Visual Greetings from America

Photographic Material in the Collection of Migration History at the University of Turku


When walking along the first-floor corridor of the Historicum building at the University of Turku, students and other visitors become surrounded by a collection of historical photographs arranged on the walls. There are studio portraits of, for example, a little girl with a fancy doll sitting on her lap, and a married couple where the bride is clutching a richly decorated wedding bouquet in her arms. There are also eye-catching group portraits of male wrestlers, female gymnasts, actors on stage, and patients in front of a natural sanatorium.

All these photographs, as well as many others, belong to the collection of migration history, to whose birth and development Auvo Kostiainen has contributed significantly. Reino Kero describes the birth of this collection elsewhere in this issue. Like the majority of textual materials in the collection, the photographs were donated mostly during the 1960s and 1970s when the ongoing large-scale research project on migration history at the Department of General History gathered source materials related to Finnish overseas immigration.

For a long time, photographic and other visual materials remained scattered within the collection – mostly hidden inside the letters that had once been sent by immigrants from North America to Finland. In 2004, a specific picture collection was established by combining images of various kinds. This arrangement, which was done with a clear understanding of the importance of the archival provenance of visual material, has greatly improved accessibility for researchers. It has also made it possible to estimate the number of photographs within the collection: approximately five hundred.

The photographic material gives a fascinating retrospective on the development of photographic techniques and the ensuing changes in the subject matter. Most images lack exact information about the time they were produced. Yet, on the basis of archival connections or technical and stylistic features, such as the manner of posing for camera or the way of dressing, the majority of photographs can be dated to the first two decades of the twentieth century. From this period we find dozens of stiff, carefully posed studio portraits of individuals, married couples, families and various pastime activity groups.

It seems on the basis of the collection that Finnish immigrants could commonly afford to visit a local photographer for a portrait. As it was often uncertain whether the old home country could be visited ever again, photographs became an important means to remain remembered in the minds and hearts of the relatives and friends who stayed in Finland. Thus, photographs were frequently included in letters. Similarly, immigrants often wished to be able to follow the lives of their family members in Finland in the form of visual images. It is known that some even sent money back to Finland to make it possible for their relatives to visit a photographer’s studio (Männistö-Funk 2010). Photographs from Finland soothed the homesickness of newcomers in America and strengthened the awareness of their roots.


In her research, Elizabeth Edwards has emphasized the material aspects of photographs (Edwards & Hart 2004; Edward 2009). They do not only depict people and phenomena once positioned in front of a camera lens, but are themselves artifacts that can be touched, handled and put on display on the wall or on top of the cupboard. Visual images of people who had immigrated to the American continent became an essential part of the internal fabric of many homes in Finland. Studio portraits of faraway family members were placed in photo albums to be poured over and shown to other relatives and visitors. Photographs sent from North America were also important for showing, for example, new ways of dressing. From the 1920s, when snapshots taken with privately owned cameras replaced studio portraits, we find an increasing number of photographs that show examples of new consumer goods. At the same time, photographs also became independent carriers of messages as they began to be printed as postcards.

Photographs sent to Finland often demonstrate and emphasize the success and prosperity of life in the United States. Immigrants are often depicted as working – in a mine, logging site or grocery shop – or in front of a house. An increasing number of photographs were also taken next to an automobile. Despite this, the immigrants remained the most important subject matter in photographs. Many examples exist where the lifespan of an individual can be followed in the form of photographs taken at various times. In these series of photographs, the depicted persons grow older and become surrounded by numerous other people – new neighbors and friends, a spouse, parents-in-law and children. When it was the time to tell relatives in Finland about the death of a loved one in America, a funeral picture was often included in the letter.

Photographs played an important role in mediating greetings, news and novelties between Finland and North America. They connected individuals and families living apart, assisted vivid remembering and enabled families to follow the life stories of geographically distant relatives and friends.


Collection of Migration History, Department of European and World History, The University of Turku

Edwards, Elizabeth (2009): Photography and the Material Performance of the Past. History and Theory 48, 130–150.

Edwards, Elizabeth & Hart, Janice (2004): Introduction: Photographs as Objects. Photographs Objects Histories. On the Materiality of Images. Eds. Elizabeth Edwards & Janice Hart. London: Routledge, 1–15.

Männistö-Funk, Tiina (2010): Valokuvalla yli valtameren. Muotokuva muistamisen ja muistetuksi tulemisen välineenä. Samanaikaisuuksia. Kansainvälisiä näköaloja vuoden 1911 maailmaan. Toim. Leila Koivunen & Taina Syrjämaa. Histories 2. Turku: Turun yliopisto, yleinen historia, 16–30.

Pols, Robert (1995): Understanding Old Photographs. Witney: Robert Boyd.

Photos: Collection of Migration History, Department of European and World History, University of Turku

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *