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Norway’s Organized Response to Emigration
    by Arne Hassing (Volume 25: page 54)

Ever since July 5, 1825, when the sloop "Restaurationen" slipped out of Stavanger harbor bound for New York with 52 passengers, emigration has been a main force in modern Norwegian history. It began on a large scale in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended in the United States, and the annual rate fluctuated between 11,361 and 18,056 until 1872. A drop occurred in the 1870’s and a sharp upswing followed in the 1880’s that reached an all-time peak of 28,804 in 1882. Emigration remained high until 1894, when it dropped to an average of about 6,000 per year to the turn of the century.

These figures are high for a sparsely populated country. The number of emigrants exceeded half a million by 1900, and the total population of Norway increased from 1,051,318 in 1825 to 2,097,328 in 1895. The country retained less than half of her natural population increase between 1856 and 1900, yet no organized opposition to this drain appeared until the twentieth century. {1}

The Norwegian attitude toward emigration was ambivalent throughout the nineteenth century; the movement was regarded as a blessing by some and as a curse by others. There were sporadic denunciations, most often by state officials and [55] the clergy. As early as 1837, Bishop Jacob Neumann issued a pastoral letter entitled "A Word of Admonition to the Peasants in the Diocese of Bergen Who Desire to Emigrate." This widely circulated document included arguments against migrating based on religious, economic, and patriotic grounds. The bishop felt that Norwegians were being lured by a Utopian dream: "All wanted to enjoy similar fortune. All wanted to go to America. And so great numbers left the coast of Norway — just as they left Germany, Prussia, and Ireland and they steered over the ocean to the distant Land of Happiness, where they hoped to harvest almost without sowing, or, in other words, where they hoped that a luckier star would arise over their families and their fortunes." {2}

Bishop Neumann’s admonition was no match for the salesmanship of emigration agents, the "America letters" of departed relatives, and "America books," of which Ole Rynning’s True Account of America for the Information and Help of Peasant and Commoner (1838) was the most famous. There was "America fever" throughout the nineteenth century, which no denunciation or law could stop.

When the population question was broached in Norwegian academic circles in the early twentieth century, it was overpopulation that aroused most concern. In spite of heavy emigration, the total population had increased by about 200,000 every decade; from 2,097,328 in 1895, it rose to 2,309,860 ten years later. A neo-Malthusian school even warned of grave problems in the 1920’s and 1930’s if the state and the private sectors of the economy did not co-operate effectively to improve job opportunities. {3}


In light of this tradition, it is not immediately clear why organized opposition to emigration should arise in the first decade of the twentieth century. Migration had been taking [56] place for a long time, the country was aware of it, and the economic consequences appeared to have been equally favorable and unfavorable. Nevertheless, several movements of the time suggest possible answers.

The outstanding feature of the early twentieth century in Norway was the growth of national feeling and its culmination in winning complete independence from Sweden in 1905. Norwegians had long suffered from an inferiority complex. Throughout the past century any achievement — from the arts and sciences to athletics — had been hailed as a triumph of a specifically Norwegian culture. {4} The severance of the union with Sweden enhanced the self-respect of the people, and international conditions after 1905 contributed to their will to expand. {5} Norway escaped the diplomatic crises leading to World War I, and the Norwegians, without a tradition of handling their own foreign affairs, were not greatly concerned about the politics of the outside world; they were preoccupied with their own affairs. {6}

For more and more Norwegians, the work of the day was industrial. In the decades prior to 1914, industrialization was gradually reshaping and expanding the economy. Industry had organized for the home market until the turn of the century, but after that time the trend was toward entering the world market and investing in power production and raw materials. {7} The development of the hydroelectric power potential was especially striking: whereas 146,000 horsepower was used in 1900, the figure rose to 1,121,300 by 1915. {8} Control of the development of hydroelectric power also provided the most controversial political issue between 1905 and 1914, a reflection of the economic nationalism of the day. {9} Other areas of [57] the economy — notably fishing, whaling, and shipping — grew apace, and all agreed in 1913 that it was the best year they had experienced. {10}

Agriculture, still the source of livelihood for the majority, developed more slowly. The number of small farms (under 10 acres) was increasing, as were small holdings, whereas the depressed cotter (husmann) class had declined by nearly two thirds in the half century ending in 1907. {11} Nevertheless, the outlook for agriculture, too, was brighter, and encouragement and support were being provided by the state and by professional organizations. A department of agriculture and a state agricultural college had been established around the turn of the century and had helped to introduce new methods of farming. Agricultural societies were headed by Det Kongelige Selskap for Norges Vel (The Royal Society for the Welfare of Norway), of which other organizations formed sub-sections. {12}

The rise of new agricultural organizations was accompanied in the 1880’s by the introduction of weekly and monthly periodicals dealing with the various phases of land use. In 1894 the Royal Society for the Welfare of Norway began its major publication, Tidsskrift for det Norske Landbruk (Journal of Norwegian Agriculture). The proliferation of periodicals, as well as the agricultural sections in local newspapers, indicates that farmers were open to new theories and reforms. {13}

The leaders in this reform were strengthened by a growing sense of ideological unity between the larger landowners and the far more numerous small farmers. Prominent among the larger landowners so influenced was Johan E. Mellbye, who became the outstanding leader of the farmers in the early twentieth century. This unifying trend was encouraged by the example of labor organizations and the progress of the farmers themselves — the last engendering new pride. {14} [58]

In spite of agricultural advances, Norwegians had been leaving the land for the towns. The urban population rose from 18.3 per cent of the total in 1875 to 28 per cent in 1900; there was also a suburban trend which, if its figures are included within the urban total, would raise the percentage to 43 by 1920. {15} The turn of the century had also marked a new wave of emigration, which included 201,789 persons leaving Norway by 1910. America fever was still raging.

