By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
The late 19th century in Europe was full of stories about America, most of them exaggerating its wealth and opportunities to anyone brave enough to risk the Atlantic crossing. Were immigrants to America mainly pulled by the attractions of America, or were they mainly pushed by circumstances in their home countries?
Conditions around the World
Worsening conditions for European farmers prompted many of them to emigrate to the American frontier, especially from Scandinavia, Britain, and Germany. Meanwhile, persecution by Cossacks forced Russian Jews to emigrate, usually to New York and other East Coast cities.
Millions of Poles, Slavs, Italians, Irish and Greeks traveled to America, too, bringing in an array of religions, cultures, foods, and customs.
A Grim Reality
In multiethnic districts like the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York, these families found a grimmer reality than they’d anticipated, but they showed that with hard work they, or at least their children, really could begin the climb to American prosperity and respectability. Public schools transformed polyglot populations into united groups of English speakers, while intensive ‘Americanization’ programs encouraged them to give up old habits and forego old loyalties.
Early confidence that the ‘melting pot’ could transform people from anywhere in the world into good Americans began to give way, however, to fears of ‘race suicide’, and in the 1920s, led to an immigration restriction policy.
The rate of immigration to America between 1870 and 1920 was very great. More than a million people per year were coming into the United States by the year 1900, and it remained very high right up to the time of outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Immigrants from Britain
Immigrants from Britain came in search of better opportunities than they had at home, and they adapted relatively easily. They had no language barrier to overcome, and many of them coming from Britain, already a highly industrialized country, arrived with skills that were very readily adaptable to American circumstances.
Quite a lot of British migrants were subsidized by American railroad companies, which helped them get to Plains and western farms, where they could settle on railroad lands, and then gradually repay from their crops the costs of their initial migration.
Fleeing from Home?
Immigrants from places like Russia and China and Italy faced many more serious problems. Some of them were forced to flee from persecution at home.
For example, after the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, Cossacks attacked Jewish settlements with the more or less open connivance of the government, and a wave of urban riots targeted Jewish businesses. In the year 1891, 20,000 Jews were expelled from Moscow and St. Petersburg.
In 1903, there was a wave of rumors that Jews were committing human sacrifice with Christian babies, and that led to massacres of the Jewish inhabitants of various parts of Russia. All of these factors contributed to a big exodus of Russian Jews to America.
Immigrants from different parts of Europe were also migrating in response to changes in the world economy. For example, southern Italian citrus farmers started to be undermined by competition from Florida and California, where orange growing was developing very rapidly, and many of them went to the places that were in competition with them and joined the economy there instead.
Immigrants: A National Asset?
Throughout most of the 19th century, America was very receptive and welcoming to immigrants. One of the attractions of immigration from the point of view of the United States was that, in many parts of the country, labor was scarce. In the West, that was particularly true.
This meant that if one could arrive as a wage earner, they were going to be able to earn relatively more than they could have in Europe, where labor was much more plentiful. It was therefore reasonable to argue that immigrants represented a national asset.
However, the cost of emigrating kept out the poorest immigrants altogether. To be an immigrant required daring and initiative, and it also required a certain amount of money, for all but a handful.
Custom-built immigrant ships were being built by then as well, and if one went ‘steerage’, that is in the most economical way, the reduced fares made it accessible to working-class people who’d saved the fare.
By the late 19th century, it was also relatively easy to cross the Atlantic. Starting in the 1840s, steamships made the Atlantic crossing shorter and safer.
Birds of Passage
By 1900, it was usually a routine one-week or 10-day voyage, and it was so dependable that quite a lot of people became what are called ‘birds of passage’. That is, they’d go to America to work, but with the expectation that they’d then migrate out again, sometimes at their time of retirement, and live out their later years back home. This was a very common pattern among Italians.
There were also a group of seasonal birds of passage. For example, British bricklayers, and textile and pottery workers, would work in Britain during the relatively mild British winter, then in the spring migrate to the United States, work in the U.S. during the summer where pay and conditions tended to be better, and then home again for the following winter, back and forth on the steamers.
Common Questions about Immigration to America
Immigrants from Britain adapted relatively easily in America because firstly they had no language barrier to overcome. Secondly, as they were coming from Britain, already a highly industrialized country, they arrived with skills that were very readily adaptable to American circumstances.
One of the attractions of immigration from the point of view of the United States was that, in many parts of the country, labor was scarce. This meant that if one could arrive as a wage earner, they were going to be able to earn relatively more than they could have in Europe, where labor was much more plentiful.
By 1900, crossing the Atlantic was usually a routine one-week or 10-day voyage, and it was very dependable. ‘Birds of passage’ were those people who went to America to work, but with the expectation that they’d then migrate out again, sometimes at their time of retirement, and live out their later years back home.