Why Are Scandinavians Called Squareheads?

From a Eurocentric perspective, many Scandinavian stereotypes seem flattering. Their impressive height, blond hair, and blue eyes give them a striking appearance.

But, some ascribe the Scandinavian people certain unflattering monikers, such as the name “squareheads.”

Scandinavians are called squareheads to draw an analogy between the shape of their heads and a block of wood.

Alternatively, the term may reference the square helmets German soldiers wore in World War One. Either way, the implication is that Scandinavians are stupid and stubborn. 

This article traces the origins of the term and explains the mass migrations of Scandinavians to America in the 19th century to provide context. 

Also, see Do All Scandinavians Understand Each Other? to learn more.

Is ‘Squarehead’ an Insult to a Scandinavian?

While squarehead is an insult, people don’t use this slur for only the Scandinavians. The term also targets Germans and Dutch people and is aimed at all North Germanic people. [2] [3]

The Roots of the Term ‘Squarehead’

According to some sources, American troops first popularized this term around World War One.

The soldiers used the word as a disparaging reference to the iconic Model 1916 Stahlhelm, a type of steel helmet that German soldiers wore. [4]

According to this explanation, the term was part of a more comprehensive pejorative vocabulary that portrayed enemy soldiers in poor light.

Nations at war often chose insulting names for the enemy to facilitate the bloody business of war.

It worked like propaganda, helping American soldiers see Germans as less human, less individual, senseless, and violent. 

Other Slurs Against German Soldiers From the Same Era

Some of the other terms used by American and allied soldiers to denigrate German soldiers in the same era were:

  • Kraut: An abbreviation for sauerkraut, a dish made of fermented cabbages that served as derogatory shorthand for German troops. Sauerkraut was one of the most famous German foods at the time and continues to be popular in Germany and America today. German immigrants had popularized it in America by the time of the war. [5]
  • Hun: A reference to the Mongol armies led by Genghis Khan that terrorized Europe in the 13th century. The term portrayed the Germans as a rapacious invading force. Comparing them to some of the most feared raiders from the ‘East’ in European history displaced them from ‘civilized’ Europe.
  • Fritz: A caricature of common German names. Such generics served to dehumanize enemy troops by stripping them of their individuality.
  • Boche: Used by French troops, the term is an abbreviation of caboche, which shares roots with the English cabbage. This moniker is a playful reference to the human head. Like squarehead, it implies pig-headedness.

Alternate Explanations for the Origin of the Term Squarehead

While the term squarehead indeed witnessed a surge in popularity during the great war, some sources insist the term is much older.

They read it as a reworking of “blockhead,” an insult aimed at Scandinavians and Germans in the American Midwest. [6] 

The term derives from the blocks of wood used by hatmakers to shape and mount hats. It has the same meaning as squarehead but is of much older origin, going back to the 15th century.

In this case, the term emphasizes the difference between earlier Anglo-Saxon and later North Germanic immigrants in America during the 19th century.  

The History of Scandinavian Immigration to America

Scandinavians had been migrating to America since the 17th century, but between 1820 and 1920, their numbers saw a dramatic uptick.

Over 2 million Scandinavians made a move over this century, including 1.3 million Swedes and 800,000 Norwegians. [7] [8]

While Scandinavians who came to America in the 19th century seem well integrated into American society today, this wasn’t always the case.

At the time, there was significant friction between different settler communities. This friction is at the root of the hostility laid bare by terms like squarehead.

Reasons Scandinavians Migrated to America in Large Numbers

Scandinavians migrated to America to flee conditions in their homelands. But there were many other places they could go. Many Scandinavians did migrate to far-flung locales, including:

  • Canada
  • Australia
  • Germany
  • Other Scandinavian nations

However, many Scandinavians who migrated to America suggest that America was a sought-after destination for Scandinavian immigrants.

Push Factors: What Drove Scandinavians From Their Homelands?

The factors that drove Scandinavian migration in the 19th century were:

Resource Constraints in Their Home Countries

Improved medical facilities have led to significant declines in mortality across the Scandinavian countries.

Combined with a rising birth rate, this caused a dramatic population boom across the entire region.

Between 1750 and 1850, the Norwegian population doubled. And, despite significant emigration, the Swedish population went from 2.3 million to 5.5 million between 1820 and 1920. [9]

Other Scandinavian countries also experienced substantial population growth during this period.

However, unlike more industrialized nations, such as Germany and England, Scandinavians relied heavily on farming for their livelihoods. Limited arable land and intermittent famines only made matters worse.

Social and Political Oppression

Scandinavians faced a dominant Lutheran church at home that offered them very little freedom to practice religion on their terms.

The country also unwillingly dragged many Scandinavian people into wars they had no interest in fighting. 

Pull Factors: What Drew Scandinavians to America?

In America, the government had appropriated vast lands from the native people.

Following the Homestead Act of 1862, they sold these lands to white settlers at very cheap rates.

Many Scandinavians flocked to the country after hearing about how cheap land was in America.

Hostility Against New Scandinavian Immigrants in America

When large cohorts of Scandinavians came to America in the 19th century, they encountered other people of European ancestry already settled in the country.

Most earlier settlers had come from countries like England, Ireland, and Germany and had a culture distinct from the Scandinavians.

Many of the newly arrived Scandinavians settled in areas such as:

  • Wisconsin
  • Minnesota
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • North and South Dakota

They held significant political power in these areas, allowing them to maintain many aspects of their home culture, including their language.

Over time, the older Anglo-Saxon settlers became suspicious of the new immigrants.

They demanded that German and Scandinavian immigrants jettison the cultures of their homelands and fit into the American culture.

Such inter-community hostility peaked during the First World War. Later generations of Scandinavians became indistinguishable from Anglo-Saxon Americans.

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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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