The rural districts suffered most from this double migration, quantitatively as well as qualitatively. From 1896 to 1906, 165,206 Norwegians left the country. Of the total, 112,140 were from rural districts; of the men (103,418 in all), 73,000 were between the ages of 18 and 28. {16} Not all rural counties fared equally, but all registered losses. Oppland County was hardest hit, declining in total population from 125,000 in 1866 to 119,000 in 1909. Hedemark, Sogn and Fjordane, North Trøndelag, and Rogaland had similar losses. {17}

From 1905 to 1925, the Norwegian government kept statistics that are an interesting commentary on the reasons for the emigrants’ leaving the homeland: {18}

Lack of access to profitable occupations 170,000

Hired or seeking hire abroad 6,200

To join families 36,800

Other motives 2,100

Total 215,100

In other words, 80 per cent of the emigrants gave as the motive for leaving Norway "lack of access to profitable occupation." Though many from the rural areas were cotters, they were not alone in their dissatisfaction. As the case of North Gudbrandsdal will indicate later in this paper, younger sons also left farms [59] that were too small for more than the eldest son and his family. These figures do not mean that prospective emigrants were living in distress; they probably mean simply that people expected to improve their economic lot overseas. {19}

Against this background of nationalistic economic expansion and a high rate of emigration, it is not surprising that organized opposition would be stirred to life by the problems such a mass exodus posed for rural Norway. Why opposition arose as late as 1908 is not immediately clear, but undoubtedly the example of Sweden served as a stimulus. A far more prosperous and fertile country than Norway, Sweden had seen fit in 1907 to launch a comprehensive historical and statistical study of emigration. In the same year, the National-föreningen mot Emigrationen (National Society against Emigration) was formed, motivated by the drain of population and by a revived nationalism that followed the loss of Norway. {20} Those who inaugurated the Norwegian Selskapet til Emigrationens Indskrarnkning (Society for the Limitation of Emigration) in 1908 were well aware of developments in Sweden. In the first number of the Norwegian society’s publication, Johan Mellbye quoted a long excerpt from an article in the quarterly publication of the Swedish organization. The quotation was from E. Walter Hulpers, who railed against Swedish fascination with all things American, the inclination to bow before the high altar of America: "For God’s sake, let us tear down that high altar: give the home its own healthy, strong gods and make it national and firm. Teach people to shun the mass-produced and to love the home-made. Give them homes." {21} The words have a superpatriotic, if not reactionary, ring, but Johan Mellbye found them "beautiful and forceful" because they applied directly to conditions in Norway. {22} [60]


The spur to do something about emigration came during a meeting of the Kristiania (now Oslo) Kjøbmandsforeningen (Merchant Association) on October 16, 1907, at which Attorney J. F. Klinkenberg gave a lecture on "Emigration and Ways to Counteract It." He proposed the formation of a society similar to the one in Sweden. The group passed a resolution requesting the Handelsstandens Fællesforening (Commerce Association) to call together representatives of other professional organizations to discuss what might be done to check emigration. {23} The result was a meeting on February 10, 1908. Five men, representing as many professional organizations, were elected to survey the problem: B. B. Svenberg, master carpenter, for Fællesforeningen for Haandverk og Industri (Association for Craft and Industry) ; Alf Bjercke, wholesaler, for Handelsstandens Fællesforening; Olav Sendstad, principal of an agricultural school, for Norsk Landmandsforbund (Norwegian Farmers’ League); Commander Herold Lundh, for Sjømandsforeningernes Fællesforening (Association of Seamen’s Organizations); and Johan Mellbye, estate owner, for Selskapet for Norges Vel. {24}

The committee of investigation made a preliminary report acknowledging that not all emigration was detrimental. It was beneficial in that the unemployed were able to find opportunities overseas in times of economic recession at home, and such emigration was also self-regulating, depending on whether the prospective immigrant anticipated prosperity or recession abroad. {25} This type of emigration caused the committee no alarm. The harmful kind, on the other hand, "saps the strength of our agriculture, depopulates our mountain districts, transports our skilled seamen on foreign ships, and deprives us of our most skilled tradesmen and industrial workers." {26} [61]

The distinction was regarded as important because there had been some misunderstanding about the scope of the new society’s work. It was not the task of this group to survey economic conditions in Norway, but rather to investigate emigration and to consider how and to what degree it could be restricted. {27} How one study could be made without pursuing the other was not made clear, but the committee noted that the work required long-range planning and that immediate results were not to be expected. It recommended the following: dissemination of information, including reports concerning conditions in the rural districts of Norway and in the United States; data on work opportunities for the unemployed in the homeland, as well as on jobs to augment the income of farmers during the long winter months; providing assistance to returning emigrants; and finally, a campaign to arouse the state to its responsibilities, especially to establish controls over the activities of emigration agents. {28}

Delegates from the five organizations represented on the investigative committee on June 22, 1908, constituted themselves as Selskapet til Emigrationens Indskrænkning (The Society for the Limitation of Emigration). The original five men were officially elected as the Society’s first executive board, with Johan Mellbye as chairman and Alf Bjercke as vice-chairman. {29} Recognizing that agriculture was the principal victim of emigration, they decided that the Society for the Welfare of Norway should share in the leadership of the Society for the Limitation of Emigration. Such co-operation was natural, as the older organization was concerned with the development of agriculture as a whole, and Johan Mellbye was also a member of its executive committee.

