University of Minnesota
Digitizing Immigrant Letters

Finnish immigration to the U.S.:

Finnish immigration to the U.S. peaked between the years 1870 and 1924. The flow of immigrants shrank after the U.S. passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which established a discriminatory system of national quotas limiting the number of immigrants from Finland to less than 500 persons a year. By 1930, approximately 350,000 Finns had moved to the country. The states that received the highest numbers of Finnish immigrants were Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, Washington, California, Wisconsin, and Ohio. (The letters transcribed here were written in Minnesota, California, Ohio, and New York.) Most Finnish immigrant men worked as lumbermen or as miners; many bought a farm after earning enough money. August Aalto and Bert Aalto, for example, both worked as lumbermen – August in Houghton Co., California and Bert in Big Falls, Minnesota. Finnish women, on the other hand, were more likely to be found in larger cities such as Boston, New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis, where they most often worked as maids, cooks, or laundresses.

Finnish immigrants and language difficulties (letters by Bert Aalto and August Aalto):

Finnish immigrants who moved to the U.S. during the years of mass immigration (in the late 19th and early 20th century) rarely mastered the English language. As a consequence, their social life was often restricted to the Finnish community and many Finns never learned English well enough to be fluent. It is not difficult to find examples of feelings of isolation in the writings – memoirs, letters, autobiographies – of Finnish immigrants in the U.S. The letters written by August Aalto (Humboldt Co., California) and Bert Aalto (Big Falls, Minnesota) both refer to difficulties of living among toiskieliset – an expression invented by Finnish immigrants in North America to describe “people who speak other languages/non-Finnish speakers.” August Aalto, for example, wrote in 1906: “I'm working alone like a bird, or like a lost sheep in the woods among those non-Finnish speakers.”

Letters of courtship ( letters by Bert Aalto and August Aalto):

A majority (63 percent) of Finnish immigrants moving to the U.S. between 1870 and 1930 were men. Additionally, most of them immigrated alone; family immigration did not become more common until towards the end of the period of mass immigration to the U.S. Thus, there were lots of single men in Finnish communities in the U.S. For many reasons, including the language barrier and cultural preferences, most Finnish men preferred to marry a Finnish woman. However, it was often difficult to find Finnish girls to court in male-dominated lumber camps and mining communities. Therefore, some men published advertisements in Finnish (and also Finnish-American) newspapers with the purpose of finding a Finnish wife. Many also attempted to court a girl from their home village through letter exchange – like Bert Aalto and August Aalto did in their letters. Bert and August were from the same village in Southwest Finland. (They have the same last name but the letters do not reveal whether the men were related.) Interestingly, both men wrote letters to the same girl, Hilma Aerila, although in different times, August in 1906-1907 and Bert in 1911-1912. Both expressed longing for her and hoped to visit her in the home village. This type of “courtship correspondence” between immigrant men in the U.S. and women in Finland was not uncommon. In Hilma's case, she did not end up marrying either one of the men who courted her through letters.

The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 (August Aalto's letter to Hilma Aerila, dated April 27, 1906)

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 has been claimed to be one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. The earthquake erupted at 5:13 a.m. on April 18, 1906 and was followed by the Great Fire that burned for four days. The 1906 data was re-evaluated in the 1980s and the total death toll was calculated to be more than 3,000 from all causes. Many immigrant communities were severely hit by the earthquake and the subsequent fires. August Aalto, a Finnish lumberman working in Humboldt Co., California, described the earthquake in his letter dated on April 27, 1906: “Bleak and disturbing things have happened here: on the 18th of this month, around 5 o'clock in the morning, there was a big earthquake. It has destroyed many cities; tens of thousands of people are lost and waiting for the final trombone. That morning I jumped off my bed horrified and thought that this is the final day, the day that is called the end of world.” The earthquake and the fires effectively destroyed San Francisco's Chinatown. One ironic consequence of the earthquake was that the destruction of immigration records and vital statistics held at San Francisco's City Hall allowed many Chinese immigrants to claim U.S. citizenship and bring their families from China to the U.S.

About letter writing & conventions:

Historians who have studied correspondence note how letters follow similar patterns to a surprising degree. For example, Satu Pekkarinen observes in her study on letters exchanged between married couples during World War II in Finland that letter writing was bound by conventions both in the format and the content of the text. The letters started with the date, after which the letter receiver was addressed. In the first paragraphs the writer typically thanked for the letter she/he had received, sometimes noting how long the writer had waited for the letter, or apologizing how long it had taken for her/him to reply. Typical issues discussed in the letters included health, news in the family, and the weather. Religious references were also common. At the end of the letter, the writer bid good health for the receiver and expressed a wish to receive a response soon. The letters included in the America Letters collection – despite the different context in which these letters were written (compared to Pekkarinen's World War II letters) – follow very similar conventions. This speaks to the ways in which letters are cultural products – not spontaneous but compromises between the private and the public, between the individual and conventional.


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