A touch of Sweden in Chicago

Chicago Slyline

By Swedish American Museum



No matter what the time of year, there is always a little bit of Sweden in Chicago. With three locations, the restaurant chain Ann Sather has the best Swedish pancakes as well as a sample plate that includes fläskkorv. On weekends when the weather is good, there is a line around the corner for brunch so make sure to come early. If atmosphere is what you are looking for with your herring or fruktsoppa, then head up to Andersonville’s SVEA restaurant where you can enjoy the many Swedish artifacts beautifully on display. The warm and inviting staff makes it feel like you have ended up in someone’s kitchen. While in Andersonville, stop by Simon’s tavern. This historic tavern will make sure to keep you warm in Chicago’s cold winter with some glögg. For all Swedes living in Chicago with their families still in Sweden, Tre Kronor is the place to go for a real home cooked meal. It will taste just the way your grandmother used to make, and they serve all the things you might miss about Sweden like pytti panna and Janssons frestelse.

If shopping is what you are after, Chicago will definitely not disappoint. The Sweden Shop is a one-stop shop for all things Scandinavian. They carry everything from housewares to food and clothing. The Kerstin Andersson Museum Store may be a bit smaller than the Sweden Shop but it seems to always have the perfect selection you are looking for. The assortment changes with each season and gives the store new life with every new celebration. During Christmas time, it is like stepping in to Santa’s workshop and in the summer the store blooms with bright colors. Of course we must not forget IKEA. A bit of a trek as always, but walking around reading the signs can bring you home immediately. Your American friend will never look at IKEA the same way again after visiting with a Swede. Suddenly all the items get a new meaning and each item gets attached to your history.

Carl Linnaeus sculpture at the Chicago Botanic Garden

There are a number of famous Swedes hiding in Chicago. Carl Linnaeus has two statues, one on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park and one in the Heritage Garden of the Chicago Botanic Garden. In 1891 the Swedish Linnaeus Monument Association erected a statue of Linneausin Lincoln Park. It was a copy of the one in Stockholm. In the 1930s the statue moved to Hyde Park because major road construction took over the space where Linnaeus once stood. The statue in the Botanic Garden is full of life andcelebrates his accomplishments and legacy in a beautiful way. Another icon Emanuel Swedenborg has had a rough life in Chicago. A beautiful bust was unveiled in Lincoln Park in 1924 to an audience of several thousand Swedes. Then the same road construction that moved Linneaus removed the beautiful atmosphere that had once surrounded Swedenborg. Rather than facing a charming carriage way, he became enveloped in fumes from a new freeway. Then in 1976 he disappeared, most likely sold for the scrap metal. In 2008 a member of the New Church Society in Stockholm found a plaster copy of the bust in the church’s attic and so in 2012 a new bronze copy was made and Swedenborg returned to his place on Lake Shore Drive.

To truly experience Sweden in Chicago you will have to visit for midsummer or at Christmas time. In addition to the many small, individually organized midsummer celebrations, the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce together with the Swedish American Museum throws a party for the whole city to enjoy. At Christmas there are a number of Lucia processions and a julmarknad to put you in the holiday spirit.

Museum awakens interest in Swedish immigration

After the 1964 celebration of Andersonville’s new status as a city neighborhood, the business community began to recover from three decades of malaise. But something was missing. The Scandinavian character that had defined the culture of this area was no longer dominant.

Into the void stepped enthusiastic immigrant Kurt Mathiasson with a plan to return “Swedishness” to Andersonville. Mathiasson had acquired Svea Restaurant in 1972 and began to use its walls, nooks and crannies to exhibit Swedish artifacts that he and friends had accumulated.

Swedish American Museum, 5211 North Clark Street, Chicago

Four years later, during the nation’s Bicentennial, he took over a neighboring storefront and began to create a Swedish American Museum, enlisting Sven Flodstrom as chairman. The official opening on April 19, 1976, was attended by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

To make the Museum a success, Mathiasson needed help. He found it in Kerstin Lane, who had emigrated from Malmö in 1974 and settled in Chicago in 1977. After volunteering frequently, she was hired in 1986 as the Museum’s first executive director.

In 1987, an opportunity arose to acquire the three-story former Lind Hardware building. The Museum board jumped at the idea of a permanent home. Lane spearheaded the renovation and relocation, with the enthusiastic help of many volunteers and supporters. 

Once again, King Carl XVI Gustaf attended the grand opening on April 19, 1988. The additional space accommodated not only the growing collection of artifacts and documents, but also a gallery for exhibits, offices for staff, and a store full of Swedish wares. Still, there was much more to come.

A Nordic Family Research Center (now the Swedish American Genealogical Society) was established in 1994 to help individuals learn more about their Swedish histories. In 2001, Queen Silvia of Sweden visited the new Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration on the third floor. 

His Majesty Carl XVI Gustaf, King of Sweden, officially opened the Swedish American Museum in 1976.

In 2006, Kerstin Lane stepped down and was succeeded as director by Karin Moen Abercrombie. She had been a Museum volunteer and board member, and was interested in the expansion of community outreach and educational programs for children and adults.

A beacon for Swedes and Swedish-Americans, the Museum has grown steadily in attendance as activities and events arouse widespread interest. Swedish traditions are kept faithfully, from Fettisdagen and Våffeldagen to Midsommarfest, Julmarknad, Julmiddag, and St. Lucia processions in the neighborhood.

Genealogy and the Children’s Museum link past and future

Two innovative additions to its mission have enhanced the features that attract visitors of all ages to the Swedish American Museum in Andersonville.

A research initiative in Swedish genealogy that began with volunteers answering inquiries has become essential for scholars, historians and families that seek information about ancestors and the places they lived.

In 1994, Marilynn Jeglum saw the need for a more formalized genealogical program. Her interest and effort resulted in the creation of a Nordic Family Research Center (now the Swedish American Genealogical Society) with nine founding board members.

She organized a series of monthly sessions on topics such as beginning research, photo restoration, military records and Scandinavian church records. She also offered one-on-one research help on Wednesday afternoons that has continued with additional volunteers.

A second major addition, in 2001, was the installation of the Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration that occupies most of the third floor. Supported by the Brunk family and open seven days a week, it educates and entertains youngsters of all ages.

At the Brunk Children's Museum of Immigration. Photo: Kristine Casart

In addition to its daily walk-ins and frequent school bus tours, the children’s facility offers role-playing activities as Vikings, immigrants or farmers, as well as space explorers in the Buzz Aldrin exhibit.

Informative monthly Hejsan programs also take place, based on important Swedes in history and the arts. In the summer, Pioneer Day Camps provide knowledge of life and customs in other countries.


Photos courtesy of Swedish American Museum. Title photo © Marchello74

* You can find more stories on Swedes in Chicago in the March 2017 edition of Swedish Press.