In Lady in Denmark, we meet Helene, an immigrant who arrived in America in the 1960s, years after the largest influx of Danes assimilated. Although she maintains a strong cultural identity as a Danish woman, Helene, like many immigrants before and after her, now calls Chicago home.
As America’s melting pot coalesced in the 19th and 20th centuries, Danish immigrants comprised a small portion of the millions of new citizens. Between 1840 and 1914, around 300,000 Danes arrived in America (by comparison, more than four million Italians and four million Irish immigrated during this period). The first major wave of Danes left to escape Prussian rule after part of Denmark was defeated in 1864. A decade later, Danish agriculture suffered when cheap grain was imported to Europe from Russia and the Midwestern United States, causing farmers and laborers to journey to the American heartland. Most Danes settled in the Midwest or Great Plains, eventually creating heavily Danish communities in Racine, Wisconsin; Omaha, Nebraska; and Elk Horn, Iowa, among other places.
In Chicago, the Danish community first centered around LaSalle and Randolph Streets—but by the 1880s, 4,000 of the city’s 6,000 Danes lived on or near Milwaukee Avenue. There, they established cultural centers, athletic groups, a veteran’s society, choruses and a daily Danish-Norwegian newspaper, Skandinaven, which was published until 1941. In the early 20th century, some settled in Humboldt Park and along North Avenue, but by the 1920s, many scattered further north and to the suburbs. Because the written form of the Danish language was legible to both Norwegians and Swedes, people from all three countries could easily live together, and some Danes found a home in Andersonville, where many of the city’s Swedish Americans lived since the late 19th century.
Compared with other immigrant groups, the Danish tended to assimilate quickly: their small number made maintaining culture and language more challenging, and because many young men immigrated alone, they often married non-Danish women, thus diluting the next generation’s attachment to the old country. By the mid-20th century, Danish immigration slowed to a trickle. Danish culture, however, now gets a moment in the spotlight thanks to Lady in Denmark.