It is impossible to discuss the history of this Museum without talking about Amandus Johnson, without whom the ASHM might not exist. Johnson (1877 - 1974) was heavily involved in all events that led to the establishment of the Museum and he persisted even when it may have seemed that his task was hopeless. For as much as he did, though, Amandus Johnson did not do it all alone. The Museum's foundation and construction happened because of the will and the financial commitment of a national Swedish-American community.
Amandus Johnson was born in 1877 in Sweden, in Långasjö, Småland, to be more precise. But he grew up in Rice Lake Minnesota. In 1904, he graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College, in Saint Peter, Minnesota, with a baccalaureate in English literature and a preaching certificate. His interest in the 17th century Swedish settlement of the Delaware Valley brought him to Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a Ph.D. for his dissertation about the New Sweden colony (1638-55), and taught in the Germanics Department for many years. He was a founder of the Swedish Colonial Society in 1908, and published The Swedish Settlements on the Delaware in 1911.
In the second decade of the 20th century Swedish Americans began looking for a suitable way to commemorate the tercentenary of the Swedish arrival on these shores in 1638. At a conference of the Augustana Synod, Johnson was appointed to a committee to plan ways to preserve the memory of the New Sweden colony. Another member of the committee, who would also be very important in the ASHM's history, was the Reverend Julius Lincoln, a Lutheran pastor in Chicago. He gave the committee links with Chicago's large and affluent Swedish-American community that would prove to be vital when it came time to raise money for the ASHM.
By 1926 the Swedish-American Sesquicentennial Association had been formed, with headquarters in Chicago and Amandus Johnson as its president. World War I had delayed its establishment, as had Johnson's African sojourn (1922-24). Soon the first national campaign was underway to erect a Swedish Museum, which was then called "The John Hanson-John Morton Memorial Building." From his research into New Sweden's history, Johnson knew that the land in which Philadelphia's celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence was to take place in 1926 was a part of a land grant Sweden's Queen Christina gave to colonist Sven Skute in 1653. (That land is today Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park.) In what better way could Swedish Americans take part in the celebration than by building their museum in the middle of it all?
On June 2, 1926, Sweden's Crown Prince Gustav Adolf (Later King Gustaf VI Adolf) placed the Museum's cornerstone, and it is the 75th anniversary of this event that we are celebrating on the same date in 2001.
Chicago-based Swedish-American architect John Nyden designed the building, with conceptual assistance from Amandus Johnson. Johnson wanted the building to include architectural features found in Eriksbergs slott, a 17th-century mansion in Sweden, and in Mount Vernon, George Washington's home in Virginia (the Museum's arcades remind us of the latter). The E. P. Strandberg Company, also of Chicago, built the Museum. By October 1927 construction was nearly finished.
In the fall of 1928, Christian von Schneidau painted the Museum's entrance-hall ceiling and wall murals. The building's total cost was just over $234,000, as reported to the Board of Governors of the American Sons and Daughters of Sweden at a meeting in Chicago on March 16, 1929. At that time the dedication of the museum was planned for the fall of 1929 and there were hopes that the newly elected President Herbert Hoover could be persuaded to take part. To achieve this, the actual date was left for the president to choose. Whether there could have been a presidential dedication in the fall of 1929 we will never know. The stock market crash in October of that year and the following depression caused things to slow down dramatically. Many of the Midwestern industrialists, who had pledged large amounts to the John Morton Memorial Building, found themselves in serious financial trouble and were unable to contribute further. Many thought that the Museum never would be completed.
To keep the project going, and cut down on personal expenses, Amandus Johnson lived in the Museum for a time. A janitor also lived there, as did Johnson's secretary for a short time. Johnson's bedroom was in what is now the director's office. And since he was very interested in photography, he had a darkroom built in the basement.
Johnson's original plan was for the Museum to have 18 exhibition rooms. He found this to be "architecturally challenging" and settled for 16. Each was dedicated to a field of activity in which, as he put it, "the Swedes of this country have been prominent." These fields were to be divided into four sections, or departments. At the head of each department was to be an expert who would have charge of the four rooms and be able to answer questions concerning these fields relating to Sweden and to America.
