By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to NKyTribune
Throughout the history of the Cincinnati area, there can be found colorful and engaging accounts of immigrants who left their foreign birthright and crossed the Atlantic to begin a new life in pursuit of the American dream.
The stories of their lives and accomplishments still resonate with us today in our media and culture. They were towering figures in their time, people like French-born artist Henry Farney, German immigrants Johann Schmitt and Matthias Schwab, Irish-born James Gamble of Proctor & Gamble fame, and the Most Rev. Camillus P. Maes, the Belgian-born third Bishop of Covington who built the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption.
But hidden among the many immigrant stories from Cincinnati’s past is one that still remains untold. It begins in Copenhagen, Denmark on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1839. That was the night Karl Julius Friderik Svendsen was born to Bendt and Anthonette Svendsen, a working class Danish couple who owned a small hotel near the downtown district of the city. It was in this hotel environment, with all its rushed comings and goings, that Karl grew up. Throughout his childhood, he showed creative tendencies, and at fourteen, he was apprenticed to a local comb-maker. Karl enjoyed the work, was a diligent apprentice, and looked forward to a future when he might his own business.
But not long after his apprenticeship began, he fell ill and contracted Rheumatic fever, a complication resulting from an inadequately treated case of strep throat. He suffered for months with fevers and pain, and when he finally recovered, the valves in his heart had been damaged. For the rest of his life, he would suffer from painful swelling in his joints, fatigue and shortness of breath.
Undaunted by his misfortune, Karl managed to finish out his apprenticeship, and by 1860, he established himself with his own comb-making business. His work required travel, and it often took him to the continent – to Berlin, Dresden, Munich, as far east as Prague and as far south as Vienna, Austria.
On one trip to Munich, he met and befriended Cornelius Hiemer, a 33-year old carpenter from Memmingen, Bavaria who worked at one of the firms Karl visited. The two liked each other from the start and they became fast friends. But in 1864, the ugly specter of war fell across Europe, when Prussian forces marched into Schleswig Holstein, a territory in northern Germany which had been won by Denmark in a previous conflict.
With war came the danger of conscription. For five years, Karl Svendsen had been eligible, but he had never been selected. Now confined to his own country, he could only watch as the hostilities brought an end to both his travels and his business. Later that year, hostilities ended with Denmark’s humiliating loss of the Schleswig Holstein territory to Prussia.
Karl Svendsen began corresponding again with Hiemer, who began talking about immigrating to America. For Hiemer, there were opportunities in America; for Svendsen, his comb-making business was in shambles, and he knew it was only a matter of time before he was conscripted into the army.
On June 21, 1866, Svendsen and Hiemer met in Hamburg and boarded the British steamer Grimsby, bound for New York. They arrived on July 4th – Independence Day – and came to Cincinnati later that month. Neither of the men knew English. Fortunately for the them both, Cincinnati boasted a thriving German- speaking population. Within weeks, the two men opened The Svendsen and Hiemer Company at 567 Vine Street in Cincinnati and began manufacturing flags and banners for sale.
It was the perfect time to create such a business. Cincinnati was, at this time, a boomtown. Large numbers of immigrants – mainly German and Irish – came here to seek a new life with all its varied opportunities. To accommodate the largely Catholic immigrant populations flooding into the area, new churches and schools were being built. Along with them were formed civic, religious and fraternal organizations like the Knights of St. George, Knights of Columbus, Knights of St John, Knights of St. Malachi, St. Joseph’s Men’s Society, Knights of St. Wenceslaus, the Deutsche Pionier-Verein, and a vast array of labor unions, fraternal lodges and lady’s societies. And all of them needed the kinds of products that Svendsen and Hiemer were making.
The flags and banners they produced were made of “imported banner silk, satin, silk or silk velvet.” Designs were generally painted by hand, but also could include 23 carat gold leaf, silver or aluminum impressions, gold and silver embroidery or application embroidery. Some designs were custom painted in any color desired, and all workmanship was “warranted to stand rain or shine.”
Slowly their business grew. Fueled by their sense of opportunity, Svendsen was soon hiring himself out to retouch and restore works of art in many of the local Catholic churches. It was probably the religious artist Johann Schmitt, whom Svendsen met shortly after his arrival, who taught him how to paint churches. It was also Schmitt who introduced Svendsen to a 20-year old Bavarian beauty named Theresa Heutle, whom Svendsen fell in love with and married on February 20, 1868. Schmitt remained a close, personal friend of the Svendsens until his death in 1898.
Karl Svendsen came to love his new life in America, so much so that he immediately changed his first name from Karl to the more American, “Charles.” He learned English, bought a large volume called The History of the United States, and educated himself on the culture of his new country. After several years of study, Charles Svendsen received his citizenship papers, an achievement he prized and boasted of for the rest of his life.
By 1871, Svendsen and Hiemer moved their company to the northeast corner of Vine and Liberty Streets in what is now Over-the-Rhine, advertising themselves simply as “decorators.” Four years later, they moved again, to 84 West Court Street, where the company would remain for the next 51 years. Then in 1877, Cornelius Hiemer left the company to start his own business as a flag maker, establishing his own shop at 476 Vine Street near present-day Fountain Square. The separation was amicable, and the two men remained lifelong friends.
Svendsen lost no time in organizing his own company. He kept the store on Court Street and renamed it simply “The Charles Svendsen Company.” He then embarked on an ambitious marketing campaign, determined to generate as much business as possible. He printed catalogs for mailing, wrote to customers personally, and always included samples of his work for them to examine. He expanded his product lines to include making vestments and regalia for Catholic churches, as well as offering swords, helmets, hats and hat boxes purchased from the best manufacturers he could find.
By the 1880’s, the company had grown enough that more seamstresses had to be hired. The cost of a custom made American flag was $125, a steep sum even in today’s dollars. Society banners averaged $120 each, depending on the design; smaller regalia, such as badges and decorated ribbons cost as little as a few dollars. At the height of his business, Svendsen claimed to be doing “more Banner and Flag work than any other firm.” By the turn of the century, orders came from as far north as Canada, as far south as the British Honduras, east to Boston and west as far as San Francisco. In all his business dealings, he had a reputation for being prompt, professional and completely honest. He once remarked to his daughter Matilda that he always slept good at night, “because I know I’ve never cheated anyone in business.”
By the turn of the century, Charles Svendsen, the Danish immigrant who came to America in pursuit of the American dream, had become a wealthy man. But one spring morning in 1902, he awoke feeling ill. The effects of the Rheumatic fever he suffered as a teen had become Rheumatic heart disease. The doctors ordered him to take the waters at White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia and get plenty of rest.
When Svendsen did return to Cincinnati at the end of July, his health had noticeably improved. But by that autumn, his condition again worsened, and on February 3, 1903, he died of heart failure at home, surrounded by his family.
But the story of the Svendsen family legacy doesn’t end there. The company Charles Svendsen founded stayed in business until 1925, managed by his widow Theresa and daughter Matilda. More notably, it was his son Charles C. Svendsen who went on to achieve even greater success as a renowned artist, teacher and religious painter during Cincinnati’s golden age of art.
Stephen Enzweiler is a writer and journalist. He has been a columnist for the Kentucky Enquirer, the Oxford Citizen, and was a senior editor at Y’all Magazine. He is the author of “Oxford in the Civil War: Battle for a Vanquished Land” (2010, Arcadia/History Press).