The membership of the new board remained remarkably stable. Four of the five original founders were still in office in 1928. Chairman Mellbye, owner of a large estate in Nes, Hedemark, where he had about 300 acres under cultivation and [62] 1,800 acres of forest land, was the acknowledged leader of Norwegian farmers during the first quarter of the twentieth century. {30} Aside from having been chairman of the Society for the Welfare of Norway from 1902 to 1910, he was also prominent in the management of Bøndernes Bank (Farmers’ Bank), of an insurance company, and of the magazine Nationen. His greatest contribution, however, was made through Norges Bondelag (Norwegian Farmers’ Association, known as Norsk Landmandsforbund until 1921), which was founded in 1896 as the central organization for the interests of farmers.

Johan Mellbye became chairman in 1901 and held the position until 1904, when he joined the short-lived Hagerup cabinet as minister of agriculture. He resumed the chairmanship in 1909 and was still at this post in 1940. The Agrarian party was formed in 1920, and Mellbye became a member of the Storting (parliament) as that party’s candidate the following year. He has been described as an untiring worker in the service of the people, never seeking personal power or honor; he has earned the high esteem of persons in every walk of life. {31}

Of the other members of the executive board, Alf Bjercke and Olav Sendstad were especially well known. The former was a sell-made businessman and chairman of the Commerce Association from 1895 to 1898 and from 1905 to 1916. {32} Sendstad was a prominent agriculturalist and with Johan Mellbye active in the Norwegian Farmers’ Association. {33}

The common characteristic of the leaders of the Society was a deep love for Norway and its rural communities. Their goal was the development of the agricultural potential of the nation, with special reference to curbing harmful emigration. ‘The motto later adopted by the Society is indicative of their [63] outlook — Al kultur er dymken: først og fremst av jord (All culture is cultivation: first and foremost of the land).

From its inception, the Society was representative of broad sections of Norway’s economic life. Its rules required that the executive board and their deputies should always include members of the agricultural, shipping, handicrafts, industrial, and business professions. {34} General membership was open to individuals, organizations, and various governmental units such as townships and counties. Dues were initially two kroner (about forty cents) for individuals and one hundred kroner for organizations, although contributions over and above the minimum were invited. Individuals were to elect one voting delegate for every hundred members; each organization was allowed two voting delegates, and governmental units were allotted one each. The delegates met annually to elect officers and to conduct business. By December, 1908, the Society had set up an office together with the Society for the Welfare of Norway, and its operation began in 1909.


A modest budget limited the activity of the Society in its early years; expenditures in 1909 totaled a mere 3,920 kroner, and they were only 8,182 kroner in 1913. {35} Nevertheless, following the recommendations of the original committee of investigation, the Society published fourteen numbers of its early periodical, Mot Emigrationen (Against Emigration). Each issue was devoted to one aspect of the problem. The first numbers are particularly informative for the student of migration; they reveal the attitude behind the Society’s origin and provide detailed case studies of districts which experienced loss of population. Inasmuch as the focus of this paper is on emigration, these publications will receive attention out of proportion to their importance in the total program of the [64] Society — although they did comprise the bulk of its work to 1913.

Johan Mellbye understood part of the Society’s goal to be that of narrowing the information gap existing in Norway. The problem was not confined solely to prospective returnees from America, for those in "Gudbrandsdal and Valdres usually know very little about conditions in Smaalenene and Jarlsberg. No, they are much better acquainted with conditions in Dakota and Minnesota." {36} The Society recognized that rural Norway, particularly the mountain districts, suffered most from emigration, and that studies were needed to investigate living conditions and the possibilities for development there. To that end, the Society published reports on North Gudbrandsdal, Hallingdal, Numedal, Maalselven, and Bardu. These areas might have been classified as "depressed" today. The findings concerning North Gudbrandsdal and Maalselven are indicative of the conditions that spurred migration and the organization opposed to it.

The study of North Gudbrandsdal, by agriculturalist Jon Sæland, showed that the people of an area once rich in material and cultural life had lapsed from pride into lethargy. {37} The land was poorly cultivated, the mountains indifferently utilized, and the once beautiful houses on the verge of collapse. The farms had only small areas of cultivated land, though each supported an average of eight cows. Four of the townships had farms which averaged between 5 and 13 acres of cultivated land; one averaged from 2 1/2 to 5 acres and another as little as a quarter to 11/4 acres. Only 45 farms had over 50 acres under cultivation, and one had about 200.

North Gudbrandsdal had experienced a decrease in grain production, and land formerly used for cultivation had been turned into pasture. Whereas the district once exported grain, it now had to import. The decreased production had resulted from increased labor costs and falling prices, and in this respect [65] North Gudbrandsdal reflected the effects of the national trend from subsistence farming to raising cash crops. Grain had once been the sole produce of Norwegian farms; in 1895 only 36 per cent of the country’s requirements had to be imported; by 1900 the figure was 57 per cent. {38}

The most widespread complaint of farmers, after taxes and the great burden of indebtedness, was lack of workers; the larger the farm the greater the problem. The labor force fell from 4,493 in 1865 to 2,597 in 1900, a loss of 42 per cent. The comments recorded by Sæland are indicative of what had happened: "People aren’t to be had at any price"; "There aren’t people to employ here — they take off for America or town"; "People don’t want to be cotters anymore — even the name is humiliating"; "Farming can’t compete with other occupations — roads, railways, mining, and the like." {39} A lack of laborsaving machinery had only heightened the problem; methods of farming had changed little since 1865. Wages had remained low, mainly because they had always been that way and employers were loath to raise them.