An early plan called for galleries on the New Sweden colony, religion, pioneers, the artists Gustav Hesselius and Carl Milles, inventor and Civil War naval officer John Dahlgren, gymnastics and physical therapy, John Hanson, botanist Peter Kalm, engineer and inventor John Ericsson, scientist and religious innovator Emanuel Swedenborg, manufacturers, builders and architects, Jenny Lind, philanthropy, and 19th-century writer and women's rights activist Fredrika Bremer.
The first gallery to be finished (1931) was the John Hanson Room (now the New Sweden Room). Its exhibit dealt with politics and early Swedish-American relations. But it turned out that John Hanson had no Swedish background, though for many years it had been claimed that he was a descendant of one of the early Swedish settlers.
The original John Ericsson Room was dedicated on June 5, 1932. It was created by Swedish architect Martin Hedmark (1896-1980), and remains an outstanding example of art deco design. The second John Ericsson Room, where Ericsson's models are displayed, was ready in 1939.
The Jenny Lind Room was a fact very early on. Amandus Johnson helped to found the Jenny Lind Club of Detroit (today the Jenny Lind Club of Michigan) to provide funding for the Museum. It chose to buy Jenny Lind sheet music and other Jenny Lind memorabilia to donate to the Museum's Jenny Lind Room. Since each and every one of the music sheets and Jenny Lind letters originally were on permanent display, the Jenny Lind collection was in the early 1930s displayed also in what is known as the Chicago Room.
The Chicago Room was the third gallery to be completed, and originally it was known as the Architects, Builders and Manufacturers Room. Then funding was provided by Alice Forch, the daughter of the very successful Chicago builder Andrew Lanquist, who had been an early supporter of the Museum project. Before committing herself, Mrs. Forch came to visit and after a careful look around, she insisted that if she were to pay for a room at all, it would have to be the one directly opposite the recently completed John Ericsson Room. She probably suggested the same architect who had designed that room, Martin Hedmark. Hedmark selected Ewald Dahlskog (1894-1950) to create the room's decoration. Alice Forch requested an oil painting similar to the one in the John Ericsson Room. She wanted the painting to show Fort Christina and Old Swedes' Church in Wilmington, as well as a scene with her father and his coworkers. The room was to take more than five years to complete. To some extent the slow progress was due to the fact that the Museum was suffering from financial difficulties. Sometime during these years Dahlskog decided to do a wood inlay mural and to concentrate on the scene in Lanquist's office. But study the mural carefully and you will see a bit of Old Swedes' Church to the right and a log structure to the left, reminding the viewer of New Sweden's Fort Christina. In a letter to Johnson, Hedmark described how in the spring of 1936, Alice Forch visited the Dahlskog studio to look at what she still believed to be an oil painting! Luckily, she liked the unusual intarsia. The Chicago Room was dedicated on June 25, 1937.
In the meantime, in 1934, Professor Axel J. Uppvall suggested a general appeal to all Swedish Americans to become members of the American Sons and Daughters of Sweden by sending $1 every year on their birthday for the funding of the Museum. There is no record of the outcome. What we do know is that by 1935, things were dismal. It was at this time that Ormond Rambo, Jr., became more active in the Museum. The American Sons and Daughters of Sweden was renamed the American Swedish Historical Foundation and the Museum's Women's Auxiliary was founded. Another result was the creation of the Peter Rambo Research Library (also dedicated on June 25, 1937), which is now the director's office. For a time in between it was also used to store paintings that would hang in the changing exhibition gallery when there was nothing else to display there.
In September 1936 the Swedish government appointed The Royal New Sweden Tercentenary Commission, which organized a national drive in Sweden to obtain funds for a monument to be erected in Wilmington, Delaware, on the spot where the Swedes supposedly had landed in 1638. It was also decided that there would be a special exhibition at the ASHM to celebrate the tercentenary, and it would be opened by the same Crown Prince Gustav Adolf who had laid the cornerstone in 1926. The event would also serve as ASHM's formal public dedication.
