Land of Opportunity: Red Light Means More Than Welcome

Woman immigrated to Minnesota and soon learns that the red light in windows does not mean what she thinks it does.

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Helga had just been through customs on Ellis Island. She picked up her shabby suitcase and took a few steps into the land of opportunity. Pausing briefly, she took a long look at her new country. Tomorrow Helga would board a train to join her Swedish friends in Minnesota. They too had immigrated in hopes of finding a rich life in the United States. On reaching St. Paul, Minnesota, she soon found work in a large bakery with a nicely furnished flat nearby. Her first day at work was lonely and tiring. Darkness fell early. She noticed most of the houses had red lights in the windows. The lights looked so pretty and cheerful.

"Maybe that is the custom here. If I live here I must follow their ways," she thought. A few days later she found and bought a kerosene lamp with a red glass chimney. "Now I will be a real American girl," she thought.

When the sun set, she lit her lovely new lamp and set it near the window. A short time later she heard a knock on her door. "My first visitor; it may be Elsa from next door," she thought. Instead a strange man stood on her threshold.

"How much you charge, Mrs.?" he asked.

"I sell nothing, so I charge nothing." She closed the door with a bang. A short time later there came another rap on her door. Opening it cautiously, she saw her second male caller.

"What you want? Why you knock on my door?"

"I see your red light. Do you not want business?"

"Business, business, I no understand you." Again she gave the door a vicious bang.

Poor Helga. Yet a third knock came, and another gentleman stood on her stoop.

"Hullo," she greeted him.

"I say, you are a pretty one. I think I'll like you."

"I no like you. Go way, go way." Exhausted, she put out her red light and went to bed.

After a restless night, Helga was still puzzled by the deluge of male callers. She knew so few men in this new country.

"I will ask my friend Elsa," she told herself.

After an explanation from her friend, she discarded the beautiful red lamp and looked for lodging in a better neighborhood.

Helga's final thought, "I still hope I can be a real American girl."

Lillie Peters
Sioux City, Iowa

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.