The Sleeping Giant Who Left for America: The Determinants and Impact of Danish Emigration During the Age of Mass Migration

July 22, 2021 | Blog
Home > The Sleeping Giant Who Left for America: The Determinants and Impact of Danish Emigration During the Age of Mass Migration

By Nina Boberg-Fazlic (University of Southern Denmark), Markus Lampe, (WU Vienna University of Economics and Business, CEPR), Paul Sharp (University of Southern Denmark, CAGE, CEPR)


This blog is based on the authors’ paper presented at the Economic History Society 2021 Conference


Much policy debate and  academic research has considered the impact of migration on the receiving country.  Recently, however, there has been increasing focus on the effects of migration on the sending country.  We examine Denmark which witnessed largescale emigration from Europe to the United States in particular, before the First World War.

In the Danish case, a significant fraction of those who left were ‘tyender’ (singular: tyende), a group that experienced severe discrimination with little opportunities for advancement.  Often translated as servant, the word tyende denoted anyone who lived in the house of their employer, for example, agricultural labourers, as well as domestic servants.  The Tyende Law of 1854 made tyender subject to the head of their household, prescribed heavier penalties for breach of contract by a tyende than for the master (including immediate redundancy), and gave their employer rights beyond that stated in their contract.  It was only in 1915 that tyende, alongside women, gained full suffrage, and in 1921 the Tyende Law was replaced with an Employee Law which went some way to improving their rights and position in society.  Before then, however, an improvement in social status, at least for those tyender who lived in the countryside, required property, the absence of which provided a potent motivation for many to leave for America.

Figure 1. Emigrants at Larsens Plads (1890). Source:

Our work contributes to understanding two interrelated questions. First, who decided to migrate (“selectivity” of migrants), and, second, what was the impact of their departure on the sending country?  Answers to both questions are interrelated:  the loss of skilled migrants might have deleterious effects, whereas the  so-called negative selection of migrants might have had the opposite impact.

We begin by considering the question of who left.  In previous work, we demonstrated that a distinctive pattern of land inequality emerged in Denmark during a period of extensive agrarian reforms and enclosure between 1784 and 1807; this inequality remained throughout the nineteenth century.  Areas with better quality soil, as determined during the last Ice Age, witnessed higher rates of population growth, leading to greater land inequality, although this declined in the last decades of the century, and we speculated that this might have been due to differential levels of outmigration.  Taking this as our starting point, and drawing on a variety of detailed parish-level historical sources — police protocols of emigrants, population censuses, and land registers — we first consider whether these areas did indeed witness large levels of emigration.  We employ an instrumental variables strategy, using the change in inequality from 1682 to 1834, as an instrument for the level of inequality in 1860, which then, in turn, determines the level of emigration over the following decades.  We then ask to what extent this impacted on living standards for those who remained,  measured by two income taxes imposed in 1870 and 1905, before and after the period of mass migration.

As expected, we find evidence that areas with a more unequal distribution of land witnessed larger emigration, and that these emigrants tended to be negatively selected.  From the income tax data, we find evidence of a positive income effect on the areas which experienced most emigration, at least for a subset of those remaining.  We suggest that this observation might be explained by a switch to labour saving technology as (cheap) labour emigrated.  Indeed, important new agricultural technologies were adopted from the 1880s as the Danish agricultural sector underwent a revolution.  Does this hypothesis mean that the negatively selected Danish migrants exercised a negative impact on the United States?  Not necessarily. In other work, we have demonstrated that Danish migrants fostered the dissemination of the modern dairy industry, but the tyende class seem also to have been associated with a particular mentality, and a desire for social mobility – traits in the US that would, by the 1930s, be recognised as central to the pursuit of the ‘American Dream’.   Thus, although it is important not to generalize, our work presents an important policy implication: migrants can simultaneously benefit  sending and receiving countries.


To contact the authors:

Nina Boberg-Fazlic,

Markus Lampe,

Paul Sharp,