In preparation for the tercentenary celebration, the Museum building was repainted and part of the roof, which had been blown off in a bad storm a few years earlier, was permanently replaced. During the summer and autumn of 1937 the Museum's surroundings were given an entirely new appearance with the planting of more than 75 trees and bushes. Cement walks were laid all around the building, and topsoil spread on the ground in the hope of a fine lawn. And the Women's Auxiliary arranged for the Assembly Room to be built in time for the 1938 celebrations.
The Museum's dedication took place on June 28, 1938, the second day of the tercentenary celebrations. Crown Prince Gustav Adolf had been taken ill with a kidney complaint during the voyage from Sweden and remained aboard ship. His son, Prince Bertil, and Crown Princess Louise made up the royal party that dedicated the Museum. Absent in person, the Crown Prince still spoke at the dedication. He delivered his speech by radio from the M/S Kungsholm. To everybody's surprise, when the program began the large crowd clearly heard the voice of the absent Crown Prince through amplifiers. The speech was also broadcast by means of national networks.
The Memorial Historic Exhibition of the Colony of New Sweden had arrived in New York City aboard the M/S Gripsholm on May 1, 1938. It included more than 600 artifacts. It occupied 10 of the Museum's exhibition rooms but ran for only three weeks. When it was packed up and shipped back to Sweden, all of it that remained was the map in the Golden Map Room.
On that same June day, Crown Princess Louise dedicated the Fredrika Bremer Room, the interior of which had been assembled in Sweden by a women's group as a donation to the Museum. In the Jenny Lind Room was an exhibition of wonderful textiles which Hemslöjden Swedish Handcraft Associations donated to the Museum and which the Women's Auxiliary helped to install under the guidance of Hemslöjden's Margit Nilsson, who had shepherded the gift across the Atlantic. The present Kalm-Seaborg Room was then the Tinicum Island Room and held objects from and information about the archeological excavations of Tinicum Island of Essington.
For a few years after 1938, there was little activity at the ASHM. The exception was in 1939, when the second John Ericsson Room was dedicated and work began on the Pioneer Room or Stugan (a replica of the interior of a 19th-century Swedish farmhouse). The stuga was dedicated on November 1, 1942.
On April 1, 1941, the Fairmont Park Commission turned over the custody of Belair Manor to the Museum, after restoration of the house had been completed. It was furnished by loans from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and from private collections. The Women's Auxiliary's Spring Fete of May 1945 included a reception at "the House on Queen Christina's Land-Grant" as the manor was also known. It was a very Scandinavian event with nearly 500 attending. Many of the visitors must not have been members, because from the beginning the foundation running the Museum was very much a national organization. In 1949, the Museum had just over 1,000 memberships and 73 percent were from outside of the Philadelphia region. There were exactly as many members in Illinois as there were in Pennsylvania, and this meant that there had been a serious decline in Illinois membership.
From 1954 and well into the 1960s there were Museum Associate groups all over the nation. The associates groups met regularly with Museum representatives - usually executive director John Wilkens (1957-71) - and they were sources of major financial support.
Closer to home, since the 1940s there had been other support groups such as the Fredrika Bremer, Jenny Lind, and John Ericsson committees. They hosted event at the Museum, managed the exhibition galleries of their namesakes, and raised money to support the galleries.
Dr. Henry Goddard Leach's 1952 donation of the large Carl Larsson cartoon, Catching Crayfish, led to the creation of an Arts and Crafts Room that occupied what is now the curatorial office for well over 20 years. Originally Amandus Johnson had planned for this to be an exhibition room about religion, "built like a small chapel in carved oak with a pew in the center," and at one time early on, the present Swedenborg Room was arranged as a religion room.
