|Sillgatan: The Emigrant Path through Göteborg
The "street life" of history is often the most fascinating
and revealing. In this article, historian Ulf Beijbom examines
the beginning of the mass emigration that flowed through Göteborg,
from the development of the Wilson Line to Sillgatan, the street that
led emigrants to "America Pier" and off to America.
The Wilson Line and the beginning of Göteborg as an emigration
Ever since Gustav II Adolf founded Göteborg in 1621, the Dutch-like
city has served as the country's gateway to the west, especially to America.
It was from the shore beneath Stigberget that the two ships Calmare Nyckel
and Fogel Grip sailed off in the fall of 1637 to New Sweden; during those
seventeen years of colonial activity on the Delaware River, the fragile
umbilical cord stretched back to Göteborg. The blockades of the continent
during the Napoleonic Wars bolstered foreign trade across the North Sea
and trade with the republic in the west began. Fortunately for the iron
works in Värmland and elsewhere in Sweden, the full use of the United
States' own fantastic natural resources had only just begun, which gave
Swedish ingot iron, already famed for its quality, a good start. Due to
the weight of iron, the sailing ships could not be fully loaded, which
left room for lighter export goods such as wood planking, tar, general
goods - and emigrants.
The development of Göteborg as an emigrant center actually began
in 1840 when ship owner Thomas Wilson of Hull, England, began sailing
the North Sea with steamships. There was great profit awaiting those who,
in addition to passengers, could ship Swedish cattle and oats to a British
market that craved such goods. At the same time, Wilson attempted to capitalize
on the mail traffic to and from Göteborg, and to the city of Christiania
(Oslo), Norway. Once his son John West Wilson had established himself
in Göteborg, business quickly grew and, in 1850, the Wilson Line
gained a permanent contract for mail forwarding with both Swedish and
Norwegian authorities who, in turn, guaranteed him certain free harbor
At this time, most of the emigrant traffic from northern Europe was funneled
through Liverpool, Hamburg, Bremen, and several other ports, to which
passengers would be carried indirectly from smaller port cities. John
West Wilson realized that his line could become the freight link between
Sweden and Liverpool and, thus, he began increasing passenger traffic
by selling tickets that included train travel from Hull to Liverpool and
then by ship across the Atlantic. To accomplish this, he signed agreements
with approximately one dozen British passenger lines in Liverpool. Wilson's
"green ships," which once a week dominated the view of the Göta
River in Göteborg, thereby became known as "America boats."
Two steamships were started in partnered traffic so that boats sailed
from Göteborg and Hull at the same time. In England, the ships were
dubbed "Wilson's parrots" because their names all ended in "o,"
as in Rollo, Hero, Airosto, and Romeo. Ships as large as Wilson's parrots
were forced to anchor out from the "America Pier," from which
emigrants and freight were ferried by barge or launch. It was not until
the 1880s that the Göta River was dredged to accommodate larger ships.
As early as 1852, a group of 250 Swedes sailed on Wilson's mail boats,
which from 1866 on, according to John West Wilson's own self-serving calculations,
dominated emigrant traffic from Göteborg. From 1872 to 1880, nearly
all Swedish emigrants traveled to Hull, and it is estimated that approximately
eighty percent of all Swedish emigrants who came through Göteborg
during the decade of the 1880s embarked on the "green ships."
According to advertisements in the 1870s, the Wilson Line ships departed
"every Friday evening following the arrival of the express train
from Stockholm." During the 1880s, the departures were changed to
1:00 p.m. The usual duration of the trip was two days, so passengers arrived
at Hull on Sunday afternoon. During the intensive emigration of the 1880s,
when some 325.000 emigrants departed, extra trips were required to handle
the large number of passengers; some weeks during the spring saw as many
as four large ships sailing from the Custom House pier. In May, 1881,
nearly 9.000 emigrants sailed on fourteen boats from Göteborg, 2.650
of those on May 6 and 7. On April 14 of the following year, Rollo steamed
out with 1.000 passengers, Orlando with 853, and a competitor, Marsden,
with 934 on board - 2.783 emigrants in one day!
Such figures bear witness to the mass exodus that passed down Sillgatan
during the heavy emigration months of springtime. Not surprisingly, Wilson's
little fleet had to be continually expanded! Consequently, in April, 1881,
the newly-built Romeo went into service with room for 1.000 third-class
passengers who were offered "previously unknown" comforts. Romeo
was apparently twice the size of Hero, which in 1866 could carry 550 passengers
and was fitted with movable cattle stalls on the underdeck. The huge export
of cattle plagued the emigrants for years with the foul smell, which old
Swedish-Americans used to associate with the North Sea boats.
Conditions at sea
Despite the expansion of his fleet with larger ships, Wilson's "old
tubs" retained the reputation of rolling heavily in the gales the
North Sea. In fact, for many emigrants, the forty hours between Göteborg
and Hull were much more laborious than the Liverpool to New York trip
which took five times longer. There are many less-than-flattering accounts
of conditions on board. In his journal notes from 1888, for example, first-class
passenger P.G.H. Starck gives a picture that is unpleasant, to say the
least. As he looked down onto the emigrant deck, Starck thought that the
people were treated "no worse than, but the same as, cattle. In the
forward hold, bunks were mounted along the sides of the ship, and on these
the poor people had their sleeping places, one right beside another, men,
women and children pellmell upon one another, and when seasickness came,
there was a stink and a filth which is indescribable. And near the hatch
which led up to the top deck which should be supplying them with fresh
air there were cattle tethered in stalls."
There was apparently less reason to complain about the food. Barley soup
with meat and potatoes was considered by passengers of the 1890s as generous
and good-tasting fare, even if the actual serving of meals was more akin
to the feeding of a herd of animals; however, prior to 1869, dining rooms
did not exist on board ship, and passengers were responsible for providing
their own food.
Criticism of the Wilson Line's ships intensified after the turn of the
century, and it appeared that this epoch of passenger traffic was coming
to an end. In fall, 1914, emigration was cut off by World War I and, the
following year, the Swedish America Line came into being.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Nordstaden (North Side)
section of Göteborg was characterized by the ever-increasing emigrant
flow, especially Sillgatan (Herring Street) which ran between Central
Station, the terminus of the western mainline of the railroad, completed
in 1862, and Custom House Square with its "America Pier." This
was also a good central location for those arriving by boat on the inner
city canals. This street, with its flavor of Göteborg's earliest
years, was first called Heringgatan, a name given by the town's many Dutch
and Germans with allusions to the active herring fishing of the time.
For those who wished to do business with emigrants, and especially the
emigrant agents, it was absolutely necessary to have an office on or near
The emigrant agents of Sillgatan
Among the first emigrant agents was Carl Swalander who, in 1852, began
advertising in the newspapers, and the following ear published one of
the first emigrant guidebooks. In 1864, Frederick Nelson, a Swedish-American
born in Värmland, began working as the representative of the American
Emigrant Company. Because Nelson had at his disposal a large network of
agents in the United States, he could offer the emigrants something that
few competitors were capable of, namely assistance after their arrival
in America. By 1868, Nelson was working for the Inman Line, and he claimed
that he handled seventy-five percent of the entire Swedish emigration
during that year.
Charles A. Berglund, another Swedish-American on Sillgatan, represented
the Industrial Aid Society, an agency which specialized in recruiting
servants to Boston. In his advertisements Berglund offered "especially
advantageous positions for women with good pay." One ad campaign
in the Göteborg Business & Maritime News resulted in 102 emigrants,
sixty-one of them women, sailing May 19, 1971, to Boston. During one year,
Berglund crossed the Atlantic eighteen times, leading his recruits to
Regulating the emigration network
At the time that new, stricter emigration regulations were implemented
in 1869, there were ten general agents in Göteborg, and that number
grew to thirteen by 1880. Seventeen of the largest transoceanic emigrant
companies were represented on or near Sillgatan. Inman, Cunard, White
Star Line, American, Dominion, and Guion backed these general agents who
paid deposits of 60.000 crowns to the Board of Commerce for a one-year
permit as "emigrant forwarders" in Göteborg. The general
agents had a large number of strategically placed local agents at their
disposal who, in turn, often had their own sub-agents, resulting in up
to 2.000 agents spread out in a finely meshed information network across
most of the country. In Småland it was said that those who wished
to emigrate need not walk more than twenty minutes to find an agent. With
a small cash down-payment an individual could arrange, in his or her hometown,
to emigrate via Göteborg.
The local agents, who often were well-respected men in their communities,
had all the brochures and timetables that the general agents produced
and distributed. They were also often backed by extensive advertising
in the newspapers. Agents' operations were constantly watched by both
the authorities and competitors; the slightest misstep could be reported,
thereby costing the general agent thousands of crowns in fines. In 1883,
authorities forbade the use of any emigrant propaganda produced outside
of Sweden, a further incentive for agents to abide by the lows. Such alert
oversight led to a continual selfpolicing of the emigrant business which
meant that emigrants could, as a rule, trust the agents.
The emigrant regulations of 1869 appeared to leave few duties to the general
agents in Göteborg other than to fill out, in duplicate, the exit
contracts and emigrant registers and, at the stipulated time, submit them
to the police who would check off names as the emigrants boarded ship.
In reality, however, the general agent and his assistants had a long list
of other, usually high-revenue producing, activities. For example, to
engender trust the agent would see to it that emigrants were met at the
train by a uniformed representative of the line. Once the groups were
gathered together, they were marched in single file to various emigrant
lodgings. Fr those particularly in danger of getting lost, the agents
would get a long rope and tell the innocents to hold on as long as the
rope moved. Due to rumors that the ticket price would be lower if one
dealt with the general agent in person, many emigrants arrived to Göteborg
without their prepayment receipt. Often there would be a tug-of-war in
front of the Central Station for these "unpropertied" emigrants,
and it was not uncommon for agents to get into fisticuffs over them. Occasionally
a representative would resolutely take an emigrant by the collar and drag
him or her away to "the right" flock!
The emigrants were advised by letter to arrive in good time, and at the
latest by Wednesday. Because the travelers to America were to pay for
their own lodgings in Göteborg there was always a great risk that
they would be cheated by some sharp rooming-house proprieter. A great
part of Nordstaden's apartment owners earned good money from this continual
need for accommodations, and they were not always too careful how many
were housed in one room. According to emigrant Selma Helena Petterson
the name "Sillgatan" alluded to the fact that emigrants had
to sleep fpacked in like herring. An article in the Göteborg Business
& Marine News of April 22, 1868, stated that "in the eight rooms
in the house at Sillgatan 44, most of which were very small, were quartered
103 persons." Such was the background for the police regulations
of 1869 concerning how many persons could be accommodated per room. Notice
as to room limits had to be posted, and those who broke the rules could
be fined five riksdaler.
Naturally, the general agents wanted as much of the revenue from lodging
rentals as possible, and when this could be wrapped in the mantel of concern
for the emigrants, several of the went together to provide accommodations,
the status of which was raised by calling it a "hotel." According
to David Lyon, emigrants who boarded with him were "protected"
from persons reaming about, who otherwise might take advantage of them
by offering them inferior goods" Accommodations cost twenty-five
öre, "including bed with sheets and blankets, coffee and rusks
in the morning." Agents also concerned themselves with the emigrants'
leisure time. At one emigrant hotel, for example, an "American language
school" was arranged, and one could also study models of the ships
that awaited in Liverpool to cross the Atlantic with Swedes on board.
Until 1885, it was important for emigrants to buy a straw mattress so
that aboard ship they did not have to sleep directly on the boards of
their bunk. The story goes that there were large striped mattresses hanging
outside the shops on Sillgatan, and that every other shop on the street
stuffed mattresses with straw and seaweed. Even though the Wilson Line
provided emigrant passengers with food after 1869, they were advised to
bring with them "the requisite tin cup, knife, fork and spoon."
Eating utensils, mattresses and pillows meant steady incomes for Sillgatan's
merchants. During the famine years, these travel prerequisites cost nine
to ten riksdaler.
In the notices from agents, travelers were advised to obtain "strong,
good locks and metal-banded trunks." The emigrant trunk could not
be made too large; it was better to have two smaller, easily handled trunks.
Over and above the large baggage, which after clearing inspection at the
"America pier" was not seen again until arrival in New York,
the emigrant took along hand baggage with the necessities for the journey.
Though after 1869 it was not necessary for passengers to pack food. Lunch
boxes were so common that agents felt compelled to point out that bringing
food did not entitle a passenger to a rebate on the ticket price.
One of the best sources of income for the agents was money exchange. For
example, they sold exchange checks to the many who wished to avoid the
risk of carrying around cash. Another way to protect oneself from thieves
was to buy the "amerikanska penningbälten" (the American
Money Belt), which was sold by agents. The advertising for one such belt
read that "because this belt also serves as a girdle for the midriff,
and so warms the stomach, the use of this belt counteracts seasickness
Once emigrants had settled into their temporary accommodations and finished
their business at the agent's office, there was an urgency to go out into
town which for most of them meant Sillgatan and nearby streets. The shops
sold all sorts of goods which were deemed necessary for the trip and for
the first few weeks in America. It meant also that the merchants could
satisfy those who wanted to "take off the farmers' clothes"
and buy clothing suitable for the city. Women took off their headscarves
and bought straw hats and tried on corsets for the first time. Besides
stylish American suits and shoes suitable for the Atlantic crossing, the
men bought tools and other useful articles which, according to the salespeople,
were extremely expensive in America. Emigrant guidebooks and other books
about the great land in the west also beckoned in the shop windows.