The scarcity of labor was a direct consequence of emigration, and no district in all of Norway had experienced a greater loss than North Gudbrandsdal: from 10.2 to 29.6 per cent in the various townships. Available workers in the whole district fell from 25,114 in 1865 to 20,389 in 1900, an 18.8 per cent decrease from 1865. Most of the emigrants were cotters and laborers, though in later years they were the children of farmers — victims of holdings too small to support more than the eldest son and his household. Hardly a family was without relatives in America. In fact, "emigration has become such a tradition that in many places one begins to wonder about the occasional strong youth who decides to remain instead of traveling to America." {40}

In fact, North Gudbrandsdal, an inland district in central Norway, was in economic stagnation, if not in actual recession; [66] a high rate of emigration was at least one of the reasons for this condition. Mechanization of farming had been slow in coming. Management of the farms had been inefficient, but economic expansion would have required more manpower. The labor force had been seriously depleted by the movement of rural people to the towns — and to America. Other parts of Norway had suffered similarly, but not all had experienced recession. In some areas, emigration had resulted only in an extremely slow rate of economic growth.

Maalselven, near the coast of northern Norway in Tromsø County, was a good example. It had been settled in 1788 and was later surveyed for the Society by Einar J. Haave. {41} From a population of 1,079 in 1835, Maalselven had increased steadily to 3,894 by 1907. The community had remained fairly isolated: There were few roads until the late nineteenth century, no railways, no automobiles — and no likelihood of any so long as the roads remained narrow. Haave understated the problem when he concluded: "I see the development of the communications system as one of the best ways to increase the farmers’ ability to produce in these areas." {42}

Much more was actually required in districts where snow was expected in late September, the icy rivers did not melt until May, and the soil was predominantly sand and gravel. The production of grain was attended by difficulties under such conditions, although potatoes and turnips did well and additional acreage was being utilized for pasturage. Haave advised that increased production of root crops and extended use of pasture land were the only ways of increasing the yield of arable areas, and even for these the soil required additional lime. Maalselven had less than 4,000 acres under cultivation, and Haave estimated that it had a potential of 5,000—6,000. Working the soil was combined with animal husbandry, particularly that of cattle and goats, but neither resulted in a substantial increase between 1855 and 1907. People could add to [67] their income by lumbering, hunting, and fishing for those living near the mouth of the Maals River.

No wonder that Maalselven suffered from emigration. In all, 1,023 persons left in the years from 1880 to 1910; the total population increased from 2,939 to 3,894 in the same period. Haave admitted that some of the emigrants had experienced bad living conditions at home, whereas others had been comparatively well off. The real problem was "America fever." Americans "home on a visit easily give youth the impression that it must at least be better over there." {43} Whatever else had direct influence, the author concluded, many of those who migrated would come to the realization that all was not "gold and green forests" in America. {44} He realized that it would be difficult to halt emigration; the most important consideration was to make certain that the most skilled and hard-working people remain at home. This would require a deep and immediate appreciation of their roots.

Haave wrote: "There must be an educational program in the school and in the home whereby the national sentiment of the farm youth is aroused, and whereby they can be brought to see that there are tasks relatively close at hand which await a solution. . . . Youth must learn to value what their forefathers have accomplished, and at the same time they must place themselves under the imperative to add a bit to these achievements." {45} Emigration had been harmful, but its rate had not been so high as to cause a recession; progress was thought to be sure and steady in Maalselven, but it might have been greater but for the losses incurred through emigration. {46}

The studies of North Gudbrandsdal and Maalselven are indicative of conditions that existed throughout rural Norway. A farm could be made to pay, but its size was determined by the ability of the farmer to work it himself; consequently it was usually rather small. Many farmers had incurred large [68] debts and were increasingly dependent on market prices; should these fall, a large number would go under. Farm owners were also burdened with high taxes; emigrants often complained that these assessments had driven them from their land. {47} There was considerable evidence of abandonment of holdings in North Gudbrandsdal. In Lesjaskogen alone there were 23 deserted farms and cotters’ places. {48}

Five of the Society’s reports from 1909 to 1913 were devoted to the emigration problem and to accounts of America. They revealed that the reasons for leaving Norway in the years 1905 to 1925 were largely economic, including "lack of access to a profitable occupation." They also raised certain questions. Did the emigrants gain access to a good living in America? Were their high hopes fulfilled? Reading the reports of the Society for the Limitation of Emigration, one is led to think that a prospective emigrant would do far better to remain at home.

Not that some emigrants did not make good. John Sundby, in an article entitled "Emigration Studies While on a Journey to America," saw two reasons for emigration: one was America fever; the other was that so many of the emigrants really had done well for themselves in the New World. He emphasized, however, that it was the earlier emigrants who had prospered — those who had received homestead land in the 1860’s and had bought the good land that remained in the 1880’s. {49} But the situation had changed by 1909. Land was expensive, and interest rates were high. When Sundby had asked people what chance there was for a laborer to work himself up to owning a farm, the standard reply had been that it was impossible. Sundby himself had seen examples proving that it could be done, but he doubted that it had happened more frequently in America than in Norway. {50} [69]

Even though immigrants could not earn enough to buy a farm, they still were well paid. Peter Myrvold, a Norwegian living in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, admitted that farm workers earned the "high" wage of $25 to $30 per month, although the dollar would not stretch as far as it would in the homeland — and there were only eight months of work. {51} Furthermore, Norwegians had shown a recent tendency to settle in large cities, where the influx of southern Europeans had produced gross unemployment. Myrvold cited immigration figures for the years 1900 to 1907: 5,862,949 came from Europe, and of these 4,480,400 were from southeastern countries. His comment was that unskilled Norwegians would have to compete with these others for jobs; and the latter worked for less than northern Europeans were able or willing to accept. {52}

