Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Entries : Icelanders


Icelanders first came to the United States as Mormons in the 1850s. A much larger emigration, primarily to North Dakota and Minnesota, left a poor country beset with volcano eruptions and famine in the 1870s and 1880s. Until 1930 Icelanders were counted as Danes by the U.S. census, which by 1990 counted 40,529 Americans claiming some Icelandic ancestry; 111 of these lived in Chicago, with 6 more in Country Club Hills.

The first Icelanders came to Chicago in the late nineteenth century. Chester Hjortur Thordarson, for example, came via North Dakota to join his sister in 1884. The holder of over one hundred patents, he founded the Thordarson Electrical Manufacturing Company in Chicago. One of his employees, also from North Dakota, was fellow Icelander Arni Helgason, who founded the Chicago Standard Transformer Corporation in 1928.

Icelanders have been less aggressive than other immigrant groups in organizing local societies, much less a national organization. Perhaps this is because they have neither been subjected to discrimination nor had a derogatory nickname. Approximately 20 local and state societies have formed, including the Icelandic Association of Chicago, founded in 1930. Membership in 1999 numbered about 90, with 35–40 percent able to speak Icelandic.

The main event of the year, an old Icelandic tradition, is the Thorrablót, a feast of special dishes and singing held from mid-January to mid-February. Its purpose is to celebrate the hope for an end to winter and the hope for an early spring.

Thorson, Playford V. “Icelanders.” In American Immigrant Cultures: Builders of a Nation, vol. 1. 1997.