By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
Between 1870 and 1920, the rate of immigration to America was very great. By 1900, more than a million people per year were coming into the United States. Arriving immigrants, full of hope and expectation, also used to be anxious and worried about exactly what was going to happen to them in the new country.
If one emigrated to New York, they’d arrive at Castle Garden, an immigration station built in 1855. But if one arrived after 1892, they’d come into Ellis Island.
New arrivals at Ellis Island, which is now a museum of immigration, were subjected to various health checks to make sure that they weren’t suffering from trachoma, an eye disease, or from any form of mental illness, and that they weren’t lame. If one failed one of these exams, they’d have a letter written in chalk on their shoulder, and it was possible, after the intelligence test, that they’d be rejected and be sent home.
Arrival was, therefore, a tense moment for many immigrants, as they hoped and feared whether they were going to be admitted. But in fact, about nine out of every 10 were admitted, so their chances were high if they were reasonably healthy.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Rise of David Levinsky
There’s a lot of great literature of migration to America, and one of the very best of these immigrant novels is The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan. The character David Levinsky is a thinly fictionalized version of the author himself, and he says:
When the discoverers of America saw land at last, they fell on their knees, and a hymn of thanksgiving burst from their souls. The scene, which is one of the most thrilling in history, repeats itself in the heart of every immigrant as he comes in sight of the American shores. When our ship reached Sandy Hook, I was literally overcome with the beauty of the landscape. The immigrant’s arrival in his new home is like a second birth to him. Imagine a newborn babe in possession of a fully developed intellect. Would it ever forget its entry into the world? Neither does the immigrant ever forget his entry into a country which is, to him, a new world in the profoundest sense of the term.
The novel was published in 1917, and refers to Cahan’s own migration in about 1900, but the character David Levinsky in the story isn’t met by any relatives or friends. He says, “Many of the other immigrants were met by relatives, friends. There were cries of joy, tears, embraces, kisses, all of which intensified my sense of loneliness and dread of the new world.”
Because of the unknown, the immigrants tended to cluster together when they first arrived, to create ethnic enclaves in the cities, and sometimes in rural communities as well.
In New York, ethnic groups clustered together, close to one another, often jostling side by side as they began to adapt to American life. At first, there would be an intense localism, which would gradually give way to membership in a group that had a common national origin.
Creating a National Ethnic Origin
Again, in The Rise of David Levinsky, Cahan talks about how at first the Russian and Lithuanian Jewish immigrants often had a synagogue representing people from each of the different towns, and David himself joins one, the Sons of Antomeir. However, gradually they all realize that because they’re all Orthodox Jews, and they all come from the Russian Empire, they’ve got something in common.
In the same way, people coming from Tuscany, Lombardi, Rome, Naples, and Sicily at first also had these intensely intra-Italian regional distinctions, but gradually developed the idea that they were Italians. It’s in America that they developed a sense of their national ethnic origin.
Struggle with Learning English
Many groups obviously had to struggle with adapting to—and learning—the English language. Some of them never mastered it, which confined them to immigrant ghettos with their fellow countrymen, their fellow first-generation immigrants.
However, their children nearly always went to the public schools, where in those days the curriculum was strictly in English only. This meant that very often, inside immigrant families, a strange reversal would take place. Instead of the parents introducing the children to the world and its ways, the children, who were quick to learn English, became the people who introduced their parents to the world. This is an inversion that is quite common among immigrants right up to the present, sometimes with upsetting consequences for the family hierarchy.
American Work Rhythms
Another thing that immigrants had to adapt to was American work rhythms. This was particularly true if one had come from a rural area and suddenly found themselves pitched into the industrial workforce, where one was often required to work a 12-hour day at the factory, where the sense of time came from the clock rather than from the seasons or from the alteration of daylight with darkness.
That, in turn, meant that very often people had to compromise their religions’ traditions.
Compromises in the New Country
Jewish immigrants who worked for non-Jewish employers, for example, were quite often required to work on Saturday, which until then had been their Sabbath. If one was a Roman Catholic, they could no longer celebrate the great array of feast days, which in their home country had traditionally been days away from work.
In all of these ways, there were compromises and concessions to new realities when necessary. Immigrants had to react. They had to adapt to new circumstances, and they started inventing traditions and adapting old traditions to new circumstances.
Common Questions about Immigrants in America
New arrivals at Ellis Island were subjected to various health checks to make sure that they weren’t suffering from trachoma, an eye disease, or from any form of mental illness, and that they weren’t lame.
Many groups had to struggle with adapting to—and learning—the English language. Some of them never mastered it, which confined them to immigrant ghettos with their fellow countrymen.
Immigrants suddenly found themselves pitched into the industrial workforce, where one was often required to work a 12-hour day at the factory. This was something they had not been used to, especially the immigrants from rural areas.