In an effort to understand the reasons that impelled my great grandfather Jens and roughly 400,000 other Danes to emigrate to America between 1880 and 1920, I read Danish Life in Town and Country by Jessie Brochner. The book was published in 1903, the same year Jens came to America, and is in the public domain. Unfortunately it is in the nature of a breezy discussion of Denmark in general terms and not really given to hard fact and observation. I did learn that Denmark had compulsory military service in 1903 but the country was not at war and conscription had by then been in place for more than 30 years. Brochner doesn’t raise the subject of emigration. Denmark was and is a small country and I was hoping the book would address the factors that led 10% of the entire Danish population to emigrate, mostly to America.
The Danish government’s tourism website suggests that the primary motivation was simply economic:
The major reason for Danish emigration was the search for a better standard of living. The promise of free or inexpensive land, better wages, and the possibility to create a better life for themselves and their children made Danes leave Denmark to move to the US.
In the early 1880’s, the Danish population increased rapidly, unemployment grew and wages were low. The eldest son inherited the land, and younger children had little hope of owning a farm. Industrialization also made many traditional jobs obsolete. Overall, it was very difficult to earn a living and for young people to earn enough money to start a family.
In the United States, on the other hand, any immigrant could claim 160 acres of unoccupied government land, homestead it, and earn title in five years in accordance with the Homestead Act of 1862. Wages were also higher, making it possible to save up and buy a farm or piece of property or create a business within a foreseeable number of years.
Jens was young, single, and had a skilled trade. Why not relocate to America where the wages were higher and westward expansion ensured that tradesmen would be in increasing demand?
In America in 1903 the Wright Brothers obtained a patent for the airplane, the Ford Motor Company was incorporated, and Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie, furious that an old black ball was put into play in the bottom of the 11th with the Blues at bat, threw the ball over the grandstand and forfeited to Detroit.