The Nord Library, financed by Mr. and Mrs. Walter G. Nord in memory of his brother Herman J. Nord, was dedicated on September 28, 1957. The library was designed by Stockholm architects Hans Borgström and Bengt Lindroos and was made in Sweden and shipped to Philadelphia for installation. Earlier that room had been the Hall of Genealogy, donated by Francis J. Plym. The Museum's library had been located in what is now the Swedenborg Room from 1949 to 1957.
The Colonial Room was designed in 1959 by Hans Asplund around the specially commissioned New Sweden tapestry by Kurt Ljungstedt. The entire interior was shipped to Philadelphia in August 1960, including the two marble plaques bearing the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Linden, the couple who financed the room. The plaques broke during transport, but they were installed above the doorways anyway. The replacements arrived later and have been in storage ever since.
In 1961 the Peter Kalm Room was dedicated to botany and science. This room was financed by Axel Hallström, a Florida citrus grower. Three years later it was renamed the Kalm-Seaborg Room to honor the Swedish-American Nobel Prize laureate, Glenn T. Seaborg.
The Swedenborg Room was dedicated at the Museum's annual meeting on June 14, 1969. It was created by Hans Borgström, the same architect who designed the Nord Library, and financed by Dr. and Mrs. Karl W. Hallden and Mrs. Hildur F. Bullerwell. Soon after, electric sound equipment with voice narration was installed in the Golden Map Room and the John Ericsson Room.
In the early 1970s, there were rumors that the park around Philadelphia's Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church could be the site for the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. The church, just off what is now Columbus Boulevard, was founded in 1700 as a mission congregation of the Church of Sweden. At the Museum, where the lack of funds was a constant problem, this led to thought in some quarters of closing down the present Museum and making a fresh start at that site. A special committee was appointed to look into the Museum's future prospects. In February 1974, a divided committee submitted two different proposals. One advocated closing the Museum and continuing work as a foundation at a site close to Gloria Dei. The other recommended continuing as a museum, but making an effort to revitalize and get ready to take part in the Bicentennial with its planned royal visit. The latter plan was adopted, and ever since, the Museum has used historical commemorations to strengthen itself.
In those days the Chicago Room was kept locked and visitors could only enter it accompanied by a staff member. The present Hands on History Room was used to store a variety of large models, including a diorama of the landing of the Swedes in 1638, and the present ones of the Kungsholm and the log cabin (in the Colonial Room).
On July 1, 1975, Michael Shapiro was appointed director. He was the first director with a Museum background. Soon the Museum received its first grant and with the help of University of Pennsylvania graduate student volunteers developed a new exhibition, 200 Years of Friendship: Sweden & America 1776-1976, to celebrate the Bicentennial of the American Revolution in 1976. The exhibition was installed in what was still known as the John Hanson Room. In the adjacent gallery, a selection of textiles from the 1938 Hemslöjd gift was installed. The new exhibition was officially opened by King Carl XVI Gustaf.
Sweden's Queen Silvia and King Carl XVI Gustaf with Philadelphia's Mayor Edward G. Rendell and Judge Marjorie Rendell in 1994. ASHM Collections
Programs that bring Swedish traditions to the public have been very important to the ASHM since the 1930s, as has the work of the volunteers who have always done so much to make these programs successful. The Women's Auxiliary has presented Lucia Fest every December since 1939. Lucia herself - who brings lights to the dark North around the time of the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) - wore a crown of live candles well into the 1970s. The event remained very popular even after the Auxiliary switched to the electric version.
Since 1988, Lucia Fest, on a Saturday afternoon, has been preceded by a julbord - a traditional Swedish Christmas meal served by the Museum's Midsommarklubben - a volunteer group composed of Swedish-speaking women which since 1979 has been in charge of the Museum's Midsummer celebrations - a festival that welcomes the long days of warm weather during the early part of the summer. For most of its history the Museum has also sponsored a traditional Swedish spring festival - Valborgsmässoafton - to chase away the cold and dark of winter. It should be easy to see just from this paragraph that the ASHM is truly a museum for all seasons!
American Swedish Historical Museum • 1900 Pattison Avenue • Philadelphia, PA 19145 • 215-389-1776