If one had work, wages in America were the highest in the world. On the other hand, working days were longer than anywhere else, laborers were likely to be laid off without notice, there was no unemployment insurance to fall back on, and the cost of living was three to four times that of Europe. {53} Citing a Swedish editor and a German author, Myrvold warned those considering immigrating to think twice: "Everything over here, it seems to me, speaks against migrating for economic reasons." {54}

If one succeeded in America, profound effects on the psyche resulted, making emigration both a loss to Norway and of doubtful benefit to the emigrants themselves. Myrvold, who had moved to Fargo, North Dakota, in 1909, lamented the change of character produced by the "melting pot" in all immigrants; children of the first generation were already a "new type." {55} American influence was seen as negligible so long as Norwegian colonies existed, but these were breaking up by the [70] twentieth century. And what was the influence of America? Simply this — it left people rootless, restless, and unable to find peace in the new environment. Norwegians came to America to find a home. Myrvold wrote: "Through toil and drudgery many of them found a ‘farm,’ but very few appear to have found a ‘home’ in the proper sense of the word. The ‘farm’ is always for sale as long as a sufficiently high bid is made for it. The old homestead does not seem to have any value, unless it is expressed in dollars. If the older ones feel less tied to the ‘farm,’ then the situation is even worse among the new generation. Very seldom does a ‘farm’ pass from father to son. The young move away and the lonely elders hand over their homestead to strangers by lease or sale and move into the small country towns. {56}


Such articles dealing with conditions in America naturally were slanted against emigration, though much of what they affirmed was true. The United States had suffered from a recession in 1907, the farming community had stabilized, and there was a high rate of unemployment among the unskilled. But need it come as a surprise that people who were restless enough to leave the old gaard in Norway would have no qualms about selling their American farms? As Norwegian patriots, the writers in Mot Emigmationen saw the promise of Norway’s future; they were willing to ignore the promise of America. Love of the old country was somehow supposed to take priority over the chance to make a decent living in America. This attitude is well expressed in John Sundby’s lament: "When will we Norwegians learn that love of the fatherland is just as legitimate in peace as in war? That it is just as vital when it comes to the nation’s economic welfare as when it comes to its honor?" {57}

One is left with the impression that these writers did not understand the driving power of America fever. They really [71] expected that people would remain in Norway for love of country, even though the homeland did not appear to offer access to a profitable occupation.

The Society for the Limitation of Emigration was composed of high-minded leaders of Norway’s economic life — particularly those directly dealing with agriculture. As patriots, they were concerned about Norway’s loss of human resources that emigration represented. As men of affairs — John Sundby to the contrary — they took the economic causes of migration seriously; they gradually realized that the movement could best be discouraged by increasing opportunities at home. Their patriotism and their economics were thus fused in the idea that self-sufficiency, particularly in agriculture, was the guarantor of national independence — and, indeed, of national culture.

In this concept, they were not alone, for the same concern had produced the Concession Laws governing the use of hydroelectric power. They also recognized that numerous critics doubted the possibility of doing anything to limit emigration. But as Alf Bjercke remarked in reply: "I have still not been in on an undertaking which has not shown that much can be done by working on the case." {58}


The years before 1913 were used largely to inform and to educate. In this work, emigration studies were the most important. Modest beginnings were initiated in other directions: a competition for architectural drawings of buildings best suited to rural Norway; publication of a book of farming instructions; agitation for a new emigration law; {59} establishment of a library on the subject of emigration and problems related to it; the setting up of courses on ways for farmers to supplement their incomes; and a modest beginning in a project of home colonization.

This undertaking was recognized as the chief endeavor of [72] the Society after 1912. The new emphasis did not mean that opposition to migrating was to be neglected, but rather that the group saw in its work of home colonization one of the most important means of limiting emigration. {60} In 1914 the Society began publication of a quarterly called Ny Jord (New Land), which grew to ten numbers annually by the following year. By 1916, the emphasis on home colonization was included in the change of name to Ny Jord: Selskap for Landets Indre Kolonisation og Emigrationens Indskrænkning (New Land: Society for the Nation’s Home Colonization and the Limitation of Emigration).

Home colonization required far larger sums of money than had hitherto been available — and very large amounts if it was to have any effect on emigration. Membership dues and private contributions would no longer suffice, and a committee was formed in 1912 to raise the necessary funds. Its solution was to appeal to municipalities throughout the country for contributions of 1 øre (100 øre = 1 krone) per inhabitant to bring new land under cultivation. Two hundred thirty-five municipalities responded in 1914 with a total of 8,500 kroner representing 800,000 people. {61}

The municipal contributions, however, never amounted to more than 17,000 kroner yearly in the period to 1928, while the banks gave from 2,000 to 3,000 kroner annually until the financial crisis of the 1920’s. Clearly the state was the only adequate source of funds. Following appeals from the Society, state appropriations began in 1914 with a sum of 75,000 kroner. The department of agriculture stipulated, however, that state contributions be used for the establishment of new farms, not for the development of existing ones. The Society consequently discontinued the latter endeavor in 1914. {62} State appropriations gradually increased, reaching 1,000,000 in 1920 and 1921, after which they decreased to 275,000 by 1927. [73] Between 1914 and 1928, they totaled 4,757,000 kroner, and the Society spent 4,827,386 on home colonization in the same period. {63}

