The Hired Girl in Norwegian America

The Hired Girl in Norwegian America

Lori Lahlum, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Upon completing my coursework for a master’s degree in history, I moved back to the family farm to finish researching and to write my thesis.  Moving back home with one’s parents while completing a degree is not so unusual.  That summer, however, I also had a job on the farm: hired girl.  (And, that was official job title I typed on the W-2 form.)  My duties included: cooking when my mother was gone, moving machinery to and from the fields, running errands, canning, and helping out as needed.  The cooking would be significant because at the time my mother served as chairwoman of the Farm Bureau Women’s Committee and, as such, was also a member of the North Dakota Farm Bureau Board of Directors.  She traveled for meetings and special events, and when she was gone I did the cooking.  Quite frankly, there were days when I made almost no progress writing that summer because I was busy cooking, getting lunch ready, and then canning.   As a hired girl, I continued a long work tradition in Norwegian America that also hearkened back to Norway.  The type of labor, though, differed historically in the two countries.

In Norway, most women in rural areas spent a portion of their youth working as servants on farms.  The farm buildings and barns were clearly the domain of women.  This meant women milked cows, mucked out the barns, raked and stacked hay on the hesje (a special fence to dry hay), and fed and watered the typically shedded livestock, among other duties.  Seasonally, women might plant and harvest crops, although this varied regionally.  On larger farms, some young women were hired to provide domestic labor in the house.  The farmwoman oversaw these household and barnyard activities.  Of the servants, the budeie (or dairymaid) was the most important on the farm.  She spent her summers at the high mountain pasture (sæter) milking cows and goats and processing the milk into butter and cheese, which were crucial for the farm economy; she milked cows and did barn chores the rest of the year.  The dairymaid performed gendered labor, and men rarely served in that role.  The farm labor of female servants was crucial for the success of Norwegian farms. [1]

When Norwegian immigrants arrived in the United States in large numbers after the American Civil War, they encountered a very different system of agricultural production undergoing labor changes.  Increasingly, as historian Joan Jensen has noted, by the mid-nineteenth century men took over milking responsibilities on American farms in states like Pennsylvania. [2]  For young Norwegian immigrant women who hired out, they may or may not have continued the gendered labor practice from Norway of female milkers.  Hired girls, especially those who worked for Americans, often worked in the house and not in the barn.  Bertina Serina Kingestad hired out to an American farmer in Illinois in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and she appreciated the fact that she no longer milked cows or mucked out barns. [3]  Other Norwegian American hired girls continued to milk cows.  Young women might also move regularly in search of employment.

lahlum norwegian hired girls
Photo from the collection of Mary Ann Anderson.

Harvest was a particularly busy season that required additional labor on farms.  As a young, unmarried woman, American-born Anna Billet Monson provided domestic labor on the North Dakota farm owned by her half-sister and brother-in-law in the mid-1910s.  The image below shows Anna Billet Monson and the male threshing crew that included her brother-in-law and his father (my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather), as well as men from their Norwegian American community.  The photograph encapsulates significant differences between hiring out in Norway and the United States.  Monson’s role as the hired girl focused on home and hearth, although her American-born half-sister did continue to milk the cows.

The tradition of girls and young women hiring out in Norwegian America continued long after the Department of Agriculture declared the day of the hired girl had “pass[ed”] in 1920.  Indeed, my paternal grandmother appears in the 1930 census as a servant on the farm of her future husband.  My grandmother’s experience was quite common for Norwegian American farm girls in the 1930s and 1940s. [4]  Girls and young women hired out in Norway and in Norwegian America, albeit working in agricultural systems that often differed.  In both, these hired girls helped make agriculture successful.

See this previous post for a discussion of gender in contemporary Norwegian farming.

Notes:

[1] For Norwegian agriculture see, Reidar Almås, ed., Norwegian Agricultural History (Trondheim, Norway: Tapir Academic Press, 2004); Brit Berggreen, “Idealmønstre og realmønstre: Kryssing av Kjønnsrollegrenser i norsk bondekultur ca 1850-1920″ (Ph.D. diss., University of Oslo, 1990); Brynjulv Gjerdåker, “Continuity and modernity 1815-1920,” in Norwegian Agricultural History, 236-295; Jon Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers: The Migration from Balestrand, Norway, to the Upper Middle West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Øyvind Østerud, Agrarian Structure and Peasant Politics in Scandinavia: A Comparative Study of Rural Response to Economic Change (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1978); and Eilert Sundt, Sexual Customs in Rural Norway: A Nineteenth-Century Study, trans. and ed. Odin W. Anderson (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1993).

[2] Joan M. Jensen, Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 93.  For Norwegian American agriculture, see Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers.

[3] Lori Ann Lahlum, “Women, Work, and Community in Rural Norwegian America, 1840-1920, 90-92, in Norwegian American Women: Migration, Communities, and Identities, eds. Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011).

[4] Florence E. Ward, “The Farm Woman’s Problems,” United States Department of Agriculture Department Circular 148 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1920), 10; Anna Anderson, 1930 roll census for Norma Township, Barnes County, North Dakota.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s