January 15, 2014

When I was a girl, my mother and Mormor would take me on day trips downtown to see the sights, shop, have lunch and be part of the hustle and bustle that is our Sweet Home Chicago.  As a child, getting dressed in my Sunday best, taking an ‘L’ ride, seeing the beautiful architecture of the enormous buildings first-hand and the hurried city life invigorated and excited me to no end.  I can tell you that as an adult I am still invigorated and excited by this city. Little did I know just how much my ancestry has influenced and contributed to The Second City’s history.

Chicago loop Chicago Loop2

There is no doubt that Chicago has its fair share of Danish and Scandinavian influences if you know where to look, and most people don’t even realize it.  Whether you’re sightseeing or just traveling to work, walking along our famous streets or driving down our famous avenues and boulevards, a history lesson unlike any other is right at your toes – literally!

I found an old newspaper clipping in the chest about a statue in Lincoln Park.  The article is dated September of 1896, and I found it very intriguing because Emma wrote a diary entry about this particular day and its festivities, which I will go into further detail about later.  Reading this article inspired me to know more about how Danes influenced the transformation of Chicago and impacted its rich history.  What I uncovered was a wealth of knowledge, sensational stories and sometimes shocking secrets that could put a historical fiction novel to shame!  I could go one and on about Danish contributions to art and culture here in Chicago, but I will leave a bit of intrigue here and you can follow the links to learn more!  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Jens Jensen arrived from Denmark in 1886 and quickly went to work on what was then vast prairie land west of Chicago, which eventually became Union and Humboldt Parks. With his “prairie style” design work, Jensen eventually became a celebrated landscape designer. His influences are still viewed daily within the beautiful parks listed above, as well as Chicago’s Columbus and Douglas Parks.
  • Frederick Law Olmsted was influential in the construction of The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 on former wetlands (presently Jackson Park in the Hyde Park neighborhood).  Under the direction of Daniel H. Burnham (Director of Works for The Exposition) Olmsted’s vision for The White City of The World’s Fair influenced what Chicago’s famous skyline and lakefront has become today.

World's Fair

  • There were many Danish Women painters who contributed pieces to be used at The World’s Fair of 1893 (along with many other women artists).  This particular Exposition depicted the shifting role of women in society by their prominence in contributions to The World’s Fair.
  •  Max Henius (1859-1935) was a Danish-American biochemist and co-founded the American Academy of Brewing in 1891, an organization that is still around today.  He made Chicago an international center of the brewing industry long before craft beer was popular!
  • Danes established the Dania social club and held balls, sponsored a library, organized an English night school, mutual aid fund, and even a missing persons bureau. A Danish veterans’ society was founded in 1876, the Danish Brotherhood in 1883, and various choral groups from 1886.
  • Chicago had a daily Danish-Norwegian newspaper, The Skandinaven, for over 50 year (1866-1941), and five to seven weeklies for several decades, as well as, a humorous Danish newspaper called Revyen (1895-1921), which I talked about in a previous post.  The Danish Pioneer (Den Danske Pioneer), located in the Chicagoland area, is the oldest Danish-American newspaper in the United States (1872 – present day) and continues to chronicle Danish-American news and events by its dedicated staff. Read here about how Mr. Steffensen was knighted in connection with the newspaper’s 125th anniversary in 1997!

The arts are an important part of any culture, and it’s obvious to see that the influence here in Chicago is rich and vast, and I’ve only just scratched the surface!  Without contributions from our Danish friends Chicago may very well be a very different place.

Speaking of the arts, I mentioned the contributions of sculptor Johannes Gelert previously, and the newspaper clipping I found in the chest. It is in regards to Mr. Gelert completing his sculpture of HC Andersen and the dedication ceremony that took place at Lincoln Park, which Emma and James attended in 1896.  She wrote in her diary that she was ‘so proud to stand amongst the crowd and be a part of her countryman’s stunning contribution’ and that it was ‘as if she had a part of her homeland right there with her in her new home.’

The article reads:


The Skandinaven, Sept. 27, 1896 – The Hans Christian Andersen Statue

The monument to Hans Christian Andersen has at last been completed. The statue was the work of the well-known Danish-American sculptor, Johann Gelert.

About fifteen thousand people were present [at the dedication ceremonies in Lincoln Park]; many stirring speeches were made. The committee consisting of Henry L. Hertz, M. Solomonsen, and the Danish Consul, Nielsen, has now completed its job. The crowd gave the committee members quite an ovation. Mr. Petersen, the Consul General, made the opening speech, which ran as follows:

“It is more than a thousand years ago that courageous Danes first found their way to the shores of America. For more than fifty years, the influx of Danes to this center of true Americanism has been great and unabated, and we have here found a new home worthy of our love and admiration.

“For a long time, it has been the custom of foreign-born citizens to present their adopted country with statues of the great men of their native countries, and this park already contains many of them. Following that example, we American citizens of Danish descent have erected this statue of one of our great Danish poets, whose name is well known all over the world and particularly in this country, where literature and poetry are so highly appreciated. And here, amid the handsome surroundings of this beautiful park, one of our best Danish sculptors has erected a likeness of the great Hans Christian Andersen.

“Let this creation in bronze stand here as a symbol of our gratitude and affection toward the land of liberty, the United States.”

At this moment, the Danish flags that covered the statue were removed, while the crowd cheered for over twenty minutes. When Mr. Petersen could make himself heard, he closed with the following words; “On behalf of all Danes in American and as president of the Hans Christian Andersen Monument Association, I hereby tender this statue to the Board of Commissioners of Lincoln Park. To coming generations it shall speak of our love for America and Chicago and of our sincere desire to be, and to teach them [our children] to be, worthy citizens of our adopted country.”

A duckling sits next to HC Andersen in a nod to his story of the Ugly Duckling

A duckling sits next to HC Andersen in a nod to his story of the Ugly Duckling

 I think it is just amazing that we can go to one of Chicago’s most beautiful parks today and see not only this wonderful sculpture from such a beloved and influential world-renowned Danish author and poet, but know that a Danish artist created it!

As I’ve said, Chicago is an amazing city with an even more fascinating history.  The 12 Founding Women of The Danish Home of Chicago and their contributions to this history and the well being of its citizens also deserves to be on this influential list.  Their legacy lives on today and continues to play a role in our city’s incredible story.

If you are feeling anxious to break out of these winter doldrums and find inspiration in the arts right here at your front door, you’re invited to check out Music and Masquerades: Festival of Danish Arts & Culture in Stories & Song going on now across the Chicagoland area.  You will surely be spirited by all of the wonderful programs celebrating Danish culture there.

I hope this post inspires you to take a trip to Chicago for your very own Danish-American cultural scavenger hunt!