Johan Mellbye saw two reasons for making new land available for cultivation: (1) poor use of land was the main cause of emigration; (2) Norway was moving ever closer to the day when it would have to import most of its food and clothing. {64} A 1909 survey by the department of agriculture revealed that Norway had about 4,500,000 maal (about 1,200,000 acres) of uncultivated but arable land. {65} These figures, published in one of the Society’s pamphlets in 1913, showed that land was available throughout the country, but that most of it was in the north or along the west coast. There was also a good deal of it in Kristian, Hedemark, Østerdal, and Gudbrandsdal. {66}

Home colonization thus meant the creation of new farms. The Society’s procedure was as follows:

1. It bought up land and determined farm boundaries.

2. It planned and built roads and drainage ditches.

3. It divided land into farms, each large enough to support a family.

4. For each unit, the Society bought and transported building materials for a house and a barn at an average cost of 16,000 kroner. The future owner helped with his labor, his wages being paid by the organization.

5. The land was brought under the plow, and lime and fertilizer were purchased at the Society’s expense.

6. The Society bought horses and a cow for each farm and fodder for a year or more. {67}

The cost of this undertaking was enormous, even when the farmers assumed part of the financial burden with a loan. By 1924 serious questions were raised by some members of the [74] organization concerning whether the individual farmer should shoulder more responsibility. {68} But in the 1920’s, times were more difficult than ever for the farmer: prices had risen by 300 per cent over the prewar level; worse still, after 1921 bank after bank folded, particularly those in the rural areas. {69} There was simply no financial plan by which the "pioneer" farmer —who might have to wait several years before his farm yielded a profit — could undertake more of the burden. {70}

The work could hardly progress at a rapid rate under such conditions. A total of 830 farms, each averaging about 47 acres, had been established by 1937. With an average of 3.9 members per family on each farm, the Society had helped to retain 1,287 people on the land. {71} Increased state subsidies were sought to offset costs, but as the 1920’s progressed, appropriations actually decreased, and by 1928 economic conditions were worse than they had ever been.

As home colonization increased in importance, other activities of the Society were overshadowed. Publication of Ny Jord, which averaged about 2,000 copies per issue, was devoted to accounts of the cultivation of new land both in Norway and in foreign countries — particularly in the European North. One issue a year reported on the Society’s progress. Certificates of merit were issued to farmers of special distinction, and the stories of their achievements were published. As for the agitation against emigrating, it had dwindled to almost nothing. By 1922 the Society’s report on emigration was confined to the following statement: "Undoubtedly interest in the work of colonization is rising rapidly throughout the land. The emigration question has not been particularly current and educational work here has diminished to minor articles in the periodical. Just lately the tendency to migrate is shown to be on the increase." {72} [75]

Opposition to emigration ceased to be the maison d’etre of the Society after state appropriations for home colonization began in 1914, despite Johan Mellbye’s assertion that colonization was merely the means of limiting it. He was right, of course, for colonization did curb emigration somewhat. It is instructive to note, however, that state appropriations did not begin until the organization already had offered a program that had as its primary effect the increased productivity of Norwegian agriculture. In other words, it was the Society’s positive contribution to Norway’s economy, not the limitation of emigration, that gained it widespread support. But the change in emphasis had other sources in the broader picture of Norway’s economic history and in the general trend of the emigration movement.

When World War I erupted in Europe, the Society’s program of home colonization had been operating for little more than a year — and that on a limited budget (20,079 kroner in 1914) . There was no time to effect a limitation of emigration, though the exodus from Norway in 1914 was only half of the 1910 total. It is, of course, impossible to evaluate the extent to which the Society’s propaganda was responsible for this decrease, but it is certain that home colonization had not at the time progressed far enough to hold anyone in the home country.

Norway was experiencing its best days before the Great War, and there was less and less reason for leaving the country for economic reasons. Wartime conditions also limited emigration, especially after Germany initiated unlimited submarine warfare in 1917. Norway’s shipping industry suffered heavy losses, but the nation as a whole experienced very little deprivation. It remained neutral and managed to trade with both Germany and Great Britain. Unemployment was nonexistent. Magnus Jensen, a contemporary Norwegian historian, has concluded that, all in all, this was a boom period. {73} Quite apart [76] from the difficulties of travel, there was little reason for migrating.

Such prosperity, however, was illusory, for the war years were also inflationary: prices rose and goods were scarce. As the conflict continued, price ceilings were fixed and certain goods rationed. Fish production was guaranteed a minimum price at enormous loss to the government. Taxes were high. One result of the attempt to solve these problems was the increased participation of the state in the country’s economy; in addition, the national debt rose from 357 million kroner in 1914 to 1,008 million in 1919. {74}

The first signs of economic trouble came in 1920, and by 1921 the bubble had burst. Prices collapsed and stock market quotations dropped by nearly a half. The production of exports was hard hit, the sale of timber products in 1921 was half the 1920 volume, and shipping freight fell by a quarter to a third. Diminished production and the drop in stock values precipitated a crisis in credit. {75} These conditions were not alleviated as the 1920’s progressed, and unemployment among trade union workers rose from 17.6 per cent in 1921 to 25.5 by 1927. {76}

One would normally expect heavy emigration under such circumstances, for studies emphasize that the movement is closely related to the economic cycle. The significant factor, however, appears to have been conditions in America rather than those in Norway. {77} In the years 1920 to 1922 the United States suffered from a high rate of unemployment and Norwegian migration was correspondingly low. The next two years were better, and emigration rose accordingly. But economics was not the only controlling factor after 1921. For some time the United States had been increasingly concerned with both the quantity and quality of its immigrants. An act of 1917, eliminating illiterates, was designed to reduce the influx. {78} [77]

By 1921, however, net American immigration still reached half a million, and it was in large part responsible for the unemployment problem. This situation, in combination with the increased fear of aliens and "the abject terror of the supposedly radical alien," resulted in the passage of the 1921 emergency quota law. {79} The act, which allowed Norway an annual limit of 12,116, went into effect on June 1, 1921. {80} This legislation remained in effect until July 1, 1924, when a permanent immigration law limited Norway to 6,600 annually, {81} a figure that was reduced to 2,000 by 1927. {82} The large number of Norwegian immigrants (18,287) in 1923 is explained by the fact that only half of the 1922 quota had been filled because of economic conditions prevailing in the United States that year.

