in the evenings from 7 to 9, namely at a commercial institute, in order to learn English, bookkeeping, banking, and brokerage, this course costs 65 dollars, in greenbacks, (because here one gets 2 1/2 dollars in paper for I dollar in gold). On Sundays I go up to my uncle's place to pass the time in his company and to chatter English with my small cousins, for they cannot speak Norwegian, although, they understand it when it is spoken to them, but always answer in English. Uncle's family consists of his wife three boys and one girl, his wife's mother is also here now, whereas she usually stays with her son out in the country. The daughter of Almini is also staying with Uncle, because Almini's wife is dead leaving only this one child. Uncle and Almini do a good business, and they have a very good reputation here in Chicago, and in many of the larger cities hereabouts. The Yankees tell me that Uncle is one of the foremost fresco-painters here. I have promised many, who desired to journey hither, that I would write to them about this country, but I shrink from fulfilling these promises, partly because I do not know of anything to say about the land or the agriculture, for I have not been outside the city limits since I came here, and partly because I certainly do not want to advise anyone to leave, if they want to leave then let them start off at once, that is what I did. I wish Hans would exert himself to learn English, for I might perhaps desire to have him here after a while; I could wish that you were all here, but that is out of the question, because it is much too long and difficult a journey for old people.

It might perhaps be interesting to you to hear a little something about this city, which is not more than thirty years old and now numbers about 200,000 inhabitants. Chicago is situated as you know on the shores of Lake Michigan, from which a stream or river leads into the city and branches off in two directions, on this river there pass the whole day long, hundreds of steam and sail ships, and at the points where the streets cross the river there have been constructed swinging bridges, which are swung about by two men when the ships pass. The streets are very wide and long. Some over one Norwegian mile, {8} the sidewalks of which are made of slabs of white stone in the best part of the city elsewhere of planks. In most of the streets there have been laid rails, on which very handsome cars are operated, quite similar to railway coaches, which are drawn by two horses, it costs five cents to travel upon them either for a short or a long distance. There are about seventy churches here, of which three Norwegian two Swedish, and a great number German, for about half of the population here are Germans, as far as that goes there are all nationalities here, and therefore also all religions, such as Jesuits, Mormons, Methodists and also a great multitude of Catholics, who make an awful noise. I have been in both Norwegian Swedish and English churches, in the latter they sing most beautifully. The churches are prettily painted, and equipped with stoves, so that one does not have to freeze there The houses are mostly built of stone, (white), 4 to 7 stories high. there is a hotel in the same street as I live, which is 7 stories, has 220 windows facing the street, and about 400 rooms. Uncle did the decorating of the best rooms in this hotel.

About the war it can hardly be of any use to speak, inasmuch as you are quite as well informed about it as I, suffice to say, they are fighting as usual, and the Union army has now been quite successful of late. People have been greatly wrought up now for a while over the presidential election, for here all people are politicians (mostly political boiler-smiths). {9} Some Democratic, who wanted McClellan for President, others Republicans who voted for Lincoln, who furthermore was reelected. You may greet Bookbinder Magnussen {10} and tell him that I have met his brother-in-law, and delivered the pictures, which they were very happy to receive. They asked me to send their greetings when I wrote home. I should also have written to my sisters Anne and Agnethe, but I suppose you can send them this, and I would further ask you to give my regards to Madam Hoff, and to Holmens, also to my good friend Holdtfodt, and tell him further that he must not go to America, he would only suffer hardship in his old age.

I shall now close my letter, {11} with the request that you will greet all acquaintances and friends from me, and if opportunity affords also those up north in Wignes. If anyone whom you know sets forth to come over here then by all means {12} ask them to look me up, if they come to Chicago, something which is usual. They can inquire for Jevne and Almini No. 101 Washington Street. Last summer when I arrived it was so warm here that I did not know what to do with myself, and now it is just as cold as in Norway, if not colder. I regret that I did not manage to bring with me one of Tante Kolberg's feather comforters, for here they use nothing more than blankets on the beds. Now it is not long till Christmas, so my letter will reach you too late to wish you a Merry Christmas, for which reason I shall have to be content merely to wish you a Happy New Year, and I hope God will permit you to experience many joyful and happy days still. I wish I might be in Norway during the Christmas holidays. Space permits no more, therefore I will close with a heartfelt greeting from your forever devoted son.

Christian H. Jevne. (So long.)

Some time I am going to send a newspaper home, it costs no more than 4 cents. If you see that it comes through all right, then I wish you would send me a copy of Morgenbladet, {13} if it is not too expensive. It must be sent in a newspaper wrapper. You can write your name on that.


One thing I had almost forgotten, namely, to greet you, from Uncle and family.

My address is Christian H. Jevne,
P. O. Box 1175.

Kindly send the enclosed little message to. M. O. Glemmestad Vignes. {14}

<1> These notes on Mr. Jevne's life have been condensed from a more complete statement written by Mr. Carl Jevne (a brother who joined him in Chicago in 1866), and very courteously submitted to the translator by Mrs. Clara Jevne Haugan, a daughter of Mr. Christian H. Jevne, who lives at Evanston, Illinois. The quotations are taken from this statement.

<2> The translator has endeavored to preserve, as far as possible, all the peculiarities of composition and punctuation that appear in the original; Mr. Jevne appears to have been a trifle weak in punctuation. But the letter is an interesting human document, simple, straightforward, and unpretending.

<3> Disse hersens Yankeir. The word hersens is untranslatable; it is slang in Norwegian, and perhaps the nearest approximation to it in English slang is "cussed," or "darned," or "blamed"; it is too mild for "damned."

<4> The Norwegian has Hutetu, an untranslatable expletive.

<5> The writer uses the Norwegianized form of the English word "chances," thus, chancer.

<6> The original reads baade Guld og grønne Skove, literally "both gold and green forests," an idiom which connotes riches and pleasures.

<7> That is, in the employ of the same firm, Knowles Brothers.

<8> A Norwegian mile is equivalent to about seven English miles.

<9> The original reads Politske Kandestøbere. Ludvig Holberg satirized the petty politician in a play called Den Politske Kandestøber; Mr. Jevne here succumbs to the temptation to make a clever allusion.

<10> In Norway the word denoting a person's occupation is used in connection with his name, whether it be an exalted or a very humble occupation, as a title both of honor and of identification.

<11> The original has the quaint archaic Jeg vil nu slutte min Skrivelse, "I will now conclude my writing."

<12> The text has saa kjaere bed dem opsøge mig ; the word kjaere, "my dear," is used here in a sense that renders it impossible of literal translation; it indicates deep desire.

<13> The newspaper Morgenbladet, then as now the most important in Norway, published at Oslo.

<14> According to Mr. Carl Jevne's statement, the writer here means M. O. Glemmestad in Vigness. Everywhere else in the letter the name of the town Vigness is spelled with a W.

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