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How emigration to the United States affected Sweden’s population growth

Published: 2013-09-02

From 1851 to 1910 roughly one million people emigrated from Sweden to America. Of those who were born during the latter part of the 19th century, about 20 percent of the men and 15 percent of the women emigrated from the country.

This affected the labour market and population growth in Sweden.

Before 1851 emigration had not yet reached noteworthy levels. This was observed by Tabell­kommissionen (The Statistical Commission) in its report Contri­bution to the official statistics of Sweden (BiSOS A). It was also in 1851 that Tabell­verket, a pre­decessor of Statistics Sweden, began collecting data on the number of emigrants, based on passport records.

According to the same source, a total of 11 148 persons emigrated to America from 1851 to 1855, but that was only the beginning. Emigration culminated in the 1880s, with 1887 as the peak year. A total of 50 786 persons were then reported to have left Sweden, of whom 46 252 were Swedes who settled in the United States. Up until 1910, a total of 1 170 456 persons left Sweden; statistics reveal that the majority, or 948 823, went to the United States. (Source: Historisk statistik för Sverige, Del 1.) Emigration to the US continued to surge up until the 1920s, and then fell to a lower level.

Population statistics during the period 1850‑1884 were not always entirely reliable and the figures were revised at the end of the 19th century. Later sources assess that emigration was even greater than the figures that were first reported.

Today the percentage of the population that emigrates is at a completely different level and more spread out than during the mid 19th century. In 2012, a total of 51 747 people emigrated from Sweden, which is only about 0.5 percent of the population. Swedes mainly emigrated to Norway (7 379 persons), Denmark (4 471 persons) and the UK (3 280 persons). At the same time, 3 111 persons were headed for the US.

Five-year reports describe the situation of the country

Emigration was due to several reasons. One was the sharp population growth. Between 1825 and 1900 the number of children born every year had more than doubled. The difficult living conditions in cities and in the country­side were also an important reason why people chose to leave Sweden. The 1850s editions of Contri­butions to Sweden's official statistics, (BiSOS) begins with a five-year report from Tabell­kommissionen that describes the situation in the country in a vibrant style concerning the weather, the harvests and epidemics.

The introduction for 1851-55 begins: "As regards climate, 1851 was marked by a cold and rainy summer with a high water level. The annual harvest in the country was estimated to be small rather than average, and was also marked in many places by damage from ergot fungi and other parasites, a lack of growth and bad weather."

Most of Sweden's population lived in the countryside at this time. The population in Sweden was 3 482 541 persons in 1850, of whom 3 131 015, or close to 90 percent, lived in the countryside. The city of Stock­holm had a population of 93 070 persons, or about 2.5 percent of Sweden's population.

At the same time a number of epidemics raged such as cholera, dysentery, small pox and typhus. Cholera was the worst epidemic and took the lives of 26 413 persons. Stock­holm was hard hit and lost 7 745 inhabitants. Dysentery was the cause of 7 542 deaths, while 6 347 persons succumbed to small pox from 1847 to 1855.

Nearly one million emigrants were bound for USA

Besides the USA emigrants also left for Den­mark, Russia/Fin­land, Norway and a small number to Germany and Australia during the first half of the 1850s. The largest groups of employment among emigrants were farmers, labourers, diverse unspecified workers and factory workers.

According to the statistics broken down by counties, Malmö County had the most emigrants between 1851 and 1910. A total of 100 616 persons, or about half the inhabitants left for America. Värmland County had the second highest number of emigrants, or 97 234 persons, and Älvs­borg County came third with 91 712 emigrants. The least number of emigrants came from Uppsala County during this period, 6 472 persons.

Comparative figures on emigration 1851-1910

County Total Of whom
to USA
Malmöhus County 100 616 55 061
Värmland County 97 234 77 574
Älvsborg County 91 712 73 544
Kalmar County 75 405 69 291
Stockholms City and County 74 940 52 048
Jönköping County 70 897 67 945
Kristianstad County 70 755 53 088
Östergötland County 69 701 66 176
Gothenburgh & Bohus County 66 968 38 855
Kronoberg County 61 411 49 479
Skaraborg County 57 254 54 802
Halland County 53 903 46 298
Blekinge County 39 189 26 905
Gävleborg County 38 673 36 058
Örebro County 38 648 36 666
Kopparberg County 38 401 36 852
Västernorrland County 31 962 28 133
Jämtland County 20 371 17 612
Norrbotten County 17 259 12 879
Västmanland County 12 867 11 661
Södermanland County 12 388 11 047
Gotland County 12 092 11 349
Västerbotten County 11 338 9 888
Uppsala County 6 472 5 612
Total 1 170 456 948 823
Of whom from the countryside 928 197  

Population growth halted

Roughly 20 percent of the men and 15 percent of the women who were born during the latter part of the 19th century moved away from Sweden. Emigration made a considerable impact on the labour market since most of the emigrants were of working age. The government tried to prohibit emigration by forbidding men to leave the country before they had done their military service. In addition the population growth came to a halt. The effects on the population were described as follows (BiSOS A for 1851‑1855):

The population growth during the five-year period 1851 and 1855 amounted to 156 791, or an average of 31 358 for each year, but according to the surplus of births over deaths during the same period, it should have amounted to 180 733 or an average of 36 146 per year. The difference of 23 943 is explained partly because 12 744 Swedish subjects had left the country..."

The United States had undergone a sharp population growth during the 19th century. In 1790 the country had close to 4 million inhabitants, a figure that increased to over 23 million in 1850. This trend continued when immigration from Europe accelerated, and in 1910 the population of the US was 92 million. In 2012 roughly 315 million people lived in the US.

Only a few came to Sweden

The number of persons who applied for Swedish citizenship during the first half of the 1850s was on the other hand not so high. Most of them came from Germany (119 persons). Some 53 persons came from Russia and Fin­land, followed by 46 persons from Den­mark. All in all, 242 persons immigrated to Sweden between 1851 and 1855. Swedes who re-immigrated to Sweden are not included in the statistics during this period, since they had already been counted in the emigration statistics.

Between 1871 and 1910 Sweden had a total of 240 413 immigrants. Of these persons, 116 107 were from America. And these persons were practically all born in Sweden and had re‑immigrated.

The comparison with today's situation is interesting. In 2012 immigration reached a new peak when 103 059 persons moved to Sweden. About 20 percent were Swedes who had returned after a period abroad. Other groups who are prominent in the immigration statistics are persons who are citizens of Syria, Afghani­stan, Somalia and Poland.

Improved communications and good times

But even though emigration from Sweden accelerated during the 1850s due to among other things poor conditions in the country­side, there were also a number of positive occurrences that contributed to the development of the country. The growth of improved communications is one such example. The first rail­road came into use in 1856, and since the 1840s steam­boat traffic had been accelerating.

Natural resources could now be tapped in a new way and entre­preneur­ship was given a push. Living conditions improved for those who had work. In 1857 Tabellkommission wrote: "Most of those in the country who have businesses and are of the working classes have experienced a rapid improvement in living conditions, which has probably never occurred before at the same scale".


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