It is difficult to gauge the effect of the quota laws, but probably they had a limiting effect until 1929. From that date until 1945, the economic effects following the great market crash and the onset of World War II once again predominated in reducing Norwegian immigration. {83}


There can be no doubt of the failure of the Society in its attempt to curb emigration. The total number of persons prevented from leaving Norway because of economic opportunities made available at home was at most a mere quarter of total annual emigration after the 1924 quota went into effect. Why did the program fail?

One reason was the phenomenon of emigration itself — a movement of massive proportions that affected all of Europe and the like of which the world has never seen. In the face of this mass exodus, the Society never set forth a comprehensive plan for the elimination of basic causes. K. O. Bjørlykke told the Society as much in 1927: he agreed that its work, requiring [78] enormous sums, could not be implemented because of the "miserable condition of the state treasury." He thought, however, that there should have been a more effective plan to ensure the fullest development of new land. {84} The noted historian, Wilhelm Keilhau, placed the Society’s failure in a broader perspective: it had not given a coherent orientation to the problems, and had offered no plan "for the systematic elimination of the causes of mass migration." {85}

Even the expectation of a satisfactory program was perhaps a pipe dream, for what sort of "plan" could prevent emigration? The Swedes made an exhaustive study in their country, but it did not prevent emigration. {86} It served, however, as a knowledgeable basis for Sweden’s internal economic development, and a similar study no doubt would have produced the same result in Norway.

However justly the Society may be faulted for not producing a comprehensive study of Norway, the organization’s importance lies rather in the fact that it was the only positive response to the problem of emigration, limited though it was. It provided a medium for those who believed that the wellbeing of the country required a strong reaction to the harmful effects of emigration. Until the outbreak of World War I, the rate of migration was large enough to cause widespread concern and the formation of an organized opposition. From the point of view of rural Norway, emigration had indeed produced adverse effects.

After 1914, however, the rate was not high enough to warrant use of the adjective "harmful," and no organization could have won support from any but die-hard nationalists with a program exclusively designed to limit emigration. It was only when the Society turned to home colonization that it gained the backing of the townships and the state. This broadened support after 1914 explains the Society’s continued existence. [79] It gained and retained support because it contributed to agricultural productivity and hence to the self-sufficiency of Norway. Only secondarily did it provide opportunities for those who otherwise would have been forced to emigrate or move to urban areas.

There was something to be said for such efforts in the 1920’s and 1980’s, when unemployment in Norway was especially high. Two world wars have driven home the lesson of self-sufficiency, though even now one third of Norway’s foodstuff must be imported. {87} Self-sufficiency is impossible under the conditions imposed by the country’s environment, which limits the amount of arable land to a mere 3 per cent of the total. {88} But through the efforts of the Society and of other agricultural organizations working in conjunction with governmental agencies, the land under cultivation has been increased by one fifth in the last fifty years. {89}


<1> Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825—1860, 19 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1931).

<2> Quoted in Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825—1860, 82.

<3> Wilhelm Keilhau, Det norske folks liv og historie, 11:13 (I vår egen tid, Oslo, 1938).

<4> T. K. Derry, A Short History of Norway, 197 (London, 1957).

<5> Keilhau, Det norske folks liv og historie, 10:479 (Tidsrummet fra omkring 1875 til omkring 1920, Oslo, 1935).

<6> Keilhau, Tidsrummet fra omkring 1875 til omkring 1920, 481.

<7> Keilhau, I vår egen tid, 31.

<8> Keilhau, Tidsrummet fra omkring 1875 til omkring 1920, 485.

<9> Derry, A Short History of Norway, 209.

<10> Keilhau, Tidsrummet fra omkring 1875 til omkring 1920, 480.

<11> Derry, A Short History of Norway, 206. .

<12> S. C. Hammer, ed., The Norway Yearbook 1924, 324—325 (Kristiania, 1923).

<13> Keilhau, I vår egen tid, 39.

<14> Keilhau, I vår egen tid, 74—75.

<15> Keilhau, Tidsrummet fra omkring 1875 til omkring 1920,351.

<16> Johan Mellbye, "Utvandringen," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 1 (Christiania, 1909), 2.

<17> Arne Kildal, Bør utvandringen fra Norge oppmuntres?, 5 (Oslo, 1926).

<18> Walter Wilcox, ed., International Migrations, 2: 292 (Interpretations, New York, 1931).

<19> Wilcox, Interpretations, 293.

<20> Franklin D. Scott, "Sweden’s Constructive Opposition to Emigration," in Journal of Modern History, 37:314—335 (September, 1965).

<21> Quoted in Mellbye, "Utvandringen," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 1 (1909) , 6.

<22> Quoted in Mellbye, "Utvandringen," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 1 (1909), 5—6.

<23> Mellbye, "Ny jord i 25 aar," in Ny Jord 1908—1933: 25 oars beretning, 2 (Oslo, 1934).

<24> Seiskapet til Emigrationens Indskrænkning, "Beretning," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 6 (1910), 3.

<25> "Beretning," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 6 (1910) , 4.

<26> "Beretning," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 6. (1910), 4.

<27> "Beretning," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 6 (1910), 4.

<28> "Beretning," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 6 (1910), 5—6.

<29> "Beretning," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 6 (1910), 6.

<30> Keilhau, I vår egen tid, 75.

<31> O. K. Skuggevik, "Mellbye, Johan Egeberg," in Norsk biografisk lexicon, 9:150 (Oslo, 1950).

<32> Lorenz Vogt, "Bjercke, Alf," in Norsk biografisk lexicon, 1: 274—275 (Kristiania, 1923).

<33> Olav Klokk, "Sendstad, Olav," in Norsk biografisk lexicon, 13: 242—245 (Oslo, 1958).

<34> "Beretning," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 6 (1910), 7.

<35> "Beretning 1914," in Mot Emigrationen (1915), 13.

<36> Mellbye, "Utvandringen," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 1 (1909), 10.

<37> The section on North Gudbrandsdal is taken from Jon Sæland, "Nordre Gudbrandsdal," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 5 (1910), 3.

<38> "Keilhau, I vår egen tid, 59.

<39> Sæland, "Nordre Gudbrandsdal," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 5 (1910), 89.

<40> Sæland, "Nordre Gudbrandsdal," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 5 (1910), 54.

<41> The section on Maalselven is taken from Einar J. Haave, "Maalselven og Bardu," in Mot Emigratianen, no. 14 (1912), 3.

<42> Heave, "Maalselven og Bardu," 16.

<43> Haave, "Maalselven og Bardu," 32.

<44> Haave. "Maalselven og Bardu," 32.

<45> Haave, "Maalselven og Bardu," 33—84.

<46> Haave, "Maalselven og Bardu," 35.

<47> Kildal, Bør utvandringen oppmuntres?, 10.

<48> Sæland, "Nordre Gudbrandsdal," 53. Abandonment of land was not common in Maalselven, because settlement in that region had been recent, and its total population had not declined.

<49> John Sundby, "Emigrationsstudier under en Amerikareise," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 2 (1909), 33.

<50> Sundby, "Emigrationsstudier," 39.

<51> Peter Myrvold, "Utvandringsproblemet," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 4 (1909), 71.

<52> Myrvold, "Utvandring samt løns-og livsvilkaar for emigranter," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 7 (1911), 15.

<53> Myrvold, "Utvandringsproblemet," 75.

<54> Myrvold, "Utvandring samt løns-og livsvilkaar," 15.

<55> Myrvold, "Utvandringsproblemet," 27.

<56> Myrvold, "Utvandringsproblemet," 28.

<57> Sundby, "Emigrationsstudier," 56.

<58> Quoted in Mellbye, "Utvandringen," in Mot Emigrationen, no. I (1909), 18.

<59> Selskapet til Emigrationens Indskrænkning, Beretning om emigrationsselskapets virksomhet i aaret 1912, 8—10 (Kristiania, 1913).

<60> Ny Jord, no. 1 (March, 1916), 27.

<61> Selskapet til Emigrationens Indskrænkning, Beretning . . . 1914, 4—6 (1915). The krone (crown) was worth about 20 cents.

<62> Selskapet til Emigrationens Indskrænkning, Beretning . . . 1914, 7.

<63> Ny Jord, no. 5 (1928), 168.

<64> Mellbye, "Utvandringen," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 1 (1909), 2.

<65> Selskapet til Emigrationens Indskrænkning, "Ledig jord," in Mot Emigrationen, no. 12 (1913), 5.

<66> Selskapet til Emigrationens Indskrmnkning, "Ledig jord," 7.

<67> Ny Jord, no. 2 (1924), 31—32.

<68> Ny Jord, no. 2 (1924), 38.

<69> Magnus Jensen, Norges historie, 4: 44—45 (Fra 1905 til vare dager, Oslo, 1965).

<70> Ny Jord, no. 2 (1924), 24.

<71> Ny Jord, no. 5 (1928), 160—168.

<72> Ny Jord, no. 10 (1922), 243.

<73> Jensen, Fra 1905 til våre dager, 40.

<74> Jensen, Fra 1905 til våre dager, 36—39.

<75> Jensen, Fra 1905 til våre dager, 44—45.

<76> Jensen, Fra 1905 til våre dager, 47.

<77> Wilcox, ed., International Migrations, 2:296 (Interpretations).

<78> Donald Taft and Richard Robbins, International Migrations, 875 (New York, 1955).

<79> Taft and Robbins, International Migrations, 376.

<80> Ny Jord, no. 9 (1921), 199.

<81> Ny Jord, no. 4 (1924), 32.

<82> Arne Kildal, ed, The Norway Year Book 1931, 362 (Oslo).

<83> Dan Golenpaul, ed., Information Please Almanac: Atlas and Yearbook, 1969, 615.

<84> Ny Jord, no. 4 (1927), 125.

<85> Keilhau, I vår egen tid, 28.

<86> Scott, "Sweden’s Constructive Opposition to Emigration," in Journal of Modern History, 37:816.

<87> Roy Millward, Scandinavian Lands, 249 (London, 1964).

<88> Sverre Mortensen, ed., The Norway Year Book 1962, 305 (Oslo, 1962).

<89> Millward, Scandinavian Lands, 251.

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