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 center
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 rights.
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.

Sillgatan
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 Sillgatan.

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 America.

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!

Sillgatan's accommodations
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 and colds."
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.

Socializing on Sillgatan
Out on their own, the men were often drown to one of the many saloons and beer cafes, where the careless might find their travel funds decimated. Musicians, barkers, and folk singers kept the crowd in a generous mood. One could have a fortune told by a gypsy or buy candy for the children from a farmer woman at the open-air market. Here and there one could see a magician or an acrobat. Amid all the din were strains of revival songs. Often there were people who went by twos among the crowd inviting all to come to the emigrant mission at Sillgatan 47.
On Sillgatan one could hear dialects from all corners of Sweden, here and there floated American English, and the men in top hats moleskin vests, and beige spats were surely Swedish-Americans! Adults and children, men and women, crowded wide-eyed on this street which gave the appearance of Sodom and Gomorrah according to one account: "What a party! What a gay mood! What merriment there was on the street at the beginning of the century! When the boats arrived or departed the whole street was decorated with flags and banners.

When the shops in the center of town closed at seven o'clock, 'society' was drown here! Everything was open here, accordion music in the cafes, girls from all over Europe's underworld, con men, watch peddlers, emigrants and railway laborers filled the streets and shops."
Entirely different thoughts filled the head of Axel Danielsson, propogandist for the Social Democrats, one November night in 1890 when he went to Sillgatan 2 to speak at the Alliance of Workers: "Here goes the mainstream of the emigrating Swedish population. Here they dream for the last time on Swedish soil about that golden America. Here they sleep for the last night on worn-out sheets of the fatherland and hear for the last time their beloved mother tongue spoken by snotty waitresses."
Without a doubt, this little street of some two-thirds of a mile that ran between shabby buildings with glittering shop windows and colorful signs and banners was Sweden's most remarkable city milieu. Not even in the wee small hours was it calm, and it become a carnival atmosphere whenever one of the Wilson Line steamers arrived or departed from the "America Pier". An old shop clerk put it this way: "When the signal came that an America boat had landed, our work hours in the shop were extended from midnight to the whole night long. Sometimes we were awakened at three or four in the morning and we worked like slaves." All of Göteborg knew that on Sillgatan an emigrant could be robbed, meet prostitutes, gamble away travel money, or drink to a stupor; yet most of the emigrants slept safely and securely at the emigrant hotels, and the vast majority were careful and mindful of the dangers. For most, Sillgatan was the test which determined if he or she would continue on to America. Petter Jönsson, the main character in Swedish-American poet Magnus Elmblad's popular song, had real-life counterparts who turned back no further into their journey than Göteborg! The little street's bad reputation became, in the long run, a liability for the merchants and property owners who wanted to develop the area. This feeling was behind the decision in 1895 to rename the street Postgatan (Mail Street), a name change which many regret now that there are efforts to bring Göteborg's emigrant history to life, perhaps establishing an emigrant museum in the Customs House next to